clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Boston mayoral winner Michelle Wu: Raised in Barrington, ran tea house on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago

Wu grew up mostly in suburban Barrington. She attended Roslyn Road Elementary School; Hough Street Elementary; Prairie Middle School; and Barrington High, graduating in 2003.

Boston mayoral candidate Michelle Wu speaks after voting Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, in Boston, Massachusetts. Wu, 36, later won the Boston mayoral race.
Boston mayoral candidate Michelle Wu speaks after voting Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, in Boston, Massachusetts. Wu, 36, later won the Boston mayoral race.
Allison Dinner/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Michelle Wu, 36, won the Boston mayoral race on Tuesday, a quick rise for the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants born on Chicago’s South Side, raised in Barrington and educated about bureaucracies when she wrestled with City Hall to get permits to open a tea house at 4229 N. Lincoln Ave., in North Center.

Wu will be the first woman and the first person of color elected mayor of Boston.

The seat was open because President Joe Biden tapped ex-Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to be Secretary of Labor. After Walsh resigned in March, City Council President Kim Janey, who is Black, became acting mayor, the city’s first female and person of color to lead Boston.

Wu beat Annissa Essaibi George, both at-large members of the Boston City Council and Democrats. Essaibi is also the daughter of immigrants — her mother is a Catholic from Poland and her father was a Muslim from Tunisia.

I met Wu, now the mayor-elect, on Feb. 8, 2020, in New Hampshire, three days before the presidential primary when she was talking to students from Harvard’s Institute of Politics and made a reference to her Chicago roots.

By then a veteran of Boston’s City Council, she was in New Hampshire doing field work for the presidential campaign of her one-time Harvard Law School contracts professor, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. Warren’s campaign would fold a few weeks later.

Before I go further, it’s worth noting that the two top Boston political powerhouses — Wu and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. — are both from Chicago.

Pressley became the first woman of color elected to Congress from Massachusetts, moving there for college after attending the elite Francis W. Parker School in Lincoln Park, graduating in 1992.

Pressley had a challenging younger life in Chicago, living in an Uptown apartment with her father in and out of prison. She attended Parker with the stepdaughter of Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and hung out at Schakowsky’s Evanston home while growing up. Now the two progressives are both in the House.

Wu and Pressley served in Boston’s City Council, overlapping for five years.

“I remember when she was running the first time. It was such a big deal because there was no woman serving on the council before in that time period right before her,” Wu said.

I asked Wu to tell me her story.

When Wu was a kid, her family lived in Bridgeport; her father, Han Wu, was a student at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

The family got by with the help of social safety programs like WIC, a federal food program for women, infants and children.

The family moved around the Midwest. Wu grew up mostly in northwest suburban Barrington. She attended Roslyn Road Elementary School; Hough Street Elementary; Prairie Middle School; and Barrington High, graduating in 2003.

From there she went to Harvard University and stayed in the Boston area — working as a business consultant — after receiving her undergrad degree. She returned to Barrington to care for her mother, Yu-min-Chen Wu, because her mental illness was worsening and her younger sisters needed her help.

Commuting from Barrington, “I ended up opening up a little tea house, in Chicago, on the North Side.”

She called it the Loose Leaf Tea Loft, at 4229 N. Lincoln Ave.

Running the small tea house — known for its poetry open mic nights — gave her a dose of the frustrations small business owners have in Chicago getting their inspections and permits. Her struggle with red tape would go on to inform her when she landed in Boston’s City Hall.

“When I opened the tea house, we were so frustrated by bureaucracy; it was inspections that could never get scheduled and permits” she could not obtain. “There were days I had to take off work to go sit in City Hall and wait to ask some questions.

“Finally, we went across the street to Gene Schulter,” a reference to the former 47th Ward alderperson. “And he had office hours and so we waited in line in his office hours and talked to him, and then the next day we got our inspection scheduled.”

After a few years, Wu decided to leave the tea house behind and attend Harvard Law School. She moved her mother and siblings to Cambridge. Her mother lives with her in Boston. Her father lives in Florida.

Tweeted Wu after she voted Tuesday, “414 days after launching this campaign, we just voted for the future of Boston.”