Updated at 3:27 p.m. June 16

Growing up in Mattapan in the 1980s and '90s, Kenya Beaman remembers a Mattapan Square that had something for everyone: a record store, department stores and places to grab a cocktail or sit down for dinner.

“Brigham's ice cream was the spot,” Beaman recalled. “After you got off the bus, you sat in there with Mr. Evans and you waited for your momma to come get you, and he'd give you a little child-sized scoop while you waited. There was a real sense of community.”

In the intervening decades, vitality seeped out of the neighborhood business district centered along Blue Hill Avenue near Boston's southern border with Milton.

“Businesses left and closed down. Storefronts were just empty. It just seemed like property owners just put whatever in there to get the rent — there wasn’t any real intentional or thoughtful process about keeping that community and variety of businesses in Mattapan Square,” said Beaman, now the city’s community engagement manager for Mattapan. “There’s nothing there that I want.”

Ongoing construction of the biggest development in Mattapan Square in decades has raised the prospect of a revival, while stoking fears that existing small businesses could be displaced. A $57 million building containing housing and commercial space, developed by two Boston-based nonprofits, is slated to open this summer on a former MBTA parking lot on River Street. Its price tag eclipses the $32 million spent to construct the new Mattapan Community Health Center a decade ago.

Hobby Fair in Mattapan Square, early 1980's
Linda Burnett/Old Dirty Boston Facebook Page

The Loop at Mattapan Station will have 135 apartments, with 18 of those units reserved for households earning no more than 30% of the area median income — a maximum income of $28,200 for an individual to $40,250 for a four-person household. These low-income households will pay rent equal to 30% of their household income. The remaining units are available for people earning up to 80% of the area median income, with rents at that income level ranging from $1,613 for a studio to $2,461 for a three-bedroom. The six-floor building, the tallest in the square, was developed by the Preservation of Affordable Housing and the Nuestra Comunidad Development Corporation.

“We understand that rent is going up in all areas — residential and business — and it’s tough when you’re doing one of these developments. We certainly don't seek to displace any current business owners in any area,” said Diane Clark, the director of real estate development for Nuestra Comunidad and a Mattapan native. “Our thinking is that what we bring to the community is something that supports what's there, and hopefully by bringing more people to the neighborhood, you're bringing more businesses to the neighborhood and supporting the business that’s already there.”

In a statement, Cory Fellows, a vice president of POAH, described the project as a response to “a lot of interest and a pent-up demand for this kind of housing and the commercial development.”

In the next five years, city leaders envision other major developments in Mattapan, which historically has seen less development than other neighborhoods in Boston. Twelve new projects and a $60 million rehabilitation of Blue Hill Avenue are in the planning stages.

“There’s this fear that the city doesn’t care, and that Mattapan as we know it will just become nonexistent,” said Nicole Echemendia, president of Mattapan Square Main Streets. “The uniqueness of those little mom and pop stores leaving, and big chain stores coming in.”

Raheem Goode has owned a tattoo shop next to the Loop for seven years and has struggled to keep prices affordable while his rent continues to rise. He says he’s happy to see new housing options become available in the neighborhood where he grew up, but unsure about the ultimate impact of this and future developments.

“I’m fearful that all this development will hinder people in our community from opening a business here,” Goode said. “Even if this is for them, it might scare them from developing their own dreams of starting a business in their own community.”

Raheem Goode stands in front of his tattoo parlor on River Street, with construction of The Loop at Mattapan Station behind him, April 27, 2022
Tori Bedford GBH News

Mattapan is home to churches, a community center for teenagers, yoga studios, massage parlors, salons, sports programs, an urban farm, historic landmarks, an active biking community and a number of mostly takeout restaurants.

“If you’re searching for it, you can find it, but these things aren’t broadcast as much as we would like,” said Echemendia, who faults commercial property owners for inadequate maintenance. “If you just look at these buildings with the way they look, you won’t even want to go in. But there's so much more that's hidden behind this grimy look of these buildings.”

It’s an ongoing struggle, Echemendia says, to empower residents to fight for the future they want for the square. Her organization is working to meet regularly with property owners, who largely decide which businesses come and go.

“We can't make the landlords put a specific business in their property, but we can be in conversation with them on what exactly it is that the community is looking to get,” Echemendia said. “It's not like we can stop the development, you know. It's here. But how do we all work together to keep the identity of Mattapan Square and make folks feel comfortable, and that they’re not going to just be kicked out? It’s a big job.”

Tattoo artist Lawrence Brothers works on an ankle piece for Kadijah McGregor at Boston Body Ink Art Specialist, April 27, 2022
Tori Bedford GBH News

Though crime rates have declined significantly in recent years, the neighborhood once given the nickname “Murderpan” still struggles to attract new business investments, Beaman said.

“I think a lot of that is what people see and read in the paper and on TV. I mean, Mattapan isn't like some God-awful neighborhood,” she said. “It has its challenges, but you don’t go into Lower Mills, another mixed-income neighborhood [nearby in Dorchester], and think ‘low-income’ or ‘poor folk.’ In Mattapan Square, to some elected officials, everything is ‘low-income’ this and ‘low-income’ that. Now you’ve labeled this neighborhood as such, why would I want to go there?”

At 38%, the home ownership rate in Mattapan is actually higher than the citywide average.

To bring in improvements that work for the community, Beaman says, residents have to become involved in pushing back against developments they don’t want.

“I think people understand that there has to be some level of change, but no one wants to have change be so drastic where people are then forced out of their homes,” she said. “You have to be a part of the process. When there’s a Zoom link sent to your email, don’t ignore it. That’s your opportunity to say no, we don’t want this here.”

Jeff Brice hosts a radio program at Radio Concorde on Blue Hill Ave. in Mattapan, May 5, 2022
Tori Bedford GBH News

Jean-Claude Sanon, a former Boston City Council candidate who has lived in Mattapan for nearly five decades, expressed skepticism about the impact of feedback given at community meetings hosted by the Boston Planning and Development Agency.

“Every time they were bringing something into the square and they asked for our opinion, no one’s opinion ever mattered. It’s an insult to our intelligence,” Sanon said. “Come with the sense of working with the folks who are here, their input is important. Have respect for them, treat them like human beings. This is not a plantation.”

At the new Loop building, the developers' strategy focuses on “resident empowerment,” including “access to economic opportunity,” from hiring contractors for construction to recruiting businesses for the ground floor. Nearly 57% of work hours to erect the building have gone to people of color, above the city's target of 40%, according to city data.

Goode says new development could mean more business for him or a rent hike that sends him packing.

“I've lived here my whole life, I've seen Boston change from the ’90s to now,” Goode says. “I’m not so much fearful of losing this place, you know. Me, I’ll go with the wind. Everything is about progress.”

As development moves forward in Mattapan, Echemendia says she envisions a business district that offers sit-down restaurants, places to go out with friends, family-friendly establishments, bookstores and cafes — an enhanced version of what Beamon remembers the square once being.

“The future I want is a district that’s warm and inviting to families, that’s clean, where people can come and get what they need,” Echemendia said.

Updates: This story has been updated to clarify the rents and income limits for apartments in the Loop at Mattapan Station, to include a comment from Diane Clark, the director of real estate development for Nuestra Comunidad, and to clarify Kenya Beaman's recollection of Mattapan's history.

This story emerged from a listening session GBH News held with community leaders in Mattapan. To find out more about these listening sessions or how to host one, email gbhnewsconnect@wgbh.org.