WBUR

Dudley Square Residents Seek Fairness With Change

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.

Pedestrians walk past one of several murals along Ruggles Street near Dudley Square. (Dominick Reuter for WBUR)

Pedestrians walk past one of several murals along Ruggles Street. (Dominick Reuter for WBUR)

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.

Ngozi Anyika testifies about the Gospel with a megaphone near Dudley. (Dominick Reuter for WBUR)

Ngozi Anyika testifies about the Gospel with a megaphone near Dudley. (Dominick Reuter for WBUR)

“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.”

Seeking Fairness

“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.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on wbur.org.
  • Jim

    The culture that dominates this area makes it an unsafe place to be.Change the culture, then add the retaurants and other featutures.

  • Jim

    “Danger: Educated Black Woman.”

    Was that education validated without the specter of affirmative action? Otherwise you need an asterisk next to the slogan.

    • Lee

      Spoken like a true honkie bigot. I suggest you enlighten yourself on why programs like affirmative action exist in the first place before denigrating the success of those who are institutionally oppressed by the white-supremacist systems set in place by the dominant culture.

  • CircusMcGurkus

    First of all, this article is so slanted it is a joke. David Price of Nuestra Comunidad is launching a development that the community DESPISES. It fails to comport with the request for proposal and the Roxbury strategic Master Plan. It is doomed to failure as it stands and will promote poverty in Roxbury for another century. Mr. Price does not represent the people of the area or their interests. he has, in fact, ignored every constructive comment and criticism in order to proceed in a dismal plan.

    His comments about the people of Roxbury are insidious. Nobody wants to live in crayola colored homes – people in need would like subsidized housing no matter where it is. It’s not like market rate renters are begging to get in to a housing project. Ms. Raynor has a point about education – but this is a citywide problem that has deep roots dating back even before the busing crisis that divided us further. Because schools are not now designated by neighborhood 9kids from any neighborhood can apply to schools in any neighborhood as well as charter schools), the comment about education is somewhat misrepresentative of the truth. All kids need good schools, but there are terrible schools all over the city, not just in Roxbury, and local schools like Orchard Gardens have made great strides; O’Brien is a test-in high school. So, this is a perception rather than a truth.

    As for the homes “selling” for half a million dollars – they have not sold. Even the E+ super-environmentally sound homes have not yet sold so the asking price and the selling price may not correlate. Most homes even in Fort Hill struggle to get close to market rate. But so few homes ever even make it into the market so it is impossible to gauge market rate in this area.

    Someone really needs to demonstrate one – JUST ONE – true example of this gentrification this article suggests because it does not exist in Dudley Square. The community leaders of this area have argued correctly that the problems of too much affluence are much easier to handle than those of too much poverty. We want responsible development with creative solutions to lift all boats and not leave anyone out. but deed restricted housing has destroyed this beautiful area and created more poverty because it is not balanced with market rate homes.

    Roxbury is a vibrant. creative, artistic area with a diverse (not exclusively African American – but a hugely diverse) population and a remarkable history. Dudley Square is in a fabulous location that SHOULD have homes selling at high prices as well as those at mid-range and those at the lower end. The rental market should be vibrant as well. Roxbury deserves better than to be sloughed off with the backhanded compliment as the “black epicenter”‘ of the region. Learn the policies of the past to understand how things got to where they are and then create better policies to lift people up, reduce crime and improve life for everyone.

    Mr. Price and Nuestra have refused to listen to the neighborhood complaints about his project. The city has refused to hold Nuestra to a proper standard – they have inadequate funding even to clean up their contaminated site. You want “fairness”? Maybe people should listen to the young people and even middle aged people who are pioneers in the area who want to elevate it without leaving people behind, who want to incorporate the life of the artists in its midst, who want to build successful businesses that are welcoming to everyone. Roxbury does not need more of the same failed policies; we need innovation and new wealth to spark a rising tide.

    Show me someone who wants to move into Roxbury but can’t afford to. Just one. Despite how expensive Boston is, Roxbury is still one of its cheapest neighborhoods. Many of us who live there and love Roxbury would like to make it a welcoming place for ALL incomes, not just the poor. that will provide jobs, improve safety and increase housing stock organically. People do not knock down the door to get in (because they do not know how great it is), instead they are terrified to visit. This article, with its fact-free approach, does not help.

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