Roxbury to build future on past

Rich in history and long a key component of the Hub, Roxbury is poised to build a brighter future on that heritage. Roxbury may finally be getting the attention its residents feel it deserves.

After many years of unfulfilled promises by city and state officials, Boston's largest black community is to be the beneficary of two concrete actions -- the designation of Roxbury as a historic park and the allocation of $4.6 million to the park.

Responding to this evidence of the state's willingness to back words with funds committed to beautifying the community and upgrading its economy, Ellen Jackson, chairwoman of the Governor's Advisory Group to the Massachusetts Urban Heritage State Park system, says a new Roxbury will emerge within ``a few years.''

Mrs. Jackson sees now-neglected historic sites attracting thousands of tourists and economic opporturnity replacing poverty, decadence, and negativism.

Gov. Michael S. Dukakis is equally sanquine about Roxbury's future. He calls the historic park designation and the $4.6 million grant providing a ``powerful unifying force'' and a ``catalyst for economic development'' in the area. ``This is a fitting tribute to Roxbury's 355th anniversary of incorporation,'' the governor says.

The Roxbury Heritage State Park, one of eight historic parks in the Massachusetts Urban Heritage State Park system to be developed by the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), will target the community's historical lore and sites during Roxbury's 355th anniversary celebration later this year.

``I may sound idealistic, but I see Roxbury as Boston's most desirable community in which to live,'' says Mrs. Jackson, a lifetime resident.

Taking a less rosy but nonetheless hopeful view is Marvin Gilmore, an entrepreneur who has been involved in Roxbury ``revitalization'' for more than a decade.

``In reality, nothing has moved as fast in Roxbury as seen in the eyes of the government,'' says Mr. Gilmore, general manager of the Community Development Corporation of Boston, which developed the Crosstown Industrial Park in Roxbury.

The crosstown project got off to a good start five years ago with the opening of Digital Equipment Corporation plant as the anchoring industrial facility, Gilmore says, ``but progress has been slow since then. Maybe it's because we are nonprofit, and a nonprofit group must work twice as hard as a profitmaking group to succeed.''

Planning for both the historic park and Roxbury's anniversary is only in the beginning stage, says Clarence Dilday, chairman of the heritage subcommittee of the advisory group.

The heritage park is a segment of the Boston Redevelopment Authority's master plan for Roxbury, he explains.

Patricia Weems-Carrington of the DEM is project manager.

``We encourage tourism as an opening wedge to economic development of Roxbury,'' says Mr. Dilday. ``We are looking at historic homes, more than a century old, places that once provided secret entrances and exits and basements that helped blacks escape from slavery along the Underground Railroad.''

Ms. Carrington says the goals of the heritage project are to preserve and develop open space in the community's urban setting, celebrate and preserve the culture of Roxbury, and act as a catalyst for economic development within the park area.

``These goals are in keeping with the basic purpose of the state's heritage park program,'' she says. ``We see this as an opportunity to develop a positive set of values, a quality community within Boston. And we also celebrate the culture, the architecture, the creativity of Roxbury.''

Ms. Carrington says the committee already is working on preliminary plans for specific projects such as the preservation of the Dillaway Thomas House near Eliot Square, ``now in disrepair, but recalled as a house that served runaway slaves seeking freedom through the Underground Railroad.''

With money already in hand, she says, the heritage program will soon have a full staff to carry out a project that can be completed within three or four years. ``During the next three months we should be able to fine-tune a plan for the park,'' she says.

A key to economic progress in Roxbury is the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's Southwest Corridor, the Orange Line/commuter rail project that stretches across Boston from the Back Bay to Forest Hills in Jamaica Plain, says Juan Evereteze, state coordinator for the executive office of the state secretary of transportation. The corridor opens new areas for development -- along Washington Street, where the old elevated tracks will be dismantled; in the Grove Hall-Franklin Park Zoo area, now being revived, and at the 200-acre site of the now-closed Boston State Hospital (actually in Mattapan), the largest ``open space inside Boston,'' Mr. Evereteze says.

Besides the Crosstown Industrial Park, projects announced for the area include the redesigning and resurfacing of Blue Hill Avenue from Grove Hall to Mattapan Square, already completed, and construction of a new $37 million plant for Roxbury Community College, which has been pledged by Governor Dukakis.

Noting that the Digital plant brought 300 jobs to the Roxbury community, Gilmore cites two new commitments for the Crosstown Industrial Park that will produce jobs: Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries and the S. M. Abelman & Co., a hardware manufacturing and wholesaling enterprise.

``The Southwest Corridor offers us the opportunity to redevelop our community, to own businesses in a rich labor market,'' says Gilmore, but he wonders whether the anticipated upgrading of Roxbury will result in ``gentrification'' -- an influx of higher-income people and displacement of many present residents of the community.

And, asks Gilmore, ``Who will invest in Washington Street without the elevated line?''

Joseph Warren of the advisory commission, who calls himself a ``dreamer, believer, catalyst, cheerleader, and political broker'' for Roxbury -- has a vision:

``When I look down Blue Hill Avenue, when I gaze down Warren Street, I say this doesn't have to be. I see a Roxbury beyond unemployed kids hoping for a job, any kind of job that pays.''

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