Hyde Park is Thomas Menino country.
Menino grew up in the Boston neighborhood, raised his family there, represented it as a city councilor for nine years — and then as mayor for 20 years. Menino is often present at events in Hyde Park — like his annual block party — and he has a strong base there.
"Look at this building here, isn't it beautiful? This is the community center," Pat Tierney, owner of Tierney Real Estate, said as she showed me around Cleary Square and the neighborhood's main commercial district. Tierney has lived in Hyde Park for 40 years.
"And the Y is down there to your right and it's beautiful," she continued. "The Menino Arts Center is there."
She credits the developments to Menino.
Also on Tierney's list of Hyde Park's strengths is the number of single-family homes — with an average price of $325,000, far below the typical home price in Boston. The 2010 census lists the median household income in Hyde Park at $55,000 a year. Hyde Park was the last area to become part of Boston in 1912, and it's the farthest neighborhood from downtown. With the most amount of green space of any city neighborhood, a bike path, the Neponset River and a municipal golf course, Hyde Park is known as "a small town in the city."
But Tierney says Hyde Park's business district needs help. The once-vibrant shopping district she remembers from the 1980s needs improvement. Some popular restaurants have closed and the district is now a variety of about 100 small businesses and some vacant storefronts — many of them owned by a few absentee landlords.
"If you're not buying something at the dollar store — there are three dollar stores — then you might not come down here," she said.
Tierney and other business owners hope the next mayor focuses on a strategic plan for developing Hyde Park's business district.
'The White Priest Is Speaking Her Language'
Ron Covitz is owner of Ron's Gourmet Ice Cream and 20th Century Bowling, which has been a fixture in Hyde Park for decades. As his business changed from a bowling alley and pool hall in the 1970s to now a gourmet ice cream shop offering birthday parties and candlepin bowling, there was a dramatic demographic shift in the neighborhood.
"The one thing I think I’ve been able to do is change dramatically from just serving a white population that used to be here to a population that comes from everywhere," Covitz said, adding that some of his customers come in for specific ice cream flavors, like rum raisin, that they had in their home nations.
According to census figures, Hyde Park was 85 percent white in 1980. In 2010, it was less than 30 percent white.
"That's a colossal change. I think I came at the beginning of the change," said the Rev. Peter Nolan, pastor of Most Precious Blood Parish in Cleary Square. He came to Boston in 1981.
"It's just the opposite," he said. "There were mostly white people then. Now it's Haitian, African, people of various colors. I still feel like a missionary here, in a way."
That's because ironically Nolan was a missionary in West Africa for 17 years before coming to Boston. He became an honorary chief of the Igbo tribe in Nigeria because of his work there with refugees during the country's civil war. Just a few weeks ago he approached an African woman and asked where in Nigeria she was from.
"She says, 'Anambra,' and I knew that was Igbo-speaking, so I started speaking some Igbo words and she was so joyful," Nolan said. "The man behind her who was her husband says, 'My wife left Lagos, Nigeria, Friday and the first time she comes to the U.S. the white priest is speaking her language.' "
Many say one of the reasons for the demographic shift was busing and the fight over school desegregation in the 1970s. Also, a huge loss of manufacturing jobs meant that many who grew up in Hyde Park in the 1950s to '70s took jobs elsewhere, leaving behind what is now predominantly an older, white, Irish, Italian and Polish population. Nolan says some of those longtime residents have been resistant to accept neighborhood changes, so he hopes the next mayor will work on bridging cultural differences.
'A Sense Of Belonging'
One Hyde Park group working on those differences is Youth and Family Enrichment Services Inc. (YOFES), a nonprofit that offers music lessons, afterschool programs and services to predominantly Haitian families. Smith Guillaume says in the past year-and-a-half he's been with YOFES he's noticed an improvement in bringing together different cultural groups.
"Folks can move in but not really belong," he said. "It's almost a play on words, they reside here but don't live here, so to speak. But the shift I see is a sense of belonging."
Guillaume wants the next mayor to improve social services in the area, and perhaps build a youth center to retain young people and in turn possibly help the local economy.
"When you live somewhere and feel you belong the chances are you are going to have a sense of ownership," he said. "And maybe the idea of some of the young folks who are here, if they feel they belong here maybe once they leave for college they will return because they will actually feel as if they belong and this is home."
Guillaume is among those who say that sense of belonging could help Cleary Square and all of Hyde Park prosper in much the same way as other nearby neighborhoods, like Roslindale Village and Jamaica Plain.
"We're right on the cusp of becoming potentially what JP was 20 years ago," said Emily Patrick, executive director of Hyde Park Main Streets, a nonprofit that helps small businesses. She admits that the Hyde Park business district is in a lull right now with a few empty storefronts but she says that's quickly changing. Patrick cites the rapidly growing Hyde Park arts community with new studios and lofts and the renovation of some historic properties.
Perhaps most important to Patrick — and what she hopes the next mayor will push — is development within the Fairmount Indigo commuter rail initiative, which makes it easier and cheaper to travel from Hyde Park to South Station.
"This is a great opportunity for HP and other communities to develop transit-oriented business, and having the mayor get behind that and see it through would really be a boost to the area." She added: "Two to three years from now this square could look really really amazing."
It's all about perception, Patrick says, and she believes that often the perception of Hyde Park is not the reality. So she also hopes the city's next chief executive will market the area to help make Hyde Park a destination. Even Menino, the current mayor, agrees.
"Cleary Square is a story of two squares, some parts are doing well, some parts need help," he said. "We need help marketing. I think we can have a renaissance like JP had — great possibilities. I'll work with the Main Streets program in Hyde Park to help them."
So Menino may be leaving office soon, but he's not leaving Hyde Park.
This program aired on October 23, 2013.