From urban blight to community revival

Boston's Roxbury neighborhood emerges from years of troubles.

The Boston neighborhood of Roxbury, which for almost 40 years has epitomized urban turmoil and the aftershocks of white flight, has abruptly and aggressively turned a corner. According to Mayor Thomas Menino, it is now one of the "chosen places" to live in Boston.

Dozens of Victorian houses that have lain vacant here since the 1960s are now being renovated and resold. Streets scarred by decades-old race riots, with shuttered storefronts and broken windows, are sprinkled with newly built bodegas and bargain retailers.

The city is in the process of developing eight acres of public land with new residences and businesses, including a new science lab that could bring hundreds of new jobs to Roxbury.

For a neighborhood that resides in the national consciousness alongside places like Watts, Harlem, and Chicago's South Side - neighborhoods wrenched by racial conflict and the popularity of suburbs - the revival here brings a glimmer of closure to an era of urban blight.

But all the progress has attending costs: the dislocation of the very people who, while others left, kept Roxbury alive. Many experts argue that the demographic change taking place here is natural and inevitable. Others, including many residents, say full-scale gentrification here would be a tragedy in the historical life of America's cities.

"You want business and jobs," says Horace Smalls, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods in Dudley Square, a neighborhood hub. "But if no one here benefits, it ends up being a displacement, not an investment in the community."

There is little confusion why the middle-class is moving back into Roxbury: Boston real estate is too expensive for most families, and Roxbury is one exception. The neighborhood, which dates back to 1630, is spotted by dozens of Greek Revival houses and early- 20th-century apartments. Many have been vacant for several years. The neighborhood's rate of occupancy for one-, two-, and three-family properties is 58 percent versus 70 percent citywide.

Combined with Roxbury's proximity to Boston's downtown - about 10 minutes by subway - the neighborhood has quickly taken on a new profile. "This has all led to a radical concept: White folks want to live here now," says Mr. Smalls.

Most of the changes have occurred on the neighborhood's edges. Communities like Fort Hill, which rises just east of the wealthier Jamaica Plain, are lined with luxury cars and immaculate gardens.

Residents here acknowledge that the influx of money has had a domino effect across the neighborhood. One development of new red-brick office buildings and condominiums near Fort Hill inspired residents to clean up their block and push out gangs. As their community began to look nicer, residents were buoyed to protect it. "People need to have a sense of ownership and pride ... before they take action," says Ismay Griffith, a local activist and resident.

But residents who live on the edge of Roxbury worry that the new apartments and businesses could cause their own rent to skyrocket.

In the Egleston Square section of Roxbury's west side, a construction crew sends a cloud of white chalk into the air as it jackhammers concrete blocks for a new retail outlet. A few blocks away are two white clapboard apartment buildings that were refurbished about three years ago, say nearby residents.

Mary Wright, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment close by, says her landlord might raise her rent to $1,200 from $400. She says she can't afford to pay even half of the proposed increase, and would probably have to move out of Roxbury, as several of her friends have done.

"They've moved to the South Shore," says Ms. Wright, a cheerful woman with a bright smile. "We might go back to Alabama where I was born."

It is this sort of dislocation that concerns many here. They argue that a failure on the part of the city to protect the very residents who have held Roxbury together would be a shameful legacy. "This is a question of the social fabric of a community being destroyed," says Chuck Turner, a Boston City Council member from Roxbury.

The city says it recognizes the human costs of dislocation. And it has adopted guidelines that require 15 percent of all new housing built on public land to be affordable to low-income residents.

Because there is a housing shortage across Boston, however, the city says most of the new rents should be set according to market price. "We can't just say that the housing problem exists in Roxbury. It exists inside the entire city," says Hugues Monestime, senior planner for the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Many experts agree, arguing that the city will chase away bids for property development and construction if it caps the profit that developers are able to make. They also are critical of efforts to prevent demographic change. "If you want to maintain a neighborhood's long-term health, you can't try to freeze one moment in time," says Jacob Vigdor, a public policy and economics professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "Neighborhoods are naturally dynamic places."

Still, some Roxbury activists have proved that the dynamism can be managed to a degree. The nonprofit group City Life helps residents facing rent increases. In a building near Egleston Square, it recently helped tenants who were facing proposed rent hikes of $600. In the end, they were able to negotiate a $30 increase every year for the next five years.

Says City Life's Steve Mecham: "We think the government has a duty to intervene in the market when it's not producing desirable results."

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