Boston — This is the tale of a street named Fuller.
In many ways, you couldn't find a more typical lower-middle-class neighborhood on the urban fringe of Boston -- or on any urban fringe in America, for that matter:
Aging but sturdily built wood-frame houses on modest lots; tight-squeeze driveways; quaint screened front porches and three-story pillared balconies; stone steps and sidewalks, sunken and cracked in spots, but still working perfectly well.
And to say ''melting pot'' of this mixed neighborhood would be gross understatement. Walking along the 100 block alone you will meet: blacks (now a majority); Asians of Japanese ancestry; Caribbeans from Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad; Europeans of Italian, Polish, and German descent; French Canadians; whites of Anglo-Saxon and Irish heritage; Protestants, Catholics, Jews.
But ever since last September the residents of Fuller Street's 100 block have shared an obsession of sorts:
Hit with police cutbacks at a time when break-ins, muggings, and crime were on the rise, they began holding neighborhood powwows every two weeks. Now they think they've found the quintessential formula to put crime on the run in their community.
But that was only the beginning. The whole process turned up some totally unexpected fallout that has been transforming Fuller Street life ever since. The odd jumble of neighbors - most of whom saw each other only at a distance without ever getting past the ''hello'' stage -- discovered that they live among very interesting people. In fact, downright likable people. No one, but no one on Fuller Street would have passed up this block association for anything. But that's getting ahead of the story.
It began one cool Saturday afternoon last September. Deborah Persen was starting to build a fire in her living room when she heard a taxi horn, and looked out the window.Three young men in their late teens were casually traipsing in and out of the house across the street, bringing items out to a waiting taxi.
The whole thing looked very incongruous indeed.
''Nobody who lives over there ever goes by cab,'' she thought to herself. ''They all have their own cars.'' All of a sudden she remembered the day her own house was cleaned out by burglars in a moving van. She burst out of her house in slippers and housecoat, and told the cabdriver: ''These guys do not live in this house; they're robbing those people. Don't let them get away with that!''
One of the young thieves countered: ''Hey lady, you're black. You shouldn't defend white people. Don't listen to her. She doesn't know what she's talking about.''
Planting herself in front of the cab, Deborah refused to move.
Several heated exchanges later, the frustrated young men grabbed a camera and some small change, and fled, leaving the larger loot behind.
''That incident was the straw that broke the camel's back,'' recalls Jan Selcer, who rents an apartment in the house. ''It was just one break-in too many , not to mention the sheer arrogance of it all. Our whole block was instantly organized.''
In fact, in a few short months, inspired by Deborah Person's heroism, Fuller Street's new block association has turned into a veritable institution. At bimonthly business and social meetings residents designed inter-neighbor communication networks and established mutual house-watching arrangements. Families have made it a point to get to know each other. Everyone knows everyone else's phone number. Official block association stickers on door windows warn any would-be thief he is playing with fire (that is, with the collective wrath of people who are watching what's going on around them).
Each neighbor also carries a shrill whistle that he or she blows at the first sign of anything suspicious. When a whistle sounds, the police are called and neighbors pour into the street (some keep old baseball bats on hand for the occasion). Meticulous records are kept of all break-ins, patterns of crime are analyzed, and neighbors briefed on what it all means for them.
If crime hasn't been totally halted by all this watchdogging, the Fuller Street block association (now the United Neighbors of Fuller St.) can claim the credit in at least two impressive instances of stopping attempted burglaries.
In one case, several young men were spotted trying to break into a home using crowbars. Within seconds, three different calls reached the police. Police cruisers roared to the scene. The cowed burglars fled in disarray, unable to even get inside the door.
Another time, a woman on the block saw a break-in at a house across her backyard. She phoned neighbors, came out of her house blowing her whistle, and managed to send the looters running. She then called the police and the two suspects were apprehended.
Not a bad beginning, if Fuller's folks do say so themselves.
To find out more about the extraordinary people on this otherwise very ordinary street, this reporter dropped in unannounced at a block association meeting held at the comfortable, loft-level quarters of Steve D'Amico. On this particular night the Fuller Street neighbors were meeting not so much for business as to celebrate their existence. All seemed well-stocked with cheer befitting the occasion. Family after family - black, white, Asian - popped in with gift-wrapped door prizes, baked goodies, and family specialties tucked under their arms as if to provide for relatives they hadn't seen in years.
There is hardly time to sit amid the ''relatives'' before Amelia Sacco appears holding a pan of aromatic pizza snacks fresh out of the oven. She insists that there be no leftovers. An exuberant youth snatches one and joins his friends grouped around a home video game rented for the evening.
Sitting nearest the door is Eleanor Kaszubski. A pleasant, rosy cheeked, cherub-faced woman with a jolly laugh, stylish gold-tinted hairdo, gold earrings , gold-framed square-lensed glasses, and a gold tooth. She speaks with a heavy Polish accent. It's been 18 years since she moved to Fuller Street after emigrating from Poland. Like her neighbors, she is breathing easier in recent months.
''You don't understand until you see the crime happening to you,'' she says.Some months ago on her day off Eleanor was at home and had gone outside to hang up her laundry. She thought nothing of a young man walking up the street, his eyes sweeping by the house.
''After going around the front to get mail from the mailman,'' she says, ''I went back into the house. I heard something downstairs, and thought it must be my husband come home early from work. 'Joe?' I said, 'Is that you?' No answer. When I went back outside, I saw that young fellow -- he stood right in front of me. And he said, 'Miss, did you see my German shepherd puppy?' I said, 'No. But where do you come from?' He said, 'Fairmont Street,' and went off.
''After my husband came home, I went to my pocketbook for money to go shopping. The wallet was gone. The boy had grabbed it, gone down the basement and come out the front of the house just before I did - but I didn't even know it at the time.''
Her face brightens again as she lauds her block association:
''Most everybody here works hard and comes home, and you're tired,'' she says. ''But still, you want to come here anyway, get out of the house and see the people. Since this started, people really care about each other, instead of saying, 'I don't want to get involved.' I carry my whistle all the time.''
Amelia Sacco returns with a new plate of hors d'oeuvres. Another face appears at the front door. ''Hey, glad you could make it,'' says host Steve D'Amico, going to help the newcomers in. The energetic, curly haired community organizer in his blue crew-neck sweater, round wire-rimmed glasses, and tennis shoes appears to be sailing high on the crest of Fuller's new-found euphoria.
''I got a call from a woman on Morris Street last weekend,'' he says. ''They're excited about what we're doing, planning their own meeting this week, and want to get together with us. The people on Fairmont and Wilmington are organizing. We're expecting more streets to get something going by the spring.''
''We're also pressing for better community services,'' he adds. ''Our streets didn't get plowed in the recent storm, for instance, and I started calling up people. We called the local TV, the Department of Public Works, and decided that if the street were not plowed in a couple of days, we would get more and more people to call. After about 15 or 16 people called and gave 'em heck, we finally got plowed and salted.''
Jan Selcer, also very much relieved by the now-famous ''taxi burglar'' incident, eases into the conversation. ''You know, the thing that's so amazing about this is that this could take hold in a city like Boston.
''All we used to hear about was how bad the racism is here. After a while that's what you expect. People feel like they can't talk to each other. But I'm really moved by this association. Since I came here to Fuller Street, all my contact with people has totally disproved that. It makes you feel like you can really belong here.''
Denise Macklin, a young, black schoolteacher and mother who lives up the street, agrees.
''We're in this together,'' she says. ''I've lived here four or five years now. We never really knew anyone. People used to say, 'So your house was broken into; it didn't happen to me, so I don't care.' But at these meetings we talk to each other about what happens. We're concerned. We sympathize with each other. We've found ways to do something about it. Now we can say 'Hi' to each other and really mean it.
''In some ways, blacks here were despairing more over crime than whites. In fact, they had started to give up on the police for protection, says Denise Macklin.
If a white woman is being harassed by a black, she says, the police show up immediately. But when it's a black woman, forget it. And now that the local police station has been closed due to cuts in the city budget, police cars usually have to be dispatched from Roxbury, all the way across town.
Longtime residents say it has only been in the past 10 years or so that crime has become such a problem here. Some blame youth unemployment, others point to drug use and stealing for kicks. But everyone feels Fuller Street has turned the corner on crime now.
''I feel much much safer now,'' says Amelia Sacco, a petite, bouyant seamstress who has lived here for 31 years. ''I feel that people will really help each other,'' she says.
If one had any doubts about the affection these neighbors have for one another, they are dispelled at night's end, when the party gathers in the living room for the grand presentation of door prizes.
''Quiet everybody,'' says D'Amico, who has been circulating numbered tickets. Denise reaches into a bag to draw the first winner.
''Now listen to the teacher,'' a voice chimes in from somewhere on a very crowded sofa.
''The first winner is number 0600153.''
''I got it!'' says Joel Schwartz, who seizes his door prize like a trophy. Cheers go up to the ceiling.
''That's me!'' cries a small voice from the group around the video game and two small hands unwrap a houseplant obviously meant for some more appreciative recipient. Again, the high-decibel cheers go up.
The next drawing brings a young woman a new water-saving shower head.
''Hey, that can save you $50 a month on your hot-water bills,'' says a neighbor. ''That's $50 in her pocket.
''A consensus surfaces: A toast! Let's have a toast to the block club!
Joel Schwartz stands.''I'm pretty new here, having just moved into the city to this street. But I'd just like to say that this block club has made a real difference to me. The street really feels like a neighborhood - these are my neighbors.
''When I walk down the street to do errands or go to the store, I actually look forward to it, because I think, hey, I'll run into somebody I know here. And that's on top of feeling so much safer, and knowing my house is a whole lot safer than before. I'm looking forward to the things that we can accomplish now that we're together. There's probably no limit.''