Little Chelsea keeps bouncing back from adversity

Like mythology's proud Phoenix, this small city in Boston's shadow has shown a remarkable ability to rise from its own ashes - literally as well as figuratively.

Great fires swept the city in 1908 and 1973, reducing much of the downtown to ruins. They may have been the most dramatic events in the city's history.

Yet problems continue to confront Chelsea:

* There are large pockets of poverty, especially among minority residents.

* Several of the largest local businesses are pulling up stakes and moving out of town.

* Only last week the mayor narrowly triumphed over a recall attempt, bringing to a close months of political upheaval.

* And above all this looms the Tobin Bridge, which may be a graceful structure seen from a distance but casts an unattractive shadow on this little city.

According to some residents, these challenges and others that the city has weathered over the years simply attest to Chelsea's durability. Surprising as it may seem, many of these irrepressible citizens say Chelsea is clearly a city is on the rise.

Mayor James D. Mitchell Jr. says, ''Hey, Chelsea's a great city. Things have never been bad.''

Yet he admits that the closing of three local firms - American Biltrite Rubber Company, Sweetheart Paper Products Company, and Cabot Paints - represents a serious problem for a city with already high unemployment. He also notes that almost 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty level.

Mayor Mitchell was an alderman for 12 years before settling into the large mayor's office in City Hall. He says, ''The people of Chelsea are reasonable. They aren't looking for miracles.'' They just want basic city services like police protection, street lights that work, and regular garbage collection, he explains.

Mitchell says that in his nine months in office he has set priorities to provide these basic services.

The mayor's short tenure has been eventful, to say the least. Less than five months after he took office, critics were circulating recall petitions. They charged Mitchell with neglecting his duties, especially missing school committee meetings and budget hearings.

The validity of recall petitions, submitted to the city clerk in July, were disputed in and out of court. Recall elections were scheduled, put on hold, and rescheduled.

Only last week, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals ruled that the petitions were 43 signatures short of the 2,888 required to force a recall election.

Mitchell says that since he won a toughly contested election in 1983, he ''deserves'' to serve out the full two-year term. But that's not all: He says he ''wants to make a career out of'' being mayor. Despite the fact that just under one-fourth of the city's registered voters signed petitions to have him removed from office, he says ''the people of Chelsea love me.''

In spite of the challenges Chelsea faces, many residents remain optimistic. Helen Zucco, a Chelsea native, says she's proud to live here.

The city has long suffered ''an image problem,'' she says. For instance, when she tells some people she is from Chelsea, Mass., she says they get an expression ''like they should be sending you a sympathy card.''

But those days are over, Mrs. Zucco says. Chelsea does have problems, but being such a small city, ''there are a lot of people who really care,'' she says. And the city has often been able to turn its problems into assets.

For instance, she says, the Tobin Bridge, which literally bisects the city, could be seen as one of the elements which really hurt the city. ''But you have to look at it positively,'' she says. ''You can't go through life saying 'the bridge is terrible, look at what they did to a beautiful community.' ''

She says she would like to ''give'' the bridge, and Logan airport, ''to someone else.'' But the bridge provides great access to Boston, she says, and the airport is only five minutes away.

Mrs. Zucco says there are still vacant buildings around town. But the real estate market is booming. Many individuals and community groups are working to restore abandoned property.

The former Naval Hospital on the waterfront is being developed into condominiums. Joel Pressman, former mayor of Chelsea, says the thought of luxury housing in Chelsea might seem preposterous, but the finished units, carrying a $ 130,000 price tag, have already sold out.

In addition, Mr. Pressman says, there are houses in town selling for $80,000 to $100,000. A few years ago, he says, you could have bought a whole street of houses for $10,000.

What accounts for the change? Pressman says enough people got together to work for the community, restoring property, cleaning the streets, and taking pride in the community.

''Instead of people saying, 'This can't happen in Chelsea,' we found, well, it can happen in Chelsea,'' says Pressman.

Helen Zucco is clearly one of the ones who worked to mend the ragged city. She is president of the Chelsea Restoration Corporation, a nonprofit organization that restores houses and sells them to low-income residents at below market rates.

Mrs. Zucco considers herself a real ''Chelseaite'' - someone who chooses to live in Chelsea because ''they like the blend of people and the quality of life.''

Her enthusiasm seems to sum up the city's mood. ''I wouldn't be in Chelsea unless I wanted to be,'' she says. ''I believe in the community.'' But, she admits, Chelsea ''needs more help.''

The federal government should provide job training to unskilled workers, Mrs. Zucco urges. There are enough residents willing to organize training programs, she says, ''but we need the resources of a large organization.

''Wouldn't it be nice to have a Wang come here?'' she asks, referring to the computer corporation that has been very active in Boston over the last several years.

The three plants which are closing only highlight this need, Mrs. Zucco says.

The Chamber of Commerce and city officials are actively looking for companies willing to relocate to Chelsea. The mayor, business leaders, and other public officials were to meet this week to work on a plan for attracting new businesses.

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