The new Combat Zone?

The recent murders in Mattapan only hint at the problems that fester on and around Blue Hill Avenue
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  October 20, 2010


As such savage acts often do, the quadruple homicide in Mattapan this past month lured platoons of journalists to Boston's communities of color. There, they documented the lives and deaths of victims including youth worker Simba Martin, and the subsequentarrestof suspected accomplice Kimani Washington. In their attempt to cover carnage with compassion, reporters and columnists reminded audiences that crack-dealing thugs do not predominate here. Rather, hard-working folks who are terribly concerned about their neighborhoods, and fighting for a better life, are the norm.

But so much sentimental coverage overlooks the larger issue: a significant slice of Boston is under siege, not just from guns and violence, but from drugs, prostitution, and other cancerous epidemics that fuel the tragedies that attract camera crews. The media frenzy misses that big picture, even as it focuses on the crime of the week.

Blue Hill Avenue is the four-mile-long central artery that runs through Boston's black, Latino, and Caribbean neighborhoods. More than 25,000 motorists and countless pedestrians travel it every day. Roughly 70 percent of last year's murders in Boston occurred in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan — much of them in the side streets, parks, and empty lots off and around Blue Hill, where crime, poverty, and unemployment thrive. That despite the presence of nearly two-dozen churches, clean-up efforts by community groups, and periodic strategic police crackdowns. "I'm just waiting for them to change the name to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue," says one fed-up community leader. "That's what they tend to do for the most polluted streets in America's worst ghettos."

Blue Hill Ave has enjoyed vast improvements in the past two decades. Areas along and behind the avenue have benefitted from roughly $500 million in combined private and public investment since 2000 alone, according to Boston's Department of Neighborhood Development. One influential organizer contends the Blue Hill Ave of today is Disneyland compared with the Mattapan of 1990, when the National Guard was dispatched for more than a year to help combat the vicious crack epidemic.

Yet even those who believe that city planners and authorities are making noble development efforts concede that alarming levels of poverty and danger persist. That's largely due to severe social-spending cutbacks in social spending that hammered the nation under George W. Bush — with no relief in sight now, under Barack Obama.

While Mattapan Square is statistically safe and bustles with busy shoppers, the mood shifts as you head northward, away from Milton and into Roxbury. According to Carlos Henriquez, a Dorchester native and Democratic nominee for state legislature, at least one hot pocket has become the new "Combat Zone," where men solicit sex from hookers, and where condoms and hypodermic needles litter streets and sidewalks. One block off the Roxbury end of Blue Hill Ave, residents say a well-known brothel brazenly conducts business despite the outcry of neighbors and sporadic police interference.

Some locals blame Boston officials for a lack of effort. In particular, residents and business owners point to several vacant lots, some partially owned by the city: unlit, overgrown thickets of weeds and rubbish where prostitutes and junkies frolic.

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  Topics: News Features , Boston, Tom Menino, Mattapan,  More more >
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