Jamaica Plain: Boston’s Patchwork Neighborhood
By Nicola Pardy
Jamaica Plain is a hodgepodge of a neighborhood. No single economic or social background pervades this area, and the people who walk along the streets here seem to bask in its diversity. Young couples ride their bikes to the nearby Jamaica Pond while bohemian down-and-outs read outside coffee shops, and immigrant mothers and children amble along the bustling main street carrying bags of groceries. Located just south of downtown Boston, JP— as it’s commonly referred to by local residents— is one of the oldest streetcar suburbs in the US. The region was originally considered a part of Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, but later became its own separate region through new divisions created by the streetcar transportation lines of the late 19th century. JP’s strong sense of community speaks to its transportation hub origins: walking down Centre Street, it’s hard not to notice the strategic crisscrossing of JP’s residential side streets, which all intersect this same arterial route. The district’s grid system literally knits the different ethnic and residential communities together, providing a geographical explanation for the sense cohesive community felt at the heart of the larger neighborhood.
In fact, Jamaica Plain’s strong sense of community manifests itself physically in several ways. One of the most striking features of the neighborhood, for instance, is its vibrant street art—most notably, the colorful murals that mark every corner of the town. The artists of these murals are the residents of JP themselves; student groups, church organizations, and other local interest clubs. Despite the differing subjects and styles of the murals, the prevalence of street art visually unifies the neighborhood’s aesthetics, acting as a colorful common thread throughout the town, so to speak. In addition, the abundance of small-scale neighborhood resources that line Center Street and its surrounding side streets reflects JP’s self-sustaining nature. A local grocery store called “City Feed and Supply” puts a twist on the traditional neighborhood convenience store by offering, local, organic, and specialty options instead of the usual snacks and junk food. The existence of such a resource implies values of sustainability in more ways than one. By creating appropriately sized businesses that support both local producers and employers, the neighborhood has created a self-contained dependency, which has fostered a sense of social responsibility paired with high quality service. In many ways, I would say, JP is the example of what many cities today are shifting towards today— cities in which businesses and people are becoming progressively connected to each other in a more human way.
And that’s the other thing about JP—the people are not afraid to talk to each other. During my time there I was surprised at people’s enthusiasm to strike up conversation (granted, the good weather may have induced more sunny dispositions that usual). Within a single afternoon I found myself stumbling into long-winded conversations with local residents waiting for buses, idling on benches, and working outside storefront stoops. I talked for a while with a man who introduced himself as C-Ay, who had been working in Jamaica Plain for 42 years in the same auto-repair garage. C-Ay had a deep knowledge of JP and spoke of the shared community history that so profoundly shaped the neighborhood’s dynamics. He told me family stories of storekeepers I had just met that day (he had known them for years), and showed me photographs of when he first inherited his garage way back when. What became clear though C-Ay’s narratives was his genuine understanding of the community he lived in. This notion, as we all know, is becoming more and more antiquated in an increasingly globalized world, and is ultimately what I think accounts for JP’s strong sense of togetherness. The very structure of the Jamaica Plain causes the residents to share so much, on top of their already close-knit relationships sprung from a rich community history. The result of this? A rare intersection of ethnic diversity and community atmosphere—a refreshing quality that exemplifies JP as a truly unique neighborhood within the modern and metropolitan context of communities today.