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When activists win: the renaissance of Dudley St.

The neighborhood surrounding Dudley Street, an avenue winding through Boston's Roxbury district, is one of the poorest in Massachusetts, with per capita income half that of Boston as a whole and unemployment at least twice as high. Thirty-five percent of families live below the poverty line, and it's not hard to spot crack dealers slinking past shabby apartment buildings on the side streets. But you also see giggling kids walking home from school, old ladies tending flower patches in their side yards and neighbors chatting over fences behind tidy white wood-frame houses. The town common hosts a farmer's market and a bandstand.

Nearby is Davey's Market, which serves as a gathering spot for anyone seeking the latest neighborhood news. Conversations may be in Spanish, Cape Verdean or the melodious accents of the Caribbean, but you still sense something of the idealized America found on Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers.

What's going on here? The answer can be found just down the street from Davey's Market in the cramped storefront office of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (D.S.N.I.). During the afternoon, it stands in for the corner soda fountain as kids wander in to say hello and see who else might be around. The busy staff usually finds time to talk and joke with them, and when there really is a reason for the kids' visit, they listen carefully. One afternoon when I was there, Ros Everdell, a D.S.N.I. organizer, counseled 16-year-old Jason Webb about an algebra class with no regular teacher. "Get all the kids in the class to go with you and say you need a real teacher, and that you need to make up all the material you've already missed."

The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative has been at work in this corner of Roxbury since 1985, pursuing local residents' vision of their community as a safe, lively and close-knit urban village. Dudley Street residents will tell you they've seen significant changes in their neighborhood, achieved against considerable odds. "It's been slow," says Olivio Teixera, co-owner of the Ideal Sub Shop right on Dudley Street, "but that's because it's big work. It's so much nicer around here now."

Besides the usual problems of inner-city neighbor hoods--poverty, redlining, unemployment, racism, inadequate public services, pollution, poor schools, crime, drugs, neglect by government officials--Dudley Street has faced some unique challenges. Many landlords in the neighborhood had reacted to plummeting property values by torching their houses for the insurance money, killing several people and leaving the area pockmarked with vacant land. More than 20 percent of the lots in the one-and-a-half-square-mile Dudley Street neighborhood were empty. These soon became dumping grounds, not only for midnight drop-offs of old refrigerators and construction debris but for illegal garbage transfer stations that operated in the light of day. The neighborhood also had to overcome problems associated with an ethnically fragmented population, including many immigrants with a limited command of English.

African-Americans make up 40 percent of the neighborhood's 24,000 residents, with Latin Americans, mostly from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, at 30 percent. Cape Verdeans, from islands off the coast of West Africa that were a Portuguese colony until 1975, account for another 24 percent of the population, and whites, mostly elderly Irish and Italians who've lived here since the fifties, make up 6 percent.

The revitalization of Dudley Street began when La Alianza Hispana, a local social service agency, interested a small Bostonbased trust in taking on the neighborhood as a major program. But when the Riley Foundation unveiled its plans at a community meeting in St. Patrick's Catholic Church on Dudley Street, it was greeted with skepticism. Distrust of outsiders ran strong in Dudley Street because many residents had been forced out of the adjacent South End neighborhood in the seventies by city-sponsored gentrification. Only a few seats on the proposed twenty-three-member board were slated for residents. Che Madyun, a mother of three with a background in the performing arts and a commanding presence, stood up, stared straight at the assembled panel of redevelopment experts and, as she recalls, "I asked how many of the people up there lived in the neighborhood. Not one. And then I asked, How can you say the residents are going to be represented when there are only three of us on the board?" Other voices quickly joined her. Robert Holmes, a trustee of the Riley Foundation and an attorney with the prestigious downtown Boston law firm of Warner and Stackpole, remembers: "she scared the daylights out of me. I was looking at the door at the back of the room, thinking about how do I leave."

Reeling from its reception at the meeting, the Riley Foundation decided to fund improvements in the Dudley Street neighborhood without maintaining direct control of the project--a show of support rarely seen in philanthropic circles. "We allowed the neighborhood process to happen on its own," Holmes says. "Some people thought we were crazy. They thought we were throwing away our grant money." Residents made up a majority on the D.S.N.I. board and were joined by representatives from area social service agencies, churches and businesses. The board then hired Peter Medoff, a savvy community organizer who had grown up in Boston, to head the project. Medoff, firmly committed to residents controlling the process yet with surprisingly good contacts at City Hall, proved an excellent choice. Emphasizing that D.S.N.I.'s foremost goal was organizing the neighborhood as a political force rather than becoming another developer of low-income housing or broker of social services, he and the board launched several campaigns that resulted in immediate success: restoring rail service to an abandoned commuter train stop on the edge of the neighborhood and improving safety conditions at the hazardous intersection of Dudley Street and Blue Hill Avenue. By setting achievable goals, D.S.N.I. kept the level of participation high even though the bigger things like getting the dumps out of Dudley Street and providing affordable housing were slow in coming.

The organization's active membership has grown steadily over the past decade, and now numbers 2,500. Its biggest accomplishment has been imbuing Dudley Street residents with the sense that things are looking up. From the start, the group's members devoted considerable time and energy to envisioning what they wanted for Dudley Street. More than 150 people met to plot out the future of their neighborhood in an eight-month series of meetings that were conducted in Spanish and Cape Verdean as well as English. They came up with a wideranging plan that emphasized building community spirit as much as erecting new houses. Bike paths, apple orchards, outdoor cafes, community gardens, fountains, art programs and a town common with concerts were identified as goals alongside pressing economic needs like jobs.

"The only way to make things happen is to dream," explains Gertrudes Fidalgo, who participated in the original visioning process as a youngster and became a D.S.N.I. organizer after college. "Dreams are your best resource." This visioning process has gone on for ten years, and results from the latest round are taped to the wall in D.S.N.I.'s conference room, testifying to people's powerful yearning for community--and ice cream. An ice cream parlor figures in many of the scenarios of Dudley Street's future that were jotted down on big sheets of paper, along with dreams like this: "People Walking. People Talking. People Laughing. Saying Hello to Everyone We Meet." Another reads: "I want affordable housing and schools with beautiful green playgrounds."

"A lot of these urban programs do only housing," notes Gus Newport, the former Berkeley, California, mayor who succeeded Medoffas executive director of D.S.N.I. from 1988 to 1992. "I think planners take it for granted that poor people don't need culture, vital businesses or beauty. If you had those things in inner cities, you'd have a lot less crime. You have to get inside the heads of people who live here, see what they want. They want more than houses. Beauty--no matter how small it is, just a few flowers--is what matters most."

Newport, who now lectures and consults on urban issues around the country and is still involved with D.S.N.I., notes that the concept of urban villages has become fashionable recently among progressive architects and planners. "But these people didn't get the idea from academics," he says. "What you have here are a lot of people who grew up in the rural South and the Cape Verde Islands and the Caribbean. They want to work with the land. They want open spaces for kids to play in. They don't want to live in tall buildings. They want to know their neighbors. They understood all by themselves that they wanted to get back to the village."

Standing in the way of these dreams of a thriving urban village, however, have been some very real problems, beginning with dozens of wrecked cars abandoned on the neighborhood's streets each week and regular shipments of other people's garbage, including rotten meat. "You had to hold your nose when you drove down the road," remembers Che Madyun, who became D.S.N.I.'s board president in 1986. "It was terrible." Madyun and Medoff guided the Don't Dump on Us campaign, which strong-armed Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn to do something about all the illegal dumping. Flynn, who had campaigned for mayor against African-American activist Mel King as a populist representative of Boston's neighborhoods in 1983 but had virtually no support in minority communities, was looking for ways to boost his popularity in Roxbury. He immediately saw the political advantages of siding with a scrappy neighborhood group and offered some city resources to assist D.S.N.I., going so far as helping Madyun padlock the gates of one illegal garbage transfer station before rolling TV cameras. "People were galvanized in seeing that they could change things," remembers Ros Everdell.

The next question was what to do with the empty land. The city had acquired about half of it through tax delinquency and, after some prodding, Flynn agreed to deed it over to D.S.N.I. The rest, however, was owned by individuals, among them real estate speculators, who hoped that some giant urban renewal scheme would net them a handsome profit. Redevelopment plans were hindered by the checkerboard pattern of land ownership. D.S.N.I. then decided to boldly go where no community group has ever gone before, to undertake a controversial move: eminent domain.

This is the legal tool that has been used to devastate many urban neighborhoods, where people are forced to sell their homes and businesses to make way for freeways, convention centers and other megaprojects. Could it be used to help rebuild a neighborhood? After convincing City Hall to grant it that power and four years of challenges in courts, D.S.N.I. gained the right to buy any empty land in the neighborhood.

The time tied up in court wasn't wasted because the organization still needed to come up with funding to buy the land. The Riley Foundation's support of D.S.N.I. has been limited, amounting to $1.4 million through the years. (Riley contributed more than $1.5 million to social service agencies in the neighborhood as well as making arrangements for considerable pro bono legal work on the eminent domain case and other matters.) Other local and national foundations have contributed smaller amounts. But it would take a sizable chunk of cash to purchase the land. Since banks and other conventional lenders steer clear of projects like this in poor neighborhoods, finding the money was a formidable task. Finally, the Ford Foundation agreed to make a $2 million loan.

Besides working to build affordable housing, D.S.N.I. has I been busy with numerous other projects and partnerships. I An annual neighborhood cleanup was launched, dozens of community gardens planted and a multicultural festival and J a network for family daycare providers established. When drug dealers set up shop at the playgrounds in Mary Hannon Park, the community retook the park by establishing regular youth activities and sports programs. Working with planning professionals, residents translated the ideas of a sociable, walkable urban village into a master plan that was accepted by the city. More than 300 units of housing in the area have been rehabbed. A special effort was made to draw young people into the project, including designating youth seats on the board and bringing on a special organizer. State and municipal money was secured to construct the lovely town common, which opened last June, and plans are under way to remodel an old municipal building into a community center. Renovations for the nearby Orchard Park public housing project (childhood home of soul singer Bobby Brown) have been announced by the Boston Housing Authority, with much of the money coming from Washington. Playgrounds will be built by the authority for residents of the

In "What Works?", a new feature that examines project making a positive difference in people's lives, Jay Walljasper, former editor of Utne Reader, will report on what can learn from these political organizations, programs and policies. development, and an old cabinet factory on Dudley Street was acquired and will eventually house D.S.N.I., along with a new charter school and a small furniture manufacturer.

Leveraging money from municipal, state and federal authorities as well as foundations has been a key ingredient of D.S.N.I.'s success. Starting with Medoff, who had critical ties into City Hall, and then Newport, who had a national reputation as an urban advocate, on through current director Greg Watson, who served as Commissioner of Agriculture under Michael Dukakis and current Republican Governor William Weld, the organization has made the most of its political and philanthropic connections.

Winning a few early campaigns and publicizing them also positioned Dudley Street as a "success story." Foundation officials, politicians and government agencies--weary of what felt like the intractable problems of urban ghettos--were more than eager to join enthusiastic inner-city residents on what looked to be a winning team. Newport says, "Once you have people who are positive and working toward a goal themselves, then it's easy to get pro bono services and other kinds of support. Make things happen in the neighborhood and you can make things happen other places, too."

D.S.N.I. also got involved with some projects outside the Dudley Street area, joining protests against redlining by Boston banks and sponsoring regular classes for groups who wanted to rehab apartment buildings and low-income people who wanted to buy houses. One of the people signing up for the home-buying class was Debra Wilson, a 39-year-old caseworker for the welfare department. That's how she heard about Dudley Street's Winthrop Estates, which comprises the first thirty-eight of 225 new housing units rising from what was vacant land. Wilson now lives there with her two teenage sons and grandmother. Walking me through her town house, which is modeled on traditional New England houses with clapboard-style siding and a bay window that looks out on one of the new parks, she says, "When I first came here it was all overgrown with weeds, old tires, abandoned cars everywhere. I couldn't imagine this as a neighborhood like it is now. It still surprises me."

Winthrop Estates was developed by D.S.N.I. with funding from various foundations and government programs. The houses can be bought by families with incomes as low as $18,000, in part because the land is owned by a trust. The adjacent Stafford Heights development offers co-ops for families with incomes as low as $15,000. Although only three years old, these houses already feel like a rooted neighborhood, and not just because of newly fashionable old-fashioned touches like front porches and wooden columns at the doorways. Winthrop Estates and Stafford Heights avoid the suburban look of many urban redevelopment projects by emphasizing classic city features like sidewalks, compact lots and narrow streets. Because residents guided the planning process, the usual cookie-cutter subdivision designs were tossed out in favor of plans that fit their vision of an urban village. You see kids racing in front of the houses and hear folks calling out to one another.

The new neighborhood has already pulled together several times to deal with problems in the area: a nearby crack house, speeding drivers, noise from a twenty-four-hour gas station. Thanks to prodding from residents, police drove the crack dealers out. In response to residents' petitions, the city made several streets one-way to discourage drivers from taking shortcuts through the neighborhood. And picketing pressured the gas station owner to quiet his customers. "All of us here realized that this is the first time we had ever spoken up," Wilson says. "We didn't know things could change."

Wilson is involved with a D.S.N.I. committee promoting economic development. "We just had a meeting about what we wanted on the Main Street. In two or three years we'll see the businesses coming back--places to eat outside, a bakery, restaurants where you can take the family."

Promoting small businesses is one of the strategies adopted by residents to increase employment in Dudley Street. So far the construction and rehabbing projects have provided a few jobs for local people, and the reopening of the commuter rail stop provided better access to opportunities downtown, but economic development has lagged behind other D.S.N.I. goals. "It's a much tougher nut to crack," admits D.S.N.I. organizer Everdell. "The answer is not just jobs in the neighborhood but all over the metro area."

So what is it that's brought a new sense of hope to a place whose poverty and deterioration once marked it as a lost cause in the eyes of city officials and even many residents? "There's a tremendous core here, it's not just two or three heroic people," explains journalist Holly Sklar, author, with Peter Medoff(who died in 1994), of a history of the Dudley Street project, Streets of Hope (South End Press). She adds that D.S.N.I.'s efforts were effective because they transcended racial and ethnic differences and reached out to young people. "The foundations and government agencies became partners, not patrons," she says. "And the residents are really the leaders."

But Sklar goes on to offer a cautionary note: "Some people will say this shows you don't need government programs. If every neighborhood was just good enough, we wouldn't need government. But you can't duplicate this around the nation on the basis of foundation money. There's millions of dollars of federal, state and municipal money here. You can't do this instead of changing U.S. policies, instead of raising the minimum wage, instead of full employment policies, instead of improving the educational system. No village is an island. Even here they're going to be hit hard because of changes in the welfare bill and the immigration bill."

Dudley Street's significance as a symbol of hope for America's hard-hit urban neighborhoods is not that it represents a magic way to mend problems without spending taxpayers' money. Rather it points to what can be done to make sure that both public and private money invested in low-income areas truly makes a difference in people's lives. Much of the backlash against social spending in inner cities stems from middle-class people's doubts that it does any good. Billions of dollars have streamed into ghettos since the sixties, and poverty and hopelessness persist. The most important message from Dudley Street is that conditions in inner-city neighborhoods can actually improve if revitalization efforts inspire the enthusiastic involvement of people who live there.

Urban revitalization plans are usually cooked up in a foundation office or government agency, and then neighborhood residents are invited to participate in the process--almost as an afterthought. Because many inner-city residents are poor, undereducated, immigrants, minorities or plain out-of-luck, some planners assume they have little to offer. Yet, in one sense, they are the real experts on inner-city life. Gus Newport notes, "This doesn't mean that you can't use professionals. But you must remember that community people know a lot. Here in Dudley Street, they looked over everything that came from the planners and analyzed it. They asked a lot of good questions and offered a lot of good ideas."

Politicians go on about 'personal responsibility" as the key for inner-city residents in turning around their lives. The success of Dudley Street proves this true, but not in exactly the sense that Bill Clinton or William Weld means it. Because residents were in complete charge of the planning process for D.S.N.I., they assumed responsibility for where the neighborhood was headed and they tapped unrecognized resources. Local teenagers, for instance, volunteered to help the architects on designs for housing. Che Madyun and a number of other residents proved to be talented leaders.

This would never have happened with a top-down project, even a more lavishly funded one. Some housing might have been built and some services provided, but there would have been no boost for the neighborhood's sense of itself. As a result of this experience, folks in Dudley Street began to view politics differently: as a way to get things done, not just as something that does things to them. That, as much as the foundation and government money, made a difference in this corner of Roxbury.

Of course, Dudley Street is not safe from the storms of federal policy and the global economy. What happens in Washington and Wall Street directly affects this neighborhood. But the lasting impact of a project like D.S.N.I. is that it strengthens the neighborhood's ability to withstand such assaults. They have more resources to figure out how to deal with the effects of the draconian welfare bill and anti-immigrant legislation. These policies will hurt people on Dudley Street, but not as much as they would if D.S.N.I. wasn't there. Community-based organizing is not a substitute for the hard political work of pulling America back from its rightward course. But the success of this project strengthens the case for progressive policies by showing that public concern and taxpayer money can make a real difference.

There are unique elements of Dudley Street's story that limit its applicability to other urban neighborhoods--empty land strewn with garbage but also providing a catalyst for redevelopment, immigrants struggling with language skills but still enjoying the strengths of extended families, a local foundation willing to invest in a neighborhood rather than just a project. But the overriding theme of Dudley Street applies anywhere: The people living in a neighborhood were called on to make the decisions about its future. And they responded with enthusiasm, outrage, hope, creativity, patience and lots of energy.

A documentary, by Leah Mahan and Mark Lipman, Holding Ground: The Rebirth of Dudley Street, will be aired on public television stations across the country beginning in mid-May.
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Title Annotation:Boston, Massachusetts
Author:Walljasper, Jay
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 3, 1997
Words:3849
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