Blue Hill Avenue Looks Forward

By Phillip Martin

Oct. 28, 2010

In Detroit there’s 8 mile Road, in Los Angeles there’s Crenshaw, and then there’s Miami Avenue in Miami.  These are considered roads that both divide and connect disparate communities. Some avenues are equated with hard luck, others are known for commerce. 

In Boston, there’s Blue Hill Avenue. Many residents who live on and near it argue that the corridor—which runs from Roxbury to Mattapan and through Milton—is unfairly tainted with a reputation for crime. They point to a thriving commercial sector and new projects on the way as evidence of the community’s revitalization. This is the final story in WGBH's four-part series, “Blue Hill Avenue: If A Street Could Speak".  

The Faces Of Blue Hill Avenue | Photography by Jess Bidgood/WGBH

BOSTON -- Larry Harmon remembers when people called Blue Hill Avenue “Plywood Avenue,” so named for all of the empty storefronts. The editorial writer for the Boston Globe driving past the neighborhoods where he used to live. 

“In the 70s, nearly everyone of the little store fronts that we just passed, was just a boarded up store.  There was nothing happening here, so there’s been a tremendous rebirth of this area.  I think a lot of new immigrants, Caribbean immigrants have had a tremendously positive effect on this area,” Harmon said.

Rushing to catch a bus, a Haitian man, whose street name is Topaz, echoes Harmon’s observation.

“When I first came to Boston, Blue Hill was bad, know what I mean.  After that I think it change. I walk to Blue Hill and I don’t see much violence as it used to be.  There’s a lot of Haitian businesses on Blue Hill,” Topaz said.

And then there are those that are owned by African-Americans, as well as an array of new and old immigrants: Cape Verdeans, Puerto Ricans , Irish Americans, Jewish Americans and others.

J & C Barbershop, on Blue Hill Avenue in Lower Roxbury, is one of them. It’s owned by Jose Rivera, a Dominican immigrant.

One of the barbers, Junior Baltista,  is reading in a corner while waiting for customers. He thinks the location works to their advantage.

“Brings a lot of money into the business,” Baltista said. “And Blue Hill is really not that bad if things go the right way and there’s no crime, no nothing than it will be a nice neighborhood.” 

Signs of Blue Hill Avenue’s revitalization in recent years is evident from Mattapan to lower Roxbury. There’s the Haley House Bakery and Café, a shop called Looking Good, and the Meringue Restaurant – which got a 2008 Best of Boston recognition -- where each morning, like clockwork, the owner sweeps the sidewalk in front of the establishment.

There’s also Mecca’s Boutique on Blue Hill and Washington, where I head to meet the mayor of Grove Hall.

“Yeah, that’s what they call me,” says Michael Muhammad. “Cause everybody seems to know me.”

Muhammad is proprietor of Mecca’s Boutique.  “We have most everything. Flags. To jewelry, lotion, soaps, incense.  Hats, glasses.  We have a little bit of everything,” Muhammad said.

Michael Muhammad is a member of the Nation of Islam, which has a history in Grove Hall that dates back decades.  In the 1980’s, dozens of auto repair shops and a dealership closed their doors, leaving more than 300 people without jobs. The Nation of Islam subsequently joined forces with community and business groups to form a Neighborhood Development Cooperation. 

It happened during the administration of Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, when the federal government was allocating money for the creation of empowerment zones.   Minister Don Muhammad heads the Nation of Islam in Boston.  
“And Mayor Flynn asked me to come down to a meeting and they had graphs and information on the board.  And they talked about where this empowerment zone was going to have an impact in terms of dollars and cents.  And it stopped at Columbia Road,” Muhammad remembered.

“I said to Mayor Flynn, what did you invite me here for?  It doesn’t include my community.  You’re going to talk about millions of dollars and you don’t include my community?  He walked to the board and erased the line, and drew it, on Blue Hill Avenue.”

The community was given $6 million to develop the Mecca Mall, which today boasts a Stop and Shop, drugstores, and Mecca’s Boutique.  It also provided more than 300 jobs.

Back on the road with Harmon, we head down Blue Hill Avenue toward Franklin Park. Until a few years, this sprawling urban green space was considered by many to be a no-go zone because of crime. 

“It’s absolutely great now again.  It’s a beautiful golf course in there.  The zoos are better.  Its very, very safe.  It’s just a terrific area,” Harmon said.

Driving further down Blue Hill Avenue we pass several Caribbean restaurants and what residents here consider to be far too many stores selling malt liquor and cheap wine. 
On our left is the remodeled Franklin Field housing projects,  and soon we cross into Mattapan -- or what we think is Mattapan.

“You know if you can tell me when you’re in Dorchester or when you’re in Mattapan, I will give you a Nobel Prize or something,” Harmon joked.

One hint might be the sign on this building: The Mattapan Health Center.  

The waiting room here is filled with children and older adults waiting to see a doctor, nurse or dentist.  The center was first established in 1972.  7,000  people are seen here annually, not including those coming here for multiple visits.  The Mattapan Community Health Center is bursting at the seams.

Dr. Azzie Young, the center’s president and CEO, takes us on a tour of the facility.

“This is our laboratory, and you see that its about 300 sq-ft space,” Young said. It’s just too small – but the Center is moving to a new $32 million in 2011. “And in the new building (the lab) will go up to about 4100 square feet so we’re excited about that.”

On a sun drenched day in September, with Blue Hill Avenue closed to traffic, Dr. Young—joined by Boston mayor Tom Menino and Gov. Deval Patrick -- led a New Orleans style band into Mattapan Square.  It was the groundbreaking for the new Mattapan Health Center, made possible with federal stimulus money and funding from local organizations. 

Dr. Young says there are six reasons why the new center is so urgently needed. “They are vitamin D deficiency, hyper tension or high blood pressure, diabetes, particularly type diabetes, high cholesterol and asthma,” Dr. Young explained.

Besides better health, Dr. Young says this community will benefit in other ways as well. “We expect to have 200 to 300 construction jobs and many of those will be held by our community.”

There are other signs of Blue Hill Avenues renewed vibrancy, but perhaps the most welcome sign are the boards that have been removed form windows in recent months as shops moved in.   Rabbi Alfred Benjamin presides over Temple Shalom in Milton and spends a good deal of time in Mattapan Square next door: 

“I go and I do my business and wait on line at the bank.  And actually I like doing that. And I think what really separates Mattapan from Milton is just a generation or two,” Benjamin said.

And if there is a bridge between generations and cultures on Blue Hill Avenue, it is Simco’s, near Mattapan Square, the hot dog joint that has stood on this site since the Great Depression.    This is where older Jews who left the area meet the Black grandchildren of families that arrived here in their wake.  For 14 years, Reggie White has been cooking and serving the popular hotdogs that have made this place famous. 

“There’s people that come—50, 60 and 70-year-old men—saying they remember when there father used to bring them to Simco’s for a hotdog,” White said.

But not all Blue Hill Avenue landmarks still exist.   Across River Street and up the road by a mile or less, a “for sale” sign is posted in front of the 65-year-old Temple Shalom, the only synagogue in Milton. What had once been a congregation of 600 has dwindled to less than 150.  81-year-old Leila Rosenbaum, who moved here from Mattapan  decades ago, reflects on what this means:  

“There’s something very comforting about knowing that you have a place like this.  Community is so important. And I, for one, am very optimistic about our future.  Maybe we won’t be on Blue Hill Avenue but we will make another Blue Hill Avenue for ourselves,” Rosenbaum said.

Each day, 25,000 motorists travel this same road taken by Leila and others interviewed for this series. 

Where many traversing Blue Hill Avenue may only think of it in terms of crime, a significant number of people see hope, amid revitalized neighborhoods, spurred in large measure by city and state funding, ambitious immigrants, new businesses, libraries and modern health programs.

Reflecting on their many voices, if Blue Hill Avenue could speak, maybe it would say, “I am complex, and on this road, there are many stories.”

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