Bus Stops Tell A Story
by David A. Mittell, Jr.
[Ca. 1,200 ww. Attached photographs by David A. Mittell, Jr. Cutlines follow text.]
Not to be overlooked in The Globe’s remarkable series on Boston’s black neighborhoods was Eric Moskowitz’ “Black commuters face longer trips” in the Nov. 25 Sunday Globe. The six key words in the story were, “The biggest gap is by bus.”
Those words are important, first, because black citizens use the bus service in their neighborhoods in greater numbers than other citizens in other neighborhoods; and the service they get is often pitifully inadequate. They are important, secondly, because in the current economics of public transportation, rationalizing bus service is the only remedy that could possibly be implemented in this decade.
What needs to happen is that some of the largely empty off-peak buses easily seen seven days a weekthroughout the MBTA system should be eliminated. Their cost is extreme, and public funds would be more efficiently used to increase service in the neighborhoods where on every working day riders queue up for long waits for buses that are overloaded when they finally arrive.
That this has not long since been done is primarily a failure of elected leaders, black and white, high and low. The best evidence for this failure are MBTA bus stops in Jamaica Plain, serving hospitals 6,600 feet apart as the crow flies over Arnold Arboretum and Forest Hills Cemetery.
For 50 years, the stop at Faulkner Hospital, which serves the relatively lightly-used #38 bus to West Roxbury, has had good lighting, a sturdy shelter, a manual stoplight and, more recently, a second, outbound shelter and a handicapped way crossing Centre Street to the inbound shelter.
By contrast, the Morton Street (also Route 203) stop at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, which serves, the relied-upon #21 and #31 buses to Ashmont and Mattapan, has poor lighting and no curb-cut.
Until November 2012, when white lines were painted across Morton Street and reflecting signs added, the only indication it was a bus stop at all was worn grass in summer and icy footprints in winter from forced and dangerous efforts by the Shattuck’s workers and patients to navigate the granite curbs of the center strip in the middle of the highway.
The only shelter is an aluminum structure on the hospital’s property serving a shuttle to Forest Hills Station. It faces inward, away from the street, leaving riders with their backs to approaching buses. When an Ashmont or Mattapan bus arrives riders have to turn around and walk some 55 steps onto the highway, over the center strip and across to the outbound stop. Adding snow, ice and nighttime multiplies the lethality.
There is another stop on Jewish War Veterans Drive on the other side of the hospital that serves the #16 bus to Andrew Square and U-Mass Boston. There is good seating outside a Pine Street Inn emergency shelter, but no bus shelter, no traffic light and no white lines crossing the highway to the inbound stop on a sharp curve. Yet bicycle lanes have been painted along Jewish War Veterans Drive.
Sixth-tenths of a mile east of the Shattuck’s Morton Street stop, the American Legion Highway bridge has been extensively rebuilt. Farther along, housing has gone up on the site of the former Boston State Hospital. Elected leaders have had ribbon-cuttings there. But the condition of both of Shattuck’s bus stops seems invisible to them. It also seems invisible to Jamaica Plain citizens and activists who have attended some 15 years of public meetings about the future of the Arborway bus yard. More recently, so far as I know it has gone unmentioned in passionate fora about the fate of the Casey Overpass at Forest Hills. Both are 300 yards from the Shattuck.
The failure to notice must begin with two black politicians. For 16 years the Shattuck was in the district of State Senator Diane Wilkerson, and for 11 years it was also in the district of Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner. Both successfully advertised themselves as advocates for black Boston, and could fairly have been expected to be the first to raise hell about the discrepancy between stops at the Faulkner and the Shattuck. They never did. Both are now in prison for bribery.
But that is only the beginning. The Faulkner’s and Shattuck’s stops are now represented by City Councilor Matt O’Malley and State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz (who succeeded Ms. Wilkerson), as well as by at-large councilors Felix Arroyo, John Connolly, Ayanna Pressley and Stephen Murphy — all said to have mayoral ambitions. Mr. Arroyo also lives some 1,000 feet from the Shattuck.
Not noticing continues up the power chain to 20-year Mayor Thomas Menino; Congressmen Michael Capuano and Stephen Lynch; Governor Patrick; and Senator Kerry. (Senator Warren gets a temporary pass.) High or low, black or white, not one of these leaders has taken responsibility for the Morton Street stop, which may have been as bad as it currently is for all of the 50 years since the highway was widened and divided. It follows that the same politicians have never noticed a discrepancy between overloaded buses in Dorchester and Roxbury, and buses running nearly empty through other urban and suburban neighborhoods.
Citizens queuing for overloaded rush-hour buses on Blue Hill Avenue, Morton Street and elsewhere in black Boston are not mainly people supported by government entitlements. Rather, they are the black working class. Some are students, but most are commuting to jobs whose remuneration and opportunities for advancement are not generally great. Elected leaders will say the right things about a black “glass ceiling” at the executive level. What they do not notice is the “concrete floor” where Boston’s black citizens live and work and try to improve their lives. The perennial state of the buses and bus stops this swath of working humanity depends on makes the case that it is their elected leaders who are at fault.
Unlike some of their predecessors 50 years ago, these officials do not solicit the bigot’s vote. On the contrary, they all see themselves as defenders of black citizens and can cite the ribbon cuttings they have worked to bring about to prove it. What is going on? I believe their political hustle is not essentially different from that of Mr. Turner and Ms. Wilkerson. They strive to be seen to be helping a victimized black electorate. But striving to be seen is not to strive to see. Their purpose being self-serving, they are purblind to those they represent.
I believe the hustle to take credit for providing for a victimized black Boston — but not really paying attention — keeps it victimized. This has the effect of increasing insularity and fear, and helps explain why in this century’s emerging majority of combined minorities, black people in Boston lag in getting out of neighborhoods with poor bus service, bad schools and danger. Asians and Hispanics are moving out and up, as are somewhat increasing numbers of blacks. But many feel safer among their own. The neglect of their elected leaders (evidently all of them), combined with rhetoric that encourages black voters’ suspiciousness, does not serve them well. It is obviously better than cultivating the bigot’s vote. But 50 years on, in the teens of a new century, it will not do.