Breaking out of Boston's ghetto

There are two ways to break out of a ghetto -- pack up and leave, or, more difficult, transform the community. Roxbury, perhaps more than any other blighted neighborhood in America, now has an opportunity to make that transformation. It has the benefit of being in a city where developers are standing in line to build. It has the support of City Hall, which is steering investors away from downtown and into Roxbury. And it has a history of activism, of people who know how to work for their community. The challenge is just beginning -- and the obstacles to overcome include funding, housing, and, most difficult of all, racial discrimination. EXCITEMENT is brewing in Boston's black ghetto. Word is out that Roxbury will be the first beneficiary of City Hall's program to revitalize Boston's 21 neighborhoods.

The plans on the drawing board are grand: a high-rise office building, a hotel, a new Boston Police headquarters, a retail complex. And the city planning agency in charge of the project insists that private investors will agree to pick up most of the $750 million tab.

But the plans on the drawing board contrast sharply with today's streetscape in Roxbury.

Dudley Square, anchor of the renewal project, is currently spotted with boarded-up buildings. Within the renewal zone is Blue Hill Avenue, one of the ``10 worst streets in America,'' according to a survey published last February by United Press International. It is an avenue of crime, burned-out businesses, drug abuse, violence, and squalor -- and it is part of the Roxbury that residents here see every day.

Many blacks view the City Hall plan as a way out of the ghetto without having to move out. But some, like former Roxbury resident Kenneth Hudson, caution that high-rise buildings, renovated housing, and scenic streets do not a ghetto remake.

A new Roxbury can emerge only if a more productive life style -- well-trained teen-agers, reduced crime, and a strong black economy -- is generated, says Mr. Hudson, a vice-president of the New England Coca-Cola Bottling Company and one of the growing number of ``buppies'' (black upwardly mobile urban professionals) in the community.

Others here are more cautious in assessing the City Hall plan. They recall earlier Boston experiments with ``urban renewal,'' in which homes were razed and people were priced out of their own neighborhoods.

``It's very rare that residents benefit from neighborhood revitalization,'' says Chester Hartman of the Institute for Policy Research in Washington. ``Developers are hardly pioneers. They seek profits. Poor people are pushed around or displaced.''

``Will this $750 million renewal program benefit the people who now live in Roxbury, or will it mean apartheid American-style?'' asks Melvin H. King, a black activist who spent his childhood in Boston's ghetto. ``Does ghetto renewal spell black removal?''

Mr. King, the first black to be a finalist in a nonpartisan Boston mayoral primary, heads a grass-roots organization formed last spring to keep watch over rehabilitation issues. ``We want to review any new plans for Roxbury to make sure that current residents are not uprooted because of gentrification,'' he says.

Beneath smiles and words of enthusiasm for the idea of an improved community, Roxbury residents state one common concern -- displacement.

Already, blacks are banging down telephones and resisting fast-talking hucksters, speculators, and developers who are pushing to buy their homes or properties. Many question the sudden interest in Roxbury by the real-estate industry, which in the past engaged in ``blacklisting'' and ``redlining'' to keep blacks from moving into white neighborhoods.

But only 15 percent of blacks in Roxbury own property. The remaining 85 percent are tenants, and few are protected by rent control. Roxbury has been a predominantly black neighborhood since the postwar migration of blacks from the South. Most people here say housing options elsewhere in Greater Boston are limited.

Boston blacks who seek housing outside Roxbury are likely to face racial discrimination in the suburbs and in the city, says Alex Rodriguez, chairman of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

Mr. Rodriguez's agency periodically tests the fairness of the real-estate market by sending blacks and whites to the same realtors in search of housing. ``Our testing program indicates that discrimination is so bad that many real-estate salespeople don't disguise it,'' he says. ``It's a sad situation.''

The relatively low incomes of black families also narrow the housing choices. Property values in Roxbury are low, rents are low, and blacks have been able to afford to live there.

Residents now living in the one-square-mile renewal zone cannot afford to pay the higher rents that would come with the higher property values, according to a research team at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. The median family income in the zone is $8,288, compared with $12,530 citywide. And 31.5 percent of those families do not have an employed worker, compared with 16.7 percent for the city.

New state Rep. Gloria Fox, who represents Roxbury, says City Hall can use its project to provide jobs for black teen-agers, whose unemployment rate fluctuates between 40 and 50 percent. The city can also help to upgrade black businesses, through contracts and subcontracts, she says.

Mayor Raymond L. Flynn and the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the planning agency in charge of the Roxbury project, say the renewal will bring 5,000 new units of housing and 14,000 new private-sector jobs for residents.

``Mayor Flynn has moved his vision of Boston beyond downtown development. He plans to spread progress to the neighborhoods,'' says Muhammad Ali-Salaam, who will head the BRA's site office at Dudley Square, scheduled to open Oct. 1. ``Roxbury heads the list. He is doing this because it's right. He is seeking black people from all over the country to help develop the Roxbury community. He is calling on downtown people to invest in joint venture with minority developers.''

So far only a few small projects in the Roxbury area have begun. But even if the City Hall plan never gets off the ground, it has already helped to renew the spirit of activism in Roxbury.

The community has a long history of black activism -- the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, to name just two, got their starts here. But in recent years, black activism has been more fragmented, focusing at different times on education, crime, drug abuse, and other local problems.

Now, the Roxbury renewal plan appears to have united a number of disparate groups. And their voices are being heard more clearly than ever before by City Hall, which promises to work closely with residents during the renewal process.

Roxbury could be the cutting edge for improved race relations in Boston, says Sadiki Kambon, fiery chairman of Community for Human Rights, an activist organization in the ghetto.

``The potential to ignite racial violence -- crime, drugs, racism, poor housing, run-down community -- persists in Roxbury,'' Mr. Kambon says. ``But the city offers the antidote for trouble. Mayor Flynn offers his $750 million program to rehab this area. [New] police commissioner Mickey Roach can bring peace and help reduce crime.

``My question is this: Will we [blacks] still be here when Roxbury is renewed?''

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