BOSTON Roxbury is the geographic center of Boston. But it doesn’t look like the heart of the city. For blocks there’s no sit-down restaurant, no MBTA station, not even crosswalks.
That’s starting to change. During Thomas Menino’s long tenure as mayor, shiny, modern housing popped up, a new police headquarters was built in the area, and now there’s even a plan to fix the crosswalks. But all this change makes some residents uneasy.
From Grates To Glass
Dudley Square is the soul of the city’s black community. It’s home to African-Americans who moved to Boston generations ago from the South and to new African immigrants, from countries like Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea.
It’s also the old commercial hub where Dudley and Washington streets intersect — the bustling, pulsating heart of Roxbury.
But in the 1980s and ’90s this heart was barely pumping any blood into the city.
David Price, the director of Nuestra Comunidad Development Corporation in Roxbury, credits Menino with revolutionizing the Dudley neighborhood.
“One of the worst things about Dudley Square was all the sheet metal grates that pulled down at night. It made it look like a war zone,” Price said in Dudley. “And he, through the Main Streets program, turned that around completely. If you look at these stores here, like the new T-Mobile store, there are no sheet metal grates that are pulled down. They’ve got nice, attractive, glass storefronts.”
Price also praises the Menino administration for improving safety around the square.
“Across the street you can see the Orchard Gardens housing complex. Twenty years ago that was one of the most notorious public housing [complexes] in the city of Boston,” he said.
There are no more brick buildings dominated by drug dealers. Now, the complex looks like Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood — Crayola-colored, mixed-income townhouses with gardens. They’re so popular there’s a waiting list.
‘He Developed Everything Around Us’
But the development is concentrated.
Farther down Dudley Street, toward Dorchester, the mayoral campaign posters for Charlotte Golar Richie are replaced by signs for John Barros. In this mostly Cape Verdean community, there’s hardly any construction and the per capita income drops to less than $16,000 a year, according to a report prepared for the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.
It’s the area where Anildo Miranda lives. He works part-time at Davey’s Supermarket, a corner store where you can find anything from papaya in a can to corn flour. Miranda also happens to be a cousin of candidate Barros.
“Menino, I don’t think he did enough for Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan,” Miranda said. “He definitely developed the city. He developed everything around us.”
As development winds around the area, people who work and live in the community say they’re concerned about fairness — in city jobs, education and affordable housing.
It’s a word echoed on nearly every street when I ask people what they want in a new mayor.
“I’d like to see a level playing field,” said Sarah-Ann Shaw, who was born and raised in Roxbury and was the first female African-American reporter on WBZ-TV. She’s now retired and volunteers at Richie’s campaign office on Dudley Street.
Shaw says Menino is popular because he was a mayor who showed up — any ribbon cutting, he was there. But that wasn’t enough for her.
“I wasn’t all that happy because I just knew that we needed to have more input,” Shaw said. “For instance, the mayor’s cabinet was not that integrated. We’ve never had a black police commissioner.”
Shaw says the new mayor needs to make a commitment to share the city’s resources equally.
Downsizing With Development
Jumaada Abdal-Khallaq Henry Smith runs A Nubian Notion in Dudley Square. Her dad started the company 51 years ago.
“We became New England’s one-stop largest Afro-centric store,” she said. “And the whole idea was to teach people to own your own things within your own community.”
Roxbury has gone from good to bad, and A Nubian Notion has seen it all. Smith knows nearly every customer who walks in.
On the counter, the shops sells Tootsie Rolls. In the back, you can buy T-shirts with slogans like “Danger: Educated Black Woman.”
But all the development right outside her door is forcing Smith to make tough decisions.
“We kind of had to crunch our size,” she said. “We moved down in order for the development to take place and by doing that we try to make it work. We’re not that large gift store that we used to be, you know. But we’re trying to work it because we don’t want to leave and the customers — we want to stay.”
From A Nubian Notion, you can see a giant crane towering over the square. A construction crew is fixing up the Ferdinand Building — what used to be one of the largest furniture stores in New England. It’s another development project credited to Menino. He decided to turn the old store into the new headquarters for Boston Public Schools.
Some residents fear that once the building is completed next year the community will reach a tipping point and the area will change racially. Some, like Smith, say it already is changing.
“You see Anglo-Caucasians with dogs, you know, that’s new,” she said.
Worries Of Being Priced Out
Anita Raynor lives in the Fort Hill neighborhood, near Roxbury Community College, where homes now sell for more than half a million dollars and BMWs are parked on the street.
“This community now has become a community that’s very difficult to get into in terms of being affordable,” she said.
Raynor bought her house 36 years ago, and since then she says the landscape has changed dramatically: more young professionals, more college students.
“I don’t have any problem with people coming from anywhere else,” she said. “But I think that what happens is that you, you squeeze the people in the neighborhood out by establishing rents that are just, just too high.”
Nearly a third of Roxbury residents live at or below the poverty level.
For Raynor, Menino brought some improvements to the community, like trash pickup twice a week. But she, like others, insists that city services weren’t divided fairly, particularly when it came to public education. She wants the new mayor to fix that.
“Education and safety are the two critical issues,” she said. “And I can’t leave out economic development for this community because what happens is people come in and they sort of rob our community. They come in and they take and they don’t leave us with anything.”
“It’s really hard when you work to better your neighborhood and then somebody else comes in and gets to take advantage of that and you have to move to another place that has all the problems that you just spent your time trying to change,” said Mariama White-Hammond, who runs Project Hip Hop in Dudley Square.
The group works with teens to figure out how to use the arts as a force for social justice. So, for example, they did a flash mob in front of the state Transportation Department to show how an increase in bus fares would affect young people.
White-Hammond says the next mayor needs to have a commitment to fairness across the neighborhoods so that some folks don’t disproportionately bear the brunt of under-policing when it comes to safety and over-policing when it comes to drugs.
“I’m not encouraging young people to smoke pot, but I don’t know if there was a time in the last 50 years where they didn’t [smoke], except our kids end up on probation or in [the Department of Youth Services] for the same behaviors that are treated differently in other parts of the city, so I think that’s something I definitely wanna address,” she said.
White-Hammond grew up in Roxbury, but says Boston has long felt like a city of turfs.
“When I was younger, it’s true, we didn’t move between neighborhoods enough. Like I knew Roxbury really well, but I never went to South Boston and I barely even knew how to get to Charlestown,” she said. “I really have hope that this next generation will have deep pride for their neighborhood but they will own this city as a whole and I think that’s one of the things I want to see in the next mayor, somebody who really helps us to feel like we are one city all together.”
And in order for that to happen, most folks in Roxbury say they need a new mayor who promises to be fair.