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When Boston City Councilor Kim Janey stands outside the Marriott Residence Inn on Washington Street, she knows exactly where she is.
“We are standing here — in the heart of the city, in the heart of Roxbury, in Dudley Square,” she says.
And she’s right. The hotel lists its official address in Roxbury.
But Marriott calls this hotel the Residence Inn Boston Downtown/South End.
To Janey, who represents both neighborhoods, the name causes more than just confusion in a city where neighborhood boundaries are notoriously fuzzy. She sees it as an attempt to sidestep Roxbury — a primarily black neighborhood — and embrace the whiter, wealthier South End.
“Roxbury has been home to the black community in the city of Boston now for generations. And to try to claim that it is the South End is very problematic because it is erasing our history, it's erasing people of color from that history, from our neighborhood,” Janey says.
But not everyone agrees, including Joe DiGangi, a developer who lives and works near the Residence Inn.
“It’s 02118 — I mean, that’s still the South End,” says DiGangi, referring to the zip code for three of his properties nearby. (The Residence Inn’s zip code is 02119, which encompasses much of Roxbury.)
DiGangi’s company referred to the area as Lower Roxbury in documents submitted to the city — but its website describes the area like this: “Located along the Washington Street corridor, this once forgotten stretch of the South End lies between Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard and serves as the gateway to historic Dudley Square.”
According to DiGangi, the documents were written by attorneys, and he doesn't know why they called the area Roxbury.
“If you go to City Hall, and you apply for a resident parking sticker, you get a South End sticker,” he says.
DeShawn Riley grew up nearby and doesn’t see any need to clarify the boundary between the two neighborhoods.
“You cross over one street, it’s considered Roxbury; one street, it's considered South End, so I mean, does it really matter?” he says, laughing.
It matters to realtors and developers with properties in Roxbury, explains real estate researcher Constantine Valhouli, because they may prefer to fudge the neighborhood border and market their properties in the trendy South End instead.
“For the most part, everyone is making it up,” he says.
Valhouli points to Mass. Ave., which many people define as the border between the South End and Roxbury. A look at the real estate website Trulia’s price map shows that median list prices can be up to $100,000 higher on the South End side of Mass. Ave.
Valhouli says this demonstrates that the area includes some of Roxbury's highest real estate prices and some of the South End's lowest. For a realtor, that means marketing a property as a cheap buy in the South End might be easier than marketing it as an expensive choice in Roxbury.
“The developers are probably thinking, I’d just like to sell this for more than we thought we could, and if we're gonna leverage a bit of the South End’s cachet? Great,” Valhouli says.
Inconsistency among city agencies may also be contributing to the blurring of neighborhood boundaries. Recently, the Boston Planning & Development Agency incorrectly listed the nearby Alexandra Hotel project in the South End, even though it falls on the Roxbury side of Mass. Ave. by the agency's own definition. The BPDA has since re-designated the Alexandra Hotel as a Roxbury project.
But the property still falls within the South End Landmark District. And then there are those South End parking stickers that DiGangi mentioned.
DiGangi's office is in Roxbury, and his company D2 Development has other properties on its website advertised in Roxbury. DiGangi says he’s happy to work in the neighborhood. He adds that he has had no problems selling or renting out units to the students and young professionals in his Roxbury buildings.
“If it’s in the South End, it's in the South End. If it's in Roxbury, it’s in Roxbury. The best way to change the perception or erase a negative connotation is to do good things in that community," he says. "You shouldn't run away from where it is.”
But what DiGangi calls "a negative connotation" bothers City Councilor Janey.
She says the neighborhood is already a great place. And while she welcomes new residents, Janey worries that marketing this area as the South End will speed up gentrification, which is already making it difficult for some Roxbury residents to live there.
“We've got to call out when people are doing things or marketing things in a way, if in fact it is rooted in racism, because they think it will appeal to, perhaps, white residents in our neighborhood as opposed to, you know, communities of color,” Janey says.
Tunney Lee, Boston's former chief of planning and design, says the South End is fashionable today only after undergoing its own gentrification.
Lee remembers a time when some residents claimed their South End homes were in the Back Bay.
“You know, in the last 50, 60 years, South End has completely transformed,” he says. “It slowly grew from the north side all the way downtown to Mass. Avenue and started encroaching onto Roxbury.”
New development, like the upscale Alexandra Hotel project, has already crossed Mass. Ave. to the Roxbury side of Washington Street.
Valhouli, the real estate researcher, predicts other luxury amenities will start moving into Roxbury soon.
And he says the new probably won't coexist with the old forever.
“That point of equilibrium rarely lasts,” he says. “Often it goes right from there into a place that's all $15-a-glass wine bars.”
In other words, a place that looks a lot more like the South End.
This segment aired on July 8, 2019.
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