A Neighborhood Starts to Recover From Decline

Residents of all races, religions, and ages work together to rebuild Roxbury, Mass.

JESSE FARRIER, Mildred Daniels, and other longtime residents of Roxbury, Mass., nostalgically remember when their community was a thriving one with stores of all kinds, good schools, and well-kept houses and gardens.

``There was a drugstore on every corner, bakeries; you could buy anything,'' reminisces Sophia McCarthy who has lived here for 60 years.

But in the 1950s, this neighborhood that sits nearly forgotten just outside the shadow of Boston's sleek skyscrapers, began to slowly decline until it became an urban wasteland. It's a story that was repeated in many other cities across the country: As whites left the inner city and minorities moved in, banks, government mortgage programs, and insurance companies began redlining the area. Homes were burned, city services became scarce, and streets and empty lots were used as dumping grounds for everything from tires to refrigerators to sides of beef.

``It was just living hell for so many years,'' says Paul Bothwell, who moved here in 1974 to help establish several churches. ``The community was broken, dismembered.... There was not a breath of hope.''

Today there's no short supply of hope as the neighborhood struggles to build itself back up, brick by brick, person by person. ``It's a remarkable story of people determined they will triumph,'' Mr. Bothwell says.

The journey out of the charred, broken community this part of Roxbury had become began modestly in 1984. At that time, trustees of the Riley Foundation, a Boston-based grant making foundation that focuses on helping poor neighborhoods, paid a visit to a local organization that was seeking funds to renovate its space. Shocked at the conditions in the community, the Riley trustees decided to funnel a considerable amount of their money into a larger project that would improve life here.

They drew up a plan and invited residents to respond to it. But many residents, weary of broken promises over the years to clean up their neighborhood, were skeptical. They realized the initiative needed to come from the community, and demanded they be in charge of the project.

The project was named the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) because it targets a specific core area of Roxbury and North Dorchester, with Dudley Street at its center; a surrounding section is a secondary area of emphasis. About 24,000 people - mostly black, Hispanic, white, and Cape Verdean - live in this 1-1/2-square-mile section. About 33 percent of the residents live under the poverty line, and half the families are headed by females.

DSNI's first task was to elect a board, which includes representatives from area agencies, businesses, religious organizations, and residents from each ethnic group. Committees were established to focus on key areas, such as economic development and trash cleanup. A consultant was hired to outline a development strategy.

The main reason the group has been so successful, says Rogelio Whittington, DSNI's executive director, is that it has been planned by residents from all age groups and ethnic and religious backgrounds. Foundations have provided money but haven't dictated how it should be spent.

DSNI's plan for the community was adopted by the city of Boston - an unusual move, because most cities create their own official plan and leave residents with little say or input. ``This is an all-inclusive process where everybody's at the table,'' Mr. Whittington says.

DSNI's first effort was a ``Don't Dump on Us'' campaign to close illegal trash transfer stations and stop the illegal dumping. Arson had turned 1,300 lots into weedy vacant wastelands; in some cases, houses on entire streets had been burned and were littered with car carcasses.

Armed with that success, DSNI's influence grew. In 1988, it became the first grass-roots community organization in the country to gain eminent domain authority over parcels of private land. That means the neighborhood, rather than speculators, has control of vacant land and can use it to develop houses, parks, or businesses. An additional 15 acres of city-owned land has been committed to DSNI's land trust.

In many of these once trashy lots, attractive houses are emerging from the construction rubble; plans are to build 300 in the next three to five years. Tot lots - areas where children can play - have been established.

DSNI reclaimed and revitalized a local park taken over by drug dealers. On two sides of a one-story building, a colorfully painted Unity Mural, a two-year project of DSNI's youth committee, depicts both old and young residents.

Current priorities include constructing a town common and community center; creating an economic development plan to provide jobs and attract businesses; and improving educational opportunities for children and adults.

Norman Krumholz, former planning director for Cleveland and now a professor in urban planning at Cleveland State University, says that between 3,000 and 5,000 community-development corporations like DSNI exist in the United States. ``They're a mixed bag in terms of quality,'' he says. ``Some are ahead of Dudley Street in terms of affordable housing production, but none that I know of has the power of eminent domain, and very few could have gained the support of city agencies, foundations, and lenders.''

``The last 15 years have seen a tremendous flowering of community-based capacity to solve problems,'' says Stephen Perkins, associate director of the Center for Neighborhood Technology Services in Chicago. ``The thing about [DSNI] is they're part of that, but they've pushed it a little farther than most everybody else has been able to push it.''

DSNI is supported by many foundations, including the Riley Foundation, which has granted nearly $1 million, and the Ford Foundation, which provided a $2 million low-interest loan for the group to acquire private land under eminent domain. Legal firms have donated about $1 million in pro-bono services. Funding for many of the development projects comes from the city and state.

DSNI, which now has about 1,800 people involved in its activities, is being studied by the General Accounting Office as a national model for comprehensive neighborhood revitalization. A book chronicling the group's efforts, called ``Streets of Hope'' (South End Press, $16.95) by author Holly Sklar and the late DSNI executive director Peter Medoff, has been published this year.

Despite the progress, daunting challenges still remain, such as drugs, poverty, crime, and continued illegal dumping.

``We've got a lot to do,'' says Clayton Turnbull, a 27-year resident and DSNI board member. ``It didn't take two years to get this way ... it took 20 to 30 years, and it may take 20 to 30 to correct.''

``It's a start for Roxbury,'' says Ruby Grice, who owns one of the new homes in the neighborhoods. ``We have to show our children it can happen in Roxbury, that it starts with us.''

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