BOSTON — South Boston had seen crime before, but this one rattled. A young woman on her way to the gym early one July morning was cornered and beaten, forced to go to five ATMs, and then murdered. Her car was discovered burning just down from Andrew Square.
At a community meeting a week later, Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis tried to reassure worried residents that 24-year-old Amy Lord’s slaying was not related to drugs.
“But after a fast review in the last few days of continuing problems of drug abuse in Southie, and after conferring with Mayor [Thomas] Menino, we have decided to put another drug unit into Southie and keep them here,” he said to applause.
Recent drug arrests in the neighborhood run the gamut from heroin and cocaine use to prescription drugs with names like oxycodone, clonidine and Suboxone.
Grabbing the microphone at the meeting, Helen Alex said she welcomes more drug enforcement where she lives, Andrew Square. She also has issues with a drug treatment center in Roxbury, just over Southampton Street from the square. She said it brings recovering narcotics users to her neighborhood.
“Now if we could put a gate across Southampton to keep the methadones out that’d be great,” Alex said.
Another man chimed in: “We have to develop a long-term plan to somehow prevent these people from even getting involved in drugs.”
Here, at a public meeting in a neighborhood reeling from a senseless murder, you get a taste for the appetite that people around Andrew Square have for their next mayor. They do want more police on their streets. But they also want better treatment services. And they also want more prevention efforts.
“Instead of banging them over the head after they’re addicted,” the man added. “Nobody wants to see their son or daughter sitting in Andrew Square, strung out at the station waiting for their next fix.”
‘Night And Day From Where It Used To Be’
Andrew Square sits at the very western edge of South Boston, flattened up against the Expressway, railyards and the South Bay Shopping Center. It’s maybe the part of South Boston that has changed the least under Menino. During his tenure, South Boston has experienced a renaissance and opened more to the rest of city and the world.
These days, South Boston is the new hub for hundreds of thousands of visitors, thanks to the opening of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in 2004. That also brought millions of dollars in private investments in hotels, new offices and condominiums, and catapulted the waterfront. The Seaport District, which stretches from the Institute of Contemporary Art down to the Boston Design Center, is teeming with seafood restaurants and startups, who also call it the Innovation District. Farther south, residential real estate prices are soaring, especially in the City Point neighborhood along Carson Beach.
But even at the opposite edge of South Boston, in the west, Andrew Square is improving, too.
Peter Szyjka emigrated from Poland as a teenager, and now serves clients from South Boston’s Polish, Lithuanian and increasingly Vietnamese population. He says when he started his solo law practice here eight years ago, Andrew Square looked a lot different.
“There was no flower pots. There was no greenery. There was no nice grid on the crosswalks,” Szyjka said. “It wasn’t the safest intersection, but I think since three or four years ago when the square really changed up, got beautified, I mean, it looks fantastic right now. It’s night and day from where it used to be.”
Also new: a memorial on the square and bike racks, too. Szyjka credits Menino for making those improvements. He’s also happy the city removed a bench outside his office after complaining of loitering.
“I mean, we’re trying, you know,” he said. “We’re a law firm, we try to provide, you know, good services, we try to have certain look to our firm. And we’d like to see a certain look to our square.”
A certain look that he says no longer matches the square’s sketchy reputation.
Szyjka said: “I’ve had once a real estate closing here and sellers, they asked me, ‘Is it safe to park here?’ I said, ‘Of course it’s safe to park here.’ ”
The law practice shares its building with a training office for Dunkin’ Donuts workers, a land surveyor, an accountant and a travel agency. Szyjka wishes more businesses would move to Andrew Square.
“You have Dunkin’ Donuts, you have some things,” he said. “I’d like to personally see more options as far as restaurants, some kind of nicer places to maybe take clients out for lunches or for dinners… [a] bit of an upgrade to the square. I don’t know at what point we will be able to see this. But you know that’s — we would like to see more of the gentrification come to Andrew Square that maybe other parts of South Boston have already seen.”
One of the few restaurants is Café Polonia, where kielbasa sausage is the centerpiece entrée. Server Michael Hryhorowicz says Andrew Square used to be much worse. Only two years ago, he’d see prostitutes on his way to work each day. They’re gone now. And just recently, he’s been seeing fewer junkies and drug dealers around Andrew Square.
Since Lord’s murder, police have been cracking down. Hryhorowicz saw a plainclothes policeman arrest someone across the street from the restaurant.
“We’re not sure how long it’s gonna last,” he said, laughing. “But really [it’s a] visible difference.”
Hryhorowicz wants that to continue under the next mayor. “For this square, probably just what they’re doing — keep up the good work,” he said. “It seems like it’s working.”
Some Seek A Familiar Face
There are three public housing complexes around Andrew Square, and its growing Hispanic population reflects changing demographics in the neighborhood. Forty years ago, South Boston was 98 percent white. That’s fallen to about 75 percent now.
At a recent meeting of the West Broadway Task Force, an active South Boston tenants group, the conversation immediately turned to Lord’s murder and the other attacks on women the same day. One happened outside Andrew Square. Then Lord’s car was left burning next to public housing off of Logan Way.
Task force member Pam Collins says she lives close to Andrew Square but uses the Broadway MBTA stop instead.
“The station’s scary! It’s scary,” she said. “You don’t want your kids to see people dealing on the corner and hookers on the next corner. It’s ridiculous.”
The task force members have hopes for the next mayor. Betty Flaherty is looking forward to a new face.
“I honestly have to say, the mayor we have now, I don’t think he’s done anything for South Boston because we’ve had our problems with St. Patty’s Day and different things,” she said. “We do have politicians that are great here.”
Some of these women support Martin Walsh, the state lawmaker from Dorchester* who’s running for mayor.
Eugenia Smith mainly wants a familiar face.
“If I haven’t seen their face before they come to this meeting, I’m not voting for them and I’m not going to advocate for anyone else to vote for them,” she said. “I wanna vote for a man that I can say, ‘Oh, I seen you last week down at this block,’ ‘I seen you over here.’ ”
But Claudia Osorio, the lone Latina on the task force, is OK with anyone who wants to get elected, as long they make things better.
“We don’t have programs here near the housing,” she said.
Osorio wants a safer Andrew Square. But she also wants afterschool programs for children in public housing — programs tailored to the area’s growing Hispanic population. Right now kids can do sports after school, but Osorio says she and other mothers like her want help tutoring their children.
“We don’t speak good English,” she said, “we didn’t went to school so high, so how can we explain to our kids when they don’t know?”
How can they explain to their kids when they don’t know? Osorio wants a mayor who will not only fix old problems in Andrew Square, but fix the new ones, too.
Correction: The audio and an earlier web version of this story incorrectly stated that Martin Walsh represents South Boston. He represents Dorchester.