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The new Combat Zone? The recent murders in Mattapan only hint at the problems that fester on and around Blue Hill Avenue

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.
Amidst mountains of blame cast upon everyone from absentee landlords to police, one undesirable fact persists: the Hub’s blackest avenue is, as a whole, in a dire state. When the National Urban League and Blacks in Government hold their conferences here in 2011, their tours through our minority communities — linked by Blue Hill Ave — will be far from reassuring.
In the past few weeks, the Phoenix has trampled that path to profile the city’s most depressed thoroughfare. We found that traveling Blue Hill Ave, from Dudley Street to Mattapan Square, reveals snapshots not only of the area’s greatest problems — but of its possible solutions.
Prostitutes and junkies congregate in overgrown thickets of weeds and rubbish along Blue Hill Ave.
The Combat ZoneThe prostitutes who work corners between Grove Hall and Dudley Street are not of the Hollywood variety. They don’t sport high heels or fishnet stockings; some are stinking and homeless, having succumbed to battles with drug addiction and insanity. Oftentimes veteran streetwalkers operate without pimps, and many wait at bus stops for hours until johns materialize, rather than approaching vehicles like hookers do on television.
This is the Mattapan section that Henriquez dubbed the new “Combat Zone,” in reference to how prostitutes migrated here after Chinatown cleaned up in the early ’90s. Undercover BPD officers have run concentrated crackdowns for years and arrested johns, including a Boston firefighter and the husband of a former Dorchester state representative. Still, such police operations are extremely costly, and have waned under current budget constraints. As a result, more than a dozen vacant lots serve as degenerate playgrounds for loiterers.
“We should be investing in more venues and organizations here,” says Jorge Martinez, executive director of the Blue Hill Ave–based Project RIGHT (“Rebuild and Improve Grove Hall Together”). A tireless citizens’ advocate, Martinez and his co-workers address everything from drug rehabilitation to small-business and residential development. “The only problem is that we still haven’t figured out what to do with a lot of those lots. That’s where we’re stuck — it’s not the city, it’s us. . . . The rush to develop something to show that we’re okay is not good enough anymore. This is not about mortar and brick — this is about human development and building c
Despite the blight, a few roses have bloomed from “Combat Zone” concrete. On the southern side, just blocks away from the $13.5 million Grove Hall retail “Mecca,” a complex featuring shops and community space plus 48 new affordable senior-housing units is nearing completion. Alaska Street, on the northern end, is among the most picturesque Victorian blocks in Boston, recently placing in United Way’s Cleanest Street competition. In the middle of it all, the popular, Big Papi–frequented Dominican dining destination Merengue, which, along with the sometimes-troubled Breezeway Bar & Grill across the street, is a sort of oasis.
According to Martinez and likeminded doers, it’s up to all parties, from home and shop owners to renters and patrons, to constantly communicate about effective anti-crime strategies and looming dangers.
“When I opened [in 1996], at that time there were only two businesses around here,” says Merengue owner Hector Pina. Among the area’s most vocal proprietors, Pina keeps his sidewalk tidy and under surveillance, and encourages his neighbors to do the same. The City of Boston also recently secured funds to install cameras at various storefronts near this and other high-crime hot spots. “Things have definitely improved,” continues Pina, “but we can get it better. This is proof that we can have nice establishments in this part of the city. A lot of people don’t expect to find this kind of restaurant here. They walk in and they’re just blown away.”
A curbside memorial outside of 40 Woolson Street, near where four people were found shot to death on September 28.
The War ZoneDespite the fortified presence of the B-3 police precinct and an increasing number of restaurants and service businesses, the cross-hairs of Morton Street and Blue Hill Ave aren’t pretty. Addicts panhandle at the corner gas station, and gunshots ring out on a recurring basis. In the immediate vicinity of Woolson Street, where the so-called “Mattapan Massacre” went down, there have been more than a dozen attempted homicides since the raucous early ’90s.
In the middle of it all, the 78-year-old Chez Vous roller rink has been routinely plagued by violence, including a shootout in 1994 that left seven injured, and a fatal stabbing outside that same year. Though the business is located directly across Rhoades Street from the B-3 police station, Chez Vous owners are currently being held to task for a non-fatal August 20 melee that took place down the street from the facility. Owner Greer Toney charges that the BPD refuses to assist with security; police say Toney should take more responsibility. For the most part, nobody wants to see the rink close, because even with occasional episodes, it offers one of the few non-church refuges for area teens.
Kids in this neck of Mattapan need sanctuaries. While news trucks camped outside of the crime scene on Woolson Street — and as some reporters crashed the funerals of victims against the wishes of relatives — most media failed to report a subsequent shooting that occurred just blocks away on Deering Road. Similarly, there was little noise made about the fact that, exactly one month prior to the quadruple homicide, on the day of the Boston Carnival, three men were shot and killed in Mattapan, while another was found riddled with bullets in the house directly next door to where the four victims were found on September 28.
“The neighborhood does not look well,” says Pastor Bruce Wall of Global Ministries in Codman Square. A perennial contrarian, Wall called for Mayor Tom Menino’s resignation following the Woolson Street incident, and believes authorities are remiss in their duty to effectively patrol problem patches including those near where Morton Street meets Blue Hill Ave. “A lot of things around here are just simply being neglected. There’s a lot of talk about a lot of middle-class black folks getting ready to leave town, and from what I gather, in many cases it’s not just talk.”
Mattapan Square, though hardly the hamlet that is neighboring Milton, bustles with commerce on most days.
The Comfort ZoneWhile south Mattapan is markedly more proletariat than lush Milton, where Governor Deval Patrick lives just a few miles away, it’s also home to one of the most promising, busiest squares outside of downtown, with swarms of mostly black and Caribbean consumers rushing in and out of chain stores, independent shops, and restaurants.
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.”
CloserIn 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 organizati
on 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.”
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.
“There’s still work to be done in that corridor, and there are still vacant lots — some of which [the city] does own, and some of which we don’t,” says Evelyn Friedman, the city’s chief of housing. Friedman says the mayor is dedicated to helping transform the rest of Blue Hill Ave to be more similar to Mattapan Square.
“That’s a major thoroughfare for the city,” she says, “and we want to make sure that it’s as bustling as many residents remember that it used to be many years ago. . . . We don’t feel like we’re done, but considering how long development takes, I’d say we’ve come quite a long way.”
Nevertheless, there remains a widespread sense of urgency among many residents, business owners, and elected officials. Regardless of what plans are in the oven, or what kind of subsidies might trickle into Mattapan and Roxbury in the near future, for the time being there’s a red-light district on Blue Hill Ave, while petty gang warfare continues to claim the lives of wayward young men, innocent bystanders, and, in the case of the Woolson Street execution, a mother and her two-year-old child.
“I have to think about these things every day,” says Henriquez, who says he has been robbed three times within blocks of his home. “These awful things unfold every day right in front of my face — and I’m the Democratic nominee for state representative around here.”
Chris Faraone can be reached at cfaraone@phx.com.

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  1. Joesmith

    “The neighborhood does not look well,” says Pastor Bruce Wall of Global Ministries in Codman Square. A perennial contrarian, Wall called for Mayor Tom Menino’s resignation following the Woolson Street incident, and believes authorities are remiss in their duty to effectively patrol problem patches including those near where Morton Street meets Blue Hill Ave. “A lot of things around here are just simply being neglected. There’s a lot of talk about a lot of middle-class black folks getting ready to leave town, and from what I gather, in many cases it’s not just talk.”……………….BLAME THE WHITE MAN OF COURSE……haven’t seen too many white people killing blacks , but I see blacks killing blacks…

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