The new black

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  December 15, 2010

It's not easy. Boston is forbiddingly expensive, and its networks can seem closed and impenetrable to newcomers.

Boston also has, as city council president Michael Ross points out, one of the largest disparities between haves and have-nots of any major US city. Partly, that's due to the persistence of Boston's old-wealth families. But it's also because so many of the best and brightest are drawn here with their expertise and their multiple degrees.

Blacks are severely underrepresented among both types of wealth. The old money is Brahmin, not black. And the latest Commonwealth Compact benchmark report, released last month by the University of Massachusetts's McCormack School, found blacks still largely shut out of Boston's senior- and mid-level management positions, especially in for-profit industries.

Historically, there simply hasn't been a vibrant black middle class in modern Boston. And Boston's suburbs are among the statistically whitest of America's large cities', which means there are few black enclaves for retreat from the inner city. Professionals relocating for jobs in Boston are often advised by their companies or recruiters to look for homes in comfortable North Shore towns, such as Swampscott — places where blacks will not find many who look like themselves.

Boston's black population is far less homogenous than in most other large US cities. Roughly a quarter local blacks are immigrants, and large numbers trace their roots to Hispanic and West Indies origins. That linguistic and cultural diversity has further impeded the development of a sizable, cohesive, black middle class.

There are, however, black middle-class neighborhoods growing in south suburbs like Milton, Randolph, and Stoughton, where they are beginning to reach the necessary critical mass to be reflected in those communities' dining, cultural, and social life.

But within the city of Boston, many say, similar lifestyle opportunities are actually decreasing.

In part, it's the chicken-and-egg problem. Until there is a large enough black professional-class to constitute a market, there is little economic incentive to establish the nightlife venues and activities that would attract middle-class blacks.

But there's more to it. Boston remains, to a large degree, a city of connections and access — presenting at the least a perception that black business and nightlife can't get going, because their entrepreneurs don't have the right pull. (Not by accident, the Urban League is adding a special session on entrepreneurship, just for next year's conference in Boston.)

That frustration was evident last Wednesday evening at a public meeting of the City Council's Citizen's Committee on Boston's Future. Several attendees, and committee co-chair George "Chip" Greenidge, spoke at the Reggie Lewis Center in Roxbury about the institutional barriers to liquor licenses, among other examples.

"Boston lacks a black infrastructure," Greenidge says. Major cities in the South and Midwest, with less barrier to entry, have higher rates of black business ownership, resulting not only in more black-friendly establishments, but more money coming back into the black community.

Ed Glaeser, a Harvard economics professor co-chairing that committee, told me earlier that he has found surprisingly common agreement among business, academic, and even governmental leaders on the need to streamline permitting and licensing processes.

"The key to places like Boston is to attract smart, entrepreneurial people," Glaeser says. "Why isn't there the small-scale entrepreneur? Some of it is cultural, but a lot of it, I would argue, is regulatory."

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