BOSTON — Some 36,000 people live in Mattapan, which is in the southern part of Boston and borders the affluent community of Milton. While Boston as a whole grew in the decade between 2000 to 2010, census figures show Mattapan shrank by 5 percent.
It’s one of the hard numbers that underscore the challenges the neighborhood faces.
Violent crime has been a chronic problem there for years. There have been over 100 shootings since the beginning of this year.
Audrey Brown-Perkins lost her 20-year-old son, Antoine, to a shooting seven years ago — on the front porch of the home she still lives in.
“I was in the house,” she said. “Someone was ringing my bell, and when I came downstairs my son was standing right there on the porch, and he was like, ‘Oh my God, Mommy, they shot me.’ ”
Purple and white flowers now mark the spot on the porch.
“We was just trying to keep him still, and I just held his hand, and the ambulance came and took him, but on the way to the hospital they lost him,” she said. “So I didn’t talk to him no more from the time that he was on the porch. And although it was seven years ago it just seems like it was just yesterday.” Tears welled in her eyes.
“I often feel that pain,” she added. “It’s just like an ongoing cycle, just over and over and over again reliving it.”
Brown-Perkins’ face is currently on view all over Mattapan — on billboards — as part of a city-funded media campaign to increase civic pride and raise awareness about violence.
Though Mattapan has a homicide rate four times that of Boston as a whole, according to the Boston Public Health Commission, residents say there’s more to Mattapan than the issue.
A Neighborhood Of Rich Diversity
The Boston Foundation reports that 90 percent of the neighborhood’s residents are people of color, with most black or African. It also has the highest concentration of Jamaicans and Haitians in the state, according to the community group Mattapan United.
In fact, behind English, French Creole is the most spoken language in Mattapan.
On Blue Hill Avenue a few blocks from Mattapan Square, a dozen Haitians crowded into a room at the Haitian American Public Health Initiative on a recent day. The Haitians were preparing for the interview and test to become U.S. citizens. The class has a waiting list.
Question: What is the name of the vice president of the United States now?
Many respondents: Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Questioner: You can say the least difficult one: Joe Biden.
All: Joe Biden.
The teacher, Yves-Rose Chrispin, also helps students navigate the challenges of living here.
One of the students is trying to get housing and Social Security or Medicare benefits, but needs help understanding the paperwork that stuffs several envelopes.
The woman has largely been unemployed for years and told Chrispin she’s been forced to take shelter with friends.
“She just sleep over there, and she give [them] some food with the food stamp until she find a place to stay,” Chrispin said.
“People get frustrated by the system because of the bureaucracy. Too many red tapes,” said Dr. Renald Raphaël, who also works with Haitians at the Health Initiative.
Raphaël knows something about frustration. Twenty years ago, he came to the U.S. from Haiti, where he had trained as a physician, but his first job here was as a busser in a restaurant — a common experience for immigrants.
“[You’re] going through an identity crisis,” he said. “You’re doing those jobs behind the scenes because you don’t want people to recognize you, because it brings you some type of shame. It’s a very, very painful transition.”
Raphaël thinks the city needs better English language education and more and better jobs for its new residents.
Life here is an uphill battle for Haitians, he says, and it won’t get easier until they’re better represented by political leaders.
“I get discouraged,” Raphaël said. “Sometimes you don’t see the connection between what the politicians are doing and what the community really needs. After a campaign, the politician just goes and does whatever … he or she wants, and they leave the community behind.”
‘Often This Community Is An Afterthought’
This gets to the big rub in Mattapan, and a common theme: Mattapan as the forgotten neighborhood in Boston.
“Often this community is an afterthought,” said Vivian Morris, a neighborhood activist who works with Mattapan United.
She’s seen what she calls a 20-year downward spiral.
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- Codman Square, Dorchester
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- Dudley Square, Roxbury
- Copley Square, Back Bay
- Maverick Square, East Boston
- Oak Square, Allston/Brighton
- Downtown Crossing/Chinatown
- Cleary Square, Hyde Park
- Mattapan Square
“When we look at the development that’s going on in other parts of Boston,” Morris said, “and then we look at Mattapan, then we say something’s wrong.”
“Education, housing, health care, you name it, jobs — everybody needs the same thing,” said Rodney Bender, who’s also with Mattapan United. “It’s just that people in this community are more impacted by it because of a lot of reasons, and I’ll put it on the table: There’s an issue of institutional racism and bias that affects this community that no one wants to really talk about.”
Mattapan United has surveyed or interviewed over 700 people about Mattapan’s needs. The findings will likely be presented to the next mayor.
To Sharon Callender, the coordinator of family and community health services at the Mattapan Community Health Center, the needs are clear.
“Mattapan does not have a Boys and Girls Club, it does not have a YMCA,” she said. “I personally consider Mattapan a food desert.”
She added: “When you look at other communities such as Roxbury, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, they have large food chains, Shaw’s, Stop & Shop, Market Basket, Whole Foods. In Mattapan, we don’t have a grocery store chain such as that.”
There is a seasonal farmers market in Mattapan, but access to fresher and healthier food year-round would help, Callender says, in cutting the obesity rate in Mattapan, which is the highest in the city, according to the Boston Public Health Commission.
The neighborhood also has high rates of premature birth, low birth weight and heart disease.
But access to health care in Mattapan has gotten easier.
Just a year ago, the Mattapan Community Health Center opened a gleaming new facility, right in Mattapan Square. And since, there’s been a 30 percent increase in patients.
‘Blossom And Grow’
So count Callender as a Mattapan optimist.
“We don’t want to paint a picture of doom and gloom for Mattapan,” she said. “When I walk down the street, I see people that are very proud to say they live in Mattapan and that they are from Mattapan. This is a community that continues to thrive, and not just thrive, they continue to blossom and grow.”
And, in fact, you do get a sense of that strolling through Mattapan Square.
There are no upscale restaurants or clothing boutiques, but virtually every storefront is full. There’s very little litter. And the sidewalks along Blue Hill Avenue are busy with people.
Melanie Brown and her 18-year-old son, Trey, were on Blue Hill Avenue a recent day.
Brown, 43, is struggling to pay rent and buy food. She recently had to move out of the public housing she lived in for 25 years. She earns just $8.60 an hour at one of the warehouse chain stores.
But despite the hardships, Brown is upbeat.
“I’m gonna just keep trying to forge on and keep my head up high,” she said. “And I know that my kids, wherever they go in life, they’re gonna shine, too. They look like they’re doing pretty good.”
Trey is a budding musician. “I’m a music producer,” he said.
“He makes beats,” his mother said.
“I would go and make music after school, so that was kind of like my escape,” he said. “I’m trying to get better at the piano, but, you know, I gotta pay for lessons, so.”
Trey hopes the next mayor brings more arts education into the schools. Trey himself has written numerous songs touching on what it’s like to live in Mattapan, like this one: