Mattapan neighbors weigh merits of a neighborhood council

Jasmine Johansen from ABCD spoke during a meeting to discuss the formation of a new neighborhood council in Mattapan last Thursday evening. Caleb Nelson photo

At a forum to discuss gentrification at the Mattapan Center for Life last Thursday, some in attendance weighed in with an idea: How about forming a “neighborhood council” aimed at better organizing civic leaders?

“Part of the challenge for us going forward as a community is: How do we enhance and preserve equity?” said Lincoln Larmond, an activist who introduced a panel that discussed the council notion. “We want investments to happen, we just want them to happen in a way where it benefits existing residents.”

Michael Reiskind, a longtime member of a neighborhood council in Jamaica Plain, described the concept: “Openness, fairness, and democracy are the key points,” he said. “Our committees get deep into the weeds and hear all sides on an issue, and develop a community consensus.”

To address opposition to urban renewal plans in the 1980s, Boston Mayor Ray Flynn created the Office of Community Participation (now the Office of Neighborhood Services), said Reiskind, noting that the office supported the first six councils in Boston’s neighborhoods: Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, West Roxbury, Codman Square, Chinatown, and Charlestown.

The first council, in Roxbury, developed in direct opposition to the proposed development of an office tower in Dudley Square. Bob Terrell, an original member of the Roxbury council, told the story: “We said, ‘No Ray, you can't appoint anybody to oversee any development in Roxbury.’ ”

About 600 people attended a 1986 meeting at the Shelburne Center that launched the Roxbury Neighborhood Council, according to Terrell. “It has not been easy,” he said. “We were the watchdog group that kept that process honest and on track, and whenever you stand in the way of hundreds of millions of dollars of development in real estate, you're gonna have to expect some push back, and there was push back.”

Representatives from District 4 City Councillor Andrea Campbell’s office were at Thursday's forum to gather information and, they said, to add momentum to the effort of creating a Mattapan Neighborhood Council. "That's already in the works coming out of our district," said Juwan Skeens, one of Campbell’s liaisons. "We're looking at an advisory group and youth council as well as a neighborhood council."

Skeens said the next step is for residents to call 617-635-3131 and talk to the city councillor’s office about getting involved.

In an email to the Reporter, Campbell wrote, "I support the idea of a Mattapan Neighborhood Council, and am excited residents have begun to meet with other neighborhood councils to discuss their vision for what a neighborhood council would look like and its function in the community. Citizen engagement remains central to my work on the city council, and this is an important point of entry for residents, and I look forward to seeing how the project takes shape."

Discussions about neighborhood councils, land trusts, and community empowerment are not new in Mattapan. For years Mattapan United has taken the lead in organizing meetings about developments like the Cote Ford building, MBTA parking lot, and the expansion of the Neponset Greenway.

As new construction projects begin to take shape, Mattapan residents who want a seat at the table will need to step up. Another meeting will be held on Thurs., May 12, at 5:30 p.m. at the Mildred Avenue Community Center.