Tito Jackson’s address? It’s complicated

Boston mayoral candidate is both a Roxbury and Dorchester guy

TITO JACKSON, the Boston city councilor who is challenging Mayor Marty Walsh this fall, is not generally one to shrink from a tough question or dodge and weave around a topic.

Which makes it all the more remarkable to see Jackson tiptoe his way through a seemingly simple inquiry: What neighborhood does he live in?

Tito Jackson at his January announcement that he’s running for mayor.

“That’s a really interesting question,” he says, zigzagging between answers and diving into a long disquisition on what ought to be a straightforward matter. It turns out to be anything but that.

Jackson, who is generally identified as a Roxbury district city councilor, actually lives in Dorchester. Or at least that’s what the US Postal Service says.

He lives in the same house on Schuyler Street where he was raised by his parents, Herb and Rosa Jackson, in Boston’s Grove Hall neighborhood. The 02121 ZIP code for the area was changed in 1967 by the postal service from Roxbury to Dorchester, and the rest is history. Of a sort.

“There’s nothing historical about it,” says state Rep. Byron Rushing, an avid student of Boston history. “It was stolen,” he says of the post office removal of the Grove Hall neighborhood from Roxbury. “You can have a Dorchester post office. That doesn’t make your neighborhood Dorchester.”

“There are objective boundaries in Boston and there are mushy boundaries in Boston,” says Rushing. The objective ones, he says, come from the period up until 1868, when Roxbury was annexed by Boston. Until that time, it was a separate town and so the boundary lines were clear – and they ran east of Blue Hill Avenue in the Grove Hall area, putting Jackson’s home firmly within Roxbury.

The city’s assessing department lists the house as Dorchester, while the city’s zoning and planning maps show it in Roxbury.

In an appearance on Channel 5’s “On the Record” in January, Jackson is referred to as a Roxbury resident.

An invitation for Jackson’s annual “Turkey Fry” lists his address as Dorchester, a nod he says to GPS services some may use to find their way.

The issue surfaced recently when Bill Forry, editor and publisher of the Dorchester Reporter, was asked on an episode of CommonWealth’s weekly podcast about the upcoming mayoral contest and what it’s meant to have a Dorchester-based mayor for the first time in more than 50 years.

“Marty Walsh is running against a Dorchester person this time, so either way Dorchester wins,” said Forry.  When told that Jackson called himself a Roxbury resident when he came in to record an episode of the Codcast earlier this year, Forry said, “He’s told me it’s Dorchester, so maybe we need to pin him down on that.”

That prompted some friendly gibes from Yawu Miller, senior editor at The Bay State Banner. “Tito Jackson’s home is in Roxbury. We’re not ceding Grove Hall to Dorchester,” Miller wrote on a Facebook thread that ensued after Forry’s Codcast appearance.

Miller says in an interview that people who moved to the Grove Hall area after 1967 tend to call it Dorchester, while his father and those “with longer roots” in the community would say it’s Roxbury.

The issue of ambiguous or shifting Boston neighborhood boundaries is not new. Some efforts to redraw neighborhood lines seem driven by race or neighborhood reputation.

Just this week the website Universal Hub reported on a townhouse on Greenwich Street in Roxbury that was recently advertised for sale by a real estate agent listing its location as the “South End/Fredrick Douglas Historic District.”

Adding insult to neighborhood injury, not only did the listing for the $1.125 million townhouse relocate the property from Boston’s most well-known black neighborhood to the long-gentrified South End, it managed to misspell both the first and last names of the iconic black abolitionist leader.

Meanwhile, some Dorchester leaders have long battled against what they regard as an artificial, race-driven division of the neighborhood into North Dorchester and South Dorchester. As Forry writes in an editorial this week in the Reporter, the labels are a vestige of the earlier days of urban renewal and were cooked up by bankers as code words to divide the neighborhood’s black and white areas, with North Dorchester the label for predominantly black areas and South Dorchester the designation for white sections.

The practice was continued for many years by city planning agencies. The racial underpinnings of the labels, he writes, were laid bare by the designation of the predominantly white Savin Hill neighborhood as part of South Dorchester, even though it lies north of the heavily black Codman Square neighborhood, which is considered North Dorchester.

The sometimes fuzzy line separating Roxbury and Dorchester, however, seems to have more prosaic roots. “It was federal bureaucratic idiocy,” says Rushing, referring to the postal service switch.

So what is it, Tito Jackson?

He gets up from a seat in his City Hall office and pulls off the wall a business card from the recycling operation his dad ran in the 1970s.

“It says Herb Jackson, 37 Schuyler Street, Roxbury, Mass.,” he says, laying the card on a small conference table. “I live in Roxbury.”

Jackson is almost always identified by the media as the Roxbury district city councilor. But Jackson’s most memorable media moment is the 2009 music video created for his first city council race.  “Vote for Tito Jackson, he’s a man of action” is its catchy refrain.

But the bio section of the song is at odds with the 1970s era Herb Jackson business card Jackson proudly shares. “From the streets of Dorchester to the governor’s office of economic development, Tito made a name for himself,” come the velvet-toned lyrics.

Can this neighborhood uncertainty be an asset in the coming mayoral race, where Jackson faces long odds against a deep-pocketed incumbent? He might want to take a cue from one of the city’s most celebrated, if also roguish, political figures.

Rushing says that legendary Boston mayor James Michael Curley, who grew up near the border of Roxbury and the South End — and who was not known for letting facts obstruct his path — would tailor his speeches for his audience.

“Depending on where he was, he would either say, ‘I am a proud son of Roxbury’ or ‘I am a proud son of the South End,’” says Rushing.

That may just be the way to go, as Jackson concedes that this is one issue where he straddles the fence. “We use Roxbury and Dorchester interchangeably,” he says of his Grove Hall neighborhood. “I can be from Roxbury and OFD at the same time,” he says, referring to the acronym claimed by those “originally from Dorchester.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.