On Blue Hill Avenue, Community Abounds

By Phillip Martin

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Oct 27, 2010

The horrific murder in Mattapan last month, which took the lives of a four people, including a mother and her two-year-old child, has touched off a wave of religious vigils and protests in Mattapan. But a great deal of community organizing up and down Blue Hill Avenue takes place unseen and out of the glare of cameras.

Community organizations and institutions in Mattapan, Roxbury and Dorchester are working everyday to change anti-social conditions that undermine neighborhoods, from petty crimes to homicides. And some are even campaigning to expand the very definition of “community.” In Part Three of WGBH's "Blue Hill Avenue: If A Street Could Speak," Phillip Martin introduces us to some of these communities.



From Roxbury To Milton: Communities Along Blue Hill Avenue | Jess Bidgood/WGBH


MATTAPAN -- At the Mattapan Branch of the Boston Public Library, the sound of silence is, to some, the very sound of community engagement.

At least, the branch librarian, Maurice Joshua Gordon, thinks so. The New Mattapan Library on Blue Hill Avenue attracts thousands of first time visitors each month. And over the past two years it has had one of the highest increases in circulation of any branch library in the city.

“I think if it weren’t here, there would be a gap just in terms of the intellectual and educational life of the community,” Gordon said.

The library is also a principal gathering place for community events. One Saturday, Hand in Hand Boston, a sports and education program for young people, is holding its Fall orientation.

About 150 kids from this multi-cultural neighborhood are watching a slide presentation by Rich Humber. Another group of Haitian, Dominican and African American youngsters queue up at the door, hoping to get in. Stepping outside for a moment, Humber says the most important aspect of the program is mentorship, and emphasizes that the program is not just for kids in trouble or at risk.

“All kids have certain goals and visions for themselves and what we want to be able to say is ‘Okay, this is your goal. These are the steps its going to take to get there,” Humber explains.

Seventeen-year-old Jason Leonore, a waiter, wants a better salary. So he’s at the library, too.

“To use the computers. To try to find a new job. See what I can do to pursue my dreams and careers. SoI want to look into it to see how much information I can get,” Leonore said.

Also visiting the library today is a sixth-grader named Stanley, who sits quietly at a desk writing a paper on his favorite topic.

“(It’s on) social studies, geography,” Stanley whispers –- since, after all, you can’t talk in the library.

Stanley’s mom, Trudy Benoit, brings her two sons here on a regular basis. The family lives just off Blue Hill Avenue. Benoit says the Library -- built with city funds and pushed by City Councilman Charles Yancey -- is the very epitome of community.

But Benoit says community doesn’t stop at the library. She say her neighbors watch out for one another. And that community spirit, says Benoit, makes her feel secure in Mattapan, even after dark.

“I actually take a couple of walks in the summertime because there are a lot of hills and parks on this side of River Street,” Benoit says, acknowledging that most people don’t realize that.

“They don’t see beyond the main route through the city, which is Blue Hill Avenue. They pretty much pass through and they don’t look as if they’re interested. They just look cautious, especially at the red lights.”

In Mattapan Square

Hilda Fernandez is using one of those red lights – this one in Mattapan Square – to try and drum up some community spirit of her own. She has a sign urging passersby to vote “no” on Propositions One, Two and Three on Election Day. With the wind at her back, she’s pushing to keep the sales tax the way it is and is fighting against a measure that would negatively affect the development of local housing.

“Educating the community to make sure they no to vote, no, no, no. To Save Our community,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez, who lives in Dorchester, says it’s her civic duty to try to educate voters and potential voters about what’s at stake in this year’s elections. But she says trying to get folks to pay attention in this election year is like pulling teeth.

“I’m looking around and I see so many people taking the buses and I’m passing out flyers and no one wants to take a flyer,” Fernandez said.

But she’s not discouraged.

“I love my community. I was born and raised in Boston. And speaking to so many people and I realize they just don’t know. And when you don’t know. You don’t know. And I strongly believe in each one, teach one,” Fernandez said.

In Roxbury, A Group Effort

Between Dudley Square and Grove Hall, there’s an empty lot on Blue Hill Avenue. But unlike one just up the street that’s been strewn with wine bottles, it’s been cleaned up -- not by the city, but by neighbors organized by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.

Community organize Carlos Henriquez is working to bring individuals to address blight, prostitution and other issues in this Blue Hill neighborhood. Henriquez, who presides over Dudley Street’s board and is also running for state representative, says the goal is to take back this area from pushers, pimps and polluters.

Henriquez says some of the crime in his neighborhood is due to an accumulation of little things, like absentee landlords.

“They don’t know who’s loitering. They don’t put up “no trespassing signs” and empower the police to make arrests, and things of that nature. They’re not keeping up lighting on their front porch,” he said.

Clementina Cherry says community engagement to fight these issues is often overlooked. “When violence is down or when they say its down, the city, the ministers, the police get the credit,” says Cherry, the head of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute.

The conflict over funding resources, other prominent voices also express concern that the public response to crime and violence, including news media coverage, seems to follow a predictable, formulaic pattern in Boston. There is outrage from politicians, a police investigation and condemnation by black ministers -- especially the Reverend Eugene Rivers, a perennial voice on radio and television.

“What’s missing from the narrative is that every week, Wednesday morning from 9:00 to 10:00, I meet with over twenty community-based agencies that focus on collaborative responses, as well as prevention and intervention strategies for dealing with crime,” Rivers said.

Expanding The Conversation

Still, some community activists, and others interviewed for this series, say that they feel left out of the discussions about violence and development along Blue Hill Avenue. And that “exclusion” by black ministers, politicians and the news media, they argue, limits both the definition and understanding of “community”, and thus affects public perceptions of not only what can be done, but what has been accomplished.

“I think everyone has to be part of the conversation,” said Russell Holmes, who is unopposed in his race to be the state representative for the 6th Suffolk District, which includes the neighborhoods through which Blue Hill Avenue runs.

“I’ve reached out of course to neighborhood groups. I’ve reached out to gangs, No one should be excluded,” Holmes said.

Back in Mattapan Square, 15-year-old Cass—that’s his street name from Puerto Rico--pulls his hood slightly over his head as the wind picks up. Asked if he feels included in any of the discussions taking place in this community about crime, violence and youth, he offers firsthand knowledge.

“I’ve had a lot of family members who’ve been in trouble,” Cass says. He says he’s had talks with community youth workers from StreetSafe Boston -- the $20 million initiative set up to keep guns and drugs out of the hands of kids. And he added that his mother raised him right.

“And when my father got out of jail he always kept me in the right direction. Like all those guys that come to our school and try to keep us in the right direction. But I have known a few people that got in trouble because of violence and drugs,” Cass says.

Now he’s looking for a job, a difficult task -- especially for black and Latino youth -- here along Blue Hill Avenue.



WGBH SERIES: BLUE HILL AVENUE
PHOTOESSAY: COMMUNITY ALONG THE AVENUE

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