Editorial: The BRA gets census data right

July 15, 2011
By

Mission Hill finally exists.

That is not news to anyone who has lived in this neighborhood since Mission Church went up in the 1870s. In its diversity, energy and determination for self-improvement, Mission Hill is as real as it gets.

Yet, until this year, Mission Hill did not exist in U.S. Census data as reported by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and used by all city agencies.

Simply to make less work for itself, the BRA pretended that there is no Mission Hill (and several other Boston neighborhoods), instead lumping most of the Hill into Jamaica Plain. The BRA supported this fiction by issuing a Bizarro World map of Boston neighborhoods that infected every city department, as well as private foundation reports. That Mission Hill-free map surely impacted funding and city services here.

For seven years, the BRA stonewalled on census complaints. It even argued that neighborhood boundaries are fuzzy enough to put Mike’s Donuts and Mission Hill Main Streets in Jamaica Plain. It had to be dragged kicking and screaming toward the light.

Almost entirely due to the pressure applied by this newspaper and our sister publication, the Jamaica Plain Gazette, the BRA finally admitted it had a problem. It sat down with the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services and the city’s Geographic Information System mappers. They came up with a solution—one that puts Mission Hill on the map.

The remarkable part is not that the BRA fixed its deliberate error. Amazingly, the BRA actually made its job harder and took on more work.

The result is the best census analysis this city has ever seen.

As it should have done all along, the BRA now reports neighborhood census data based on neighborhood zoning maps. Zoning maps are drawn up with direct input from neighborhood residents, so they tend to match reality.

The census reports are easy to read, feature wonderfully detailed maps, and can be accessed online with a few mouse clicks. The latest report offers an unprecedented look at Mission Hill’s population at a level of detail that will lead the neighborhood to better self-understanding.

Those reports are not perfect, and it is still possible to quibble over neighborhood boundaries. But the BRA offers a solution for that as well. On demand, for free, it will give anyone a census data report for any Boston street, block or other area. It is hard to quibble with that.

All of this matters because census data can be a basis for business plans, nonprofit grant applications and delivery of city services. Mission Hill is going to be better for it.

The BRA is one of the city’s most powerful and least accountable agencies, and all too often acts like it. Now it is providing a model for fixing a broken system. The lesson is that undoing an error is not only the right thing to do, but also can be an opportunity to make things much better for everyone involved. The BRA stepped up to the plate and hit this one out of the park.

Mission Hill finally exists, and it should be applauding the BRA for a job well done.

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