Relative to other issues, crime ranks low for many Massachusetts residents in this election year, according to recent surveys. But it is a defining issue for thousands of Boston residents of three neighborhoods -- Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan -- where the vast majority of the city’s violence occurs. Those neighborhoods are intersected by Blue Hill Avenue.
In part two of our special series, “Blue Hill Avenue, If a Street Could Speak”, WGBH senior reporter Phillip Martin looks at how some residents of these neighborhoods are responding to both the reality and the perception of crime.
BOSTON -- One night in Mattapan, a steady drizzle masked real tears of some at a youth candlelight vigil off Blue Hill Avenue. The latest of many religious-inspired demonstrations, it came in the aftermath of one of Boston’s most notorious crimes.
“As we come around this corner and we walk down, we’re going to take a right on Woolson, where they found bodies on the street,” says Matthew Borders, the youth minister at Morning Star Baptist Church. “Innocent lives taken.”
Those lives included a two-year-old toddler and his 21-year-old mother, who were gunned down along with two men and left on the streets like discarded garbage. A fifth victim remains hospitalized in critical condition. A Dorchester has been charged in connection with the quadruple homicides. Borders organized tonight’s vigil.
“Understand that we are under attack. Understand that the weapons that we’re fighting with right now aren’t physical but spiritual,” Borders said.
The figurative war has been joined this evening by young people -- about 100 altogether -- from Mattapan, Dorchester, Roxbury and Milton. They are gathered on the street with 20 or more white congregants from Temple Shalom and the First Parish Unitarian Church. Both houses of worship sit on the other end of Blue Hill Avenue, across River Street, which separates Mattapan from Milton.
Erik Resley is the interim minister of First Parish in Milton, on the other side of that line.
“Coming out here, this is an important experience for our youth. To experience what it means to stand in solidarity with people who might look different than you do and might have very different backgrounds but we are all of one source and we are all fated to one destination,” Resley said.
Haunted By Violence
Our destination now is Dorchester, a sprawling neighborhood along Blue Hill Avenue, which, like Mattapan, has experienced resurgence in homicides this year. Last spring, three children under the age of fourteen were shot and killed on the Dorchester-Roxbury line. One, fourteen-year-old Nicholas Fomby-Davis, was pulled off his scooter, held down, and shot, in cold blood.
Dorchester resident Ruby Blake has had enough.
“We’re in the process of looking for a house. I mean, I hear gunshots when I’m in my house. I have grandsons who are living with me now. I don’t want the youngest one playing outside just because of random shootings,” Blake said.
Blake, a human resources specialist, is described by neighbors as someone willing to tough out most situations. But she’s leaving her Blue Hill Avenue neighborhood for Roslindale.
“We looked at houses a couple of days ago and you could tell. You didn’t see any kids hanging out in the street. Quiet homes. I mean, we drove up it was around six o’clock, almost getting dark,” Blake said.
“There was a back yard, and we wouldn’t be afraid to have my seven-year-old grandson going in the back and play. He can’t go out now and play.“
Ruby Blake’s fears are reflected in a 2008 Boston Police Department survey of public safety, which found that only 43 percent of Bostonians feel their neighborhood is safe. That’s doubly so for residents of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, where less than 25 percent said that they felt safe in their surroundings.
The 'Hood, In Film And Reality
Violence has ebbed a flowed along Blue Hill Avenue since the early 90’s when gangs ran rampant in Boston. In 1990, the National Guard was even called in for a year to patrol Mattapan at the height of the crack epidemicYears later, a movie titled “Blue Hill Avenue” was made to cash in on the street’s newfound notoriety.
“I was no longer a kid. Now I was a gangster,” says one character.
“It’s your new business. What is it? It’s called crack.”
But 28-year-old Losanda Harrison—walking toward Mattapan Square—says real life is not nearly as bad along Blue Hill Avenue as it has been portrayed by the news media.
"If you don’t know the hood, than its dangerous to you. That’s all there is to it. ‘Oh watch out for the hood, don’t go over there.' But if you’re born and raised in the streets, you know what’s what. You know what to look out for. You know what to be aware of. You know how to talk to certain people. You know how to approach certain people, than you cool. But Blue hill Ave, this is my home."
And it's home for thousands of others as well. But many are far less sanguine than Losonda, for one compelling reason: Homicide rates are suddenly up this year in Boston, and 70 percent of them have taken place in the Blue Hill Ave area. And there’s another concern: Prostitution and addiction are on the rise on the Ave between Dudley and Grove Hall in Roxbury.
Pakkies is a neighborhood bar and eating joint known locally for its fried chicken and friendly service. Firefighters and off-duty cops line up here daily for lunch. But, Gina, a waitress, says –- only half-joking -- that “the freaks come out at night."
“Its all kinda things going on. It’s like streetwalkers. It’s like peoples getting ready to go to work gotta run into peoples fighting from all night, doing all kind of sexual things out here and stuff. It’s not good. It’s not a good look. This end of Blue Hill Ave is crazy.”
Carlos Henriquez is familiar with the pattern, too. He’s a community organizer who sits on the board of the non-profit Dudley Street Initiative, a 25-year-old social service agency.
“At sunset, you do see the shift change. You will see negative aspects move into the community. That’s when the prostitution and the drug dealers start to emerge and all the crime that comes with it,” Henriquez said.
Someof the crime, he says, isn’t locally grown. “You know we’re right off of 93 North and South, right off mass Ave so you can jog over to Blue Hill Avenue, find prostitution, and then drive right back out of town,” Henriquez said.
Henriquez is also the Democratic Party nominee for the state legislature representing this area. His platform is simple: Create jobs, fight addiction, reduce crime.
“We need to look at what we do for those who are drug-addicted and alcohol-addicted and we also need to look at how we punish johns who are coming into the city. Things like that that actually deters those crimes.
Henriquez also believes that the city must clean up the streets, literally. He argues that when streets are dirty, or empty lots start to dot a neighborhood, it inevitably leads to serious crime -- the so-called broken windows syndrome. And lately, there are quite a few broken windows in this Roxbury neighborhood.
A city of Boston study found that two thirds of the city’s foreclosures, connected to steep adjustable rate mortgages, were located in Mattapan, Dorchester and Roxbury.
“All this here. That’s why all this around here. This highest concentration of people loosing their houses is right here. Right here in this neighborhood,” says Mark Tucker, a slightly built, light-skinned man with bloodshot eyes is standing on a corner of Blue Hill Ave with friends.
With a bottle in one hand, he points to a boarded up house on a side street and an empty lot a few feet away. Tucker recalls better days.
“I remember when there used to be stores. I used to come up here as a kid. Used to be Jimmy’s ribs over here,” Tucker points to an empty lot. “Look, this one time, this was a playground. That’s been there for five years.”
A weed-strewn field covered in liquor bottles, needles here and there and other items sits naked on the corner.
But for every vacant lot, there seems to be an Alaska Street. The tree-lined road one block south was named in 1999 and 2003 as the cleanest street in the neighborhood. Residents attribute that honor to the sense of community that prevails here. And street workers say whether it is a question of cleaning up empty lots or tackling the much larger issue of crime, that it will, indeed, take a community to get it done.
BLUE HILL AVENUE: IF A STREET COULD SPEAK