The new Combat Zone?

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  October 20, 2010

Thanks to what residents and organizers say is City Councilor Charles Yancey's knack for applying pressure on municipal decision makers, the area continues to attract new businesses; on a recent weekend, owners of a new barbershop barbecued out front, offering hot dogs to passersby. At nearby Almont Park, island neighbors play cricket on Saturdays, while up a bit is Kay's Oasis, a legendary reggae venue and the only nightclub on the Blue Hill strip. Violence is not unheard-of in and around Mattapan Square — three men were stabbed during a March bar brawl at the Avenue Tavern — but on most days double parking is the worst problem facing shoppers.

"Mattapan Square is different because the Afro-Caribbean community is about the business of making things happen," says Horace Small, executive director of the Jamaica Plain–based Union of Minority Neighborhoods. "In addition to Councilor Yancey, I believe it has everything to do with people like [Haitian-American activist, radio host, and recent City Council candidate] Jean-Claude Sanon. They prove that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. . . . As for the rest of Blue Hill Avenue, it's symptomatic of the lack of power that the black community has here. If you want to look at the level of dedication that the mayor and governor have to these areas, all you have to do is take a good look around."

Closer
In 2010, optimists and pessimists see two very different versions of Blue Hill Ave. There's the avenue of progress compared to years past: in 1993, the city owned 91 vacant parcels and 25 buildings along the four-mile stretch, while today they control just 21 parcels and two buildings. Less-hopeful activists, however, cite the difference between Blue Hill Ave and its whiter counterparts, from Roslindale to Back Bay. The two sides, while they don't always agree on methodology, essentially want the same outcome: safe and prosperous neighborhoods united among communities that reflect the area's rich ethnic diversity. They also both present strong cases to support their claims.

As a sign of light, the optimistic Martinez points to the Multi-Unit Housing Initiative that Project RIGHT orchestrates. By convening owners, renters, landlords, security companies, and other relevant parties for monthly meetings, his organization has succeeded in opening lines of communication all along Blue Hill Ave. This effort is critical, many say, for preventing criminals from simply relocating a few blocks down when their turf comes under heightened scrutiny.

"Years ago, you had these isolated fiefdoms," says Martinez. "For example, the cops and multi-service centers didn't used to communicate with each other, and now they do. Also, folks from the political world used to tell one group of people around here one thing, and then turn around and tell another group another thing. Now they can't do that. There's information going back and forth. . . . Of course we need more officers on the street, but I think that our relationship with the police is pretty decent considering that it was nonexistent 10 or 15 years ago."

1010_alaska-main
Alaska Street is among Boston’s most picturesque blocks, recently placing in United Way’s Cleanest Street competition.

Spokespeople from the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Department of Neighborhood Development identify hopeful trends in housing and economic stimulus, as well as basic infrastructural upkeep including the recent repaving of large sections of Blue Hill Ave. In the past 10 years, in surrounding Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, the city has created and preserved more than 1600 housing units, assisted nearly 1500 homeowners with purchasing and repairs, and lent financial and technical assistance to more than 100 area businesses.

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