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A Neighborhood Starts to Recover From Decline

Residents of all races, religions, and ages work together to rebuild Roxbury, Mass.

By Elizabeth Levitan SpaidStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 21, 1994


JESSE FARRIER, Mildred Daniels, and other longtime residents of Roxbury, Mass., nostalgically remember when their community was a thriving one with stores of all kinds, good schools, and well-kept houses and gardens.

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``There was a drugstore on every corner, bakeries; you could buy anything,'' reminisces Sophia McCarthy who has lived here for 60 years.

But in the 1950s, this neighborhood that sits nearly forgotten just outside the shadow of Boston's sleek skyscrapers, began to slowly decline until it became an urban wasteland. It's a story that was repeated in many other cities across the country: As whites left the inner city and minorities moved in, banks, government mortgage programs, and insurance companies began redlining the area. Homes were burned, city services became scarce, and streets and empty lots were used as dumping grounds for everything from tires to refrigerators to sides of beef.

``It was just living hell for so many years,'' says Paul Bothwell, who moved here in 1974 to help establish several churches. ``The community was broken, dismembered.... There was not a breath of hope.''

Today there's no short supply of hope as the neighborhood struggles to build itself back up, brick by brick, person by person. ``It's a remarkable story of people determined they will triumph,'' Mr. Bothwell says.

The journey out of the charred, broken community this part of Roxbury had become began modestly in 1984. At that time, trustees of the Riley Foundation, a Boston-based grant making foundation that focuses on helping poor neighborhoods, paid a visit to a local organization that was seeking funds to renovate its space. Shocked at the conditions in the community, the Riley trustees decided to funnel a considerable amount of their money into a larger project that would improve life here.

They drew up a plan and invited residents to respond to it. But many residents, weary of broken promises over the years to clean up their neighborhood, were skeptical. They realized the initiative needed to come from the community, and demanded they be in charge of the project.

The project was named the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) because it targets a specific core area of Roxbury and North Dorchester, with Dudley Street at its center; a surrounding section is a secondary area of emphasis. About 24,000 people - mostly black, Hispanic, white, and Cape Verdean - live in this 1-1/2-square-mile section. About 33 percent of the residents live under the poverty line, and half the families are headed by females.

DSNI's first task was to elect a board, which includes representatives from area agencies, businesses, religious organizations, and residents from each ethnic group. Committees were established to focus on key areas, such as economic development and trash cleanup. A consultant was hired to outline a development strategy.

The main reason the group has been so successful, says Rogelio Whittington, DSNI's executive director, is that it has been planned by residents from all age groups and ethnic and religious backgrounds. Foundations have provided money but haven't dictated how it should be spent.

DSNI's plan for the community was adopted by the city of Boston - an unusual move, because most cities create their own official plan and leave residents with little say or input. ``This is an all-inclusive process where everybody's at the table,'' Mr. Whittington says.