BOSTON — It’s a quiet, sunny day as Michael Charbonnier walks door-to-door along a side street off Blue Hill Avenue. Charbonnier is the director of the the Boston Police Department’s Crime Stoppers Unit and he’s dropping off notices, seeking anonymous tips about a recent shooting.
“This is not an area known for violent crime, but, you know, it can happen anywhere in the city,” Charbonnier says.
That statement seems to contradict the neighborhood’s reputation — notoriously in the headlines after a quadruple murder in 2010 in which victims included a young mother and her 2-year-old son.
Homeowner William Northington lives across from a park on Almont Street, where a shooting on Memorial Day Weekend sent five people to area hospitals.
“I didn’t even hear it. I still don’t know what happened,” Northington says. “I didn’t see it, but that’s an isolated [incident]. They have shootings everywhere. In any city you hear people on TV saying, ‘We didn’t think it could happen there.’ ”
Northington and his wife feel secure in this quiet neighborhood where most of the houses have well-kept yards. They’ve raised two sons in the large, white house they bought in 1972.
“I always wanted a driveway … shoveling the snow up here, fighting over parking lots, I said no way,” Northington says. “So the real estate [agent] used to take us to all these neighborhoods, and we would pull down the street, I’d say ‘There’s no room! You can’t walk around your house, you can’t park.’ So we found this right away. I’ve been happy. We’re blessed.”
“Most people have this monolithic view of Mattapan that makes no sense,” says City Councilor Charles Yancey, who represents District 4, which includes Mattapan. “No neighborhood, no community is monolithic. And yes, there is violence that takes place in Mattapan.
“We have in the midst of all of the negative imagery of Mattapan some of the hardest-working people in all of the city of Boston. Areas of the city where you have a higher than average homeownership rate in spite of the horrific foreclosure crisis that hit this area particularly hard,” Yancey says. “So I understand why some of my constituents would be a little bit annoyed to know that the only time they seem to get any attention from the media is when there’s violence that takes place.”
But Yancey says there’s reason for the media and others to look at Mattapan in a different light: the soon-to-be expanded Mattapan Community Health Center.
The community center is moving from a 13,000-square-foot space to a brand new 58,000-square-foot facility.
“It pretty much triples our capacity to serve our community,” says Dr. Azzie Young, the president and CEO of the center. “We are very excited, delighted and thrilled that we will be able to provide more services, see more patients, and be more efficient in our new space.”
The health center is bustling, the waiting room busy. A walk through the currently cramped quarters renders a cacophony of languages cascading through the hallways.
“The architects have referred to a section of the [new] building as a window into the community — and the key word here is community because that’s what this building is about,” says Guale Valdez, the chief financial officer of the Mattapan Community Health Center. “But it’s not only taking care of the physical and emotional well-being of the residents of the community, it’s also about economic redevelopment, which is an essential part of any community.”
Next month, the center will begin the move a few blocks down Blue Hill Avenue into its new $34 million home in Mattapan Square.
The new center will also house new businesses, such as a CVS, which Dr. Young says is the first pharmacy in the square in more than 30 years.
“And our building is the first new construction in Mattapan Square in over 50 years,” Dr. Young says.
Mattapan Square has also won a Main Streets designation, which allows businesses to tap into into city funds to improve their buildings.
All this has attracted new stores, such as Hair Spirit Unisex Hair Care. Owner Marie Grant moved the salon here from Dorchester.
“I was previously in Dorchester for 20 years. [I] just relocated here. I love it here so far because of the violence in Dorchester — watching people getting killed in front of my business place, it was awful, having me losing clients and everything,” Grant says. “So I decided to make a change and this was a perfect location.”
Grant says business has been good and for her, Mattapan has never been an unsafe community.
“I literally grew up in Mattapan. I live a mile from here. I raised three children, two graduated from college and one going off to high school. Mattapan is a very good community — so we cannot look at the negative, we’ve got to look at the positive part of Mattapan,” Grant says.
There are already some positive additions to Mattapan — including UMass medical facilities, brand new housing and a library. And Grant says she expects the community to be even stronger when the new health center opens in September.