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Kennedy funeral in the diverse Boston neighborhood he loved

“He could have gone to Hyannis or some other ritzy area, but he chose to come here.”

By Tracey D. SamuelsonContributor / August 29, 2009

Senator Edward Kennedy's funeral will take place at the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica in the Mission Hill neighborhood of Roxbury, Mass.

Elise Amendola/AP

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Roxbury, Mass.

Across from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica, where the funeral mass for Sen. Edward Kennedy is being held today, new American flags stand at attention on each of the storefronts. Tree beds in the sidewalk sport new daisies and fresh mulch. The streets have been cleaned and many stores display signs that say “Kennedy, Thanks.”

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That Senator Kennedy chose the Basilica, known locally as the Mission Church, was surprising to those who know Roxbury first for its historically high crime rates, even to some area residents.

But Kennedy has had a long relationship with the church. While his daughter, Kara, received treatment at one of the handful of hospitals nearby, Kennedy prayed for her recovery daily at the Mission Church. It became a “place of hope and optimism” for him, family representatives say.

The favor he bestowed upon them is not lost to residents of Mission Hill, an area of Roxbury that derives its name from the church hosting today’s funeral mass. In addition to the Kennedy family, some of the largest names in politics are in attendance, including President Obama and three of the four living past presidents.

“I’m personally honored and surprised,” said Joseph Crawford, a long-time Roxbury resident and a barber here. “He could have gone to Hyannis or some other ritzy area, but he chose to come here.”

For many in the area, it’s a last act in a long list of services that Kennedy provided them.

“He’s done a lot for the community,” says John Todd, who also lives in Mission Hill and whose blue-green eyes and pale skin indicate his Irish ancestry. “He passed a lot of legislation that helped the area, getting money into the neighborhood and the city.”

Kennedy was known for his support of minority and underprivileged communities, and for his ability to get things done for his constituents -- whether it was helping secure benefits or sorting out issues with a Social Security check. Among the many pieces of legislation Kennedy played a leading role in passing were the Immigration Act of 1965, the Refugee Act of 1980, and the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act, which led to increased minority representation in Congress and state legislatures.

Kennedy’s championing of the minority and underprivileged communities is especially appreciated here. Roxbury was has had a significant African American population since the 1950s, though before that it was comprised of mainly German and Irish immigrants.

Since then, new waves of immigrants have continued to settle in Mission Hill. In addition to Kennedy’s funeral today, the neighborhood is also hosting a Caribbean Festival, which runs down Malcolm X Boulevard, just a few blocks from Mission Church.

By the 1970s and 80s, “the whole economy of the area changed,” says Tom O’Connor, a historian at Boston College who specializes in history of the city. There were then significant communities of African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, he says.

“Large numbers [of residents] were immigrants, some had green cards, some didn’t. Some had skills, some didn’t,” Mr. O’Connor says. There were drug-related problems, crime rates soared, and the reputation of the neighborhood suffered.

But that was then.

The neighborhood has come a long way in the last ten years, says Michel Soltani, who, along with other small business owners, organized the new flags and plantings. They paid for and did all the work themselves. People were excited to contribute, he says.

Soltani, who owns the Mission Bar and Grill, hopes the attention around Kennedy’s funeral will show everyone else “that positive change is happening here.”

“It’s one the best things to happen to Mission Hill,” he says, “We needed it, we needed a lift.”

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