The state’s plans to extend a walking and biking path along the Neponset River has shown that more than a shallow waterway separates Mattapan and Milton. Some of the suburbanites fear the city neighborhood, which they associate with crime.
The state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) is deciding whether the one-mile extension from Central Avenue to Blue Hill Avenue will follow the river on the Mattapan side, the Milton side or have stretches along both. Five routes are under consideration, with a decision possible in October. When the path will open depends on the availability of $3 million to $4 million to build it.
Mattapan residents have generally favored the new section of the Lower Neponset River Trail being in their community, as a recreational asset and a possible boost to property values. Some neighborhood leaders have endorsed a route connecting both sides, literally building a bridge between the two communities.
“On both sides of the river, people would want access,” Mary Burks of the Mattapan Civic Improvement Association said last week. “The river isn’t that wide. You could easily go back and forth.”
But some Milton residents, particularly around Capen Street, have said they fear creating what they see as a corridor for crime from Mattapan to their suburban neighborhood. In public comments to the department, Capen Street residents, whose street the path would cross in three of the five plans, characterized Ryan Park on River Street and busy Mattapan Square as crime havens.
Lisa McMullen urged state officials to place the path on the Mattapan side and added, “My husband and I are also very concerned about the options that link Ryan Park to Milton and on to Capen Street. We are extremely concerned about connecting a high crime area to our low crime area.”
Referring to Mattapan Square, another resident, Andrea Synnott, wrote that she and her husband “worry about the safety of our kids if the neighborhood is made more accessible to a busy commercial area with high crime. I believe it would cause fundamental changes to an otherwise quiet and isolated neighborhood.”
A stop on the Mattapan trolley line is located on Capen Street, which dead-ends at a northerly bend in the river. The stop is the closest one to the square.
DCR officials last week led a tour of the proposed routes on the Milton side. Questioning from 70 participants — mostly from Milton but some from Mattapan and Hyde Park — was easygoing until the tour reached Capen Street. There the exchanges with DCR consultant Deneen Crosby grew testy and, at times, argumentative.
Michael O’Hanlon of Capen Street asked: “What will T drivers do when they see unsavory characters along the path?”
Mark Boyle, a MBTA official present, said trolley drivers were responsible for safely operating the vehicles but would report any crimes they observed. He also noted the half-dozen security cameras mounted at the stop.
None of the Capen Street residents mentioned race in public comments emailed to the department or made during the tour. The Milton side is predominately white; the Mattapan side is predominately black.
Not all Capen Street residents share the fears expressed about crime. In a June letter to the Milton Selectmen and DCR, Judy Lieberman said, “I don’t feel particularly worried about having a bike path near my house. The evidence for a bike path increasing crime is not there and the experience of the Neponset Greenway, from Central [Avenue] to Pope John Paul Park does not support these fears.”
Lieberman predicted a path that crosses Capen Street, where she said thefts of bicycles have occurred, would likely “have a beneficial impact on crime in the area, due to more frequent patrolling and the positive activities it brings, rather than the dire predictions I’ve heard.”
In a telephone interview, Lieutenant Commander Bill Fleming of the Transit Police suggested the opening of the Neponset River trail in 2003 has reduced crime along the trolley line.
“I think the bike path makes it safer — more people,” Fleming said last week. “Before the bike path, those stations were isolated. Now they’re all lighted, graffiti-free” and blanketed with security cameras.
So far this year, Transit Police have responded to 23 incidents on the trolley line, he said. Most involved disorderly conduct by bunches of students headed home from school. The most serious, he said, was an assault with a dangerous weapon that entailed a youth pointing a BB gun — from bushes in Milton — at passengers getting off at Butler Street.
“It’s very quiet on the high-speed line,” Fleming said. “There is no crime there.”
The State Police did not fulfill a request for crime statistics for the existing Neponset River trail. Nor did Milton Police respond to an inquiry for incidents near trolley stops. The Boston Police do not report crime figures for only the part of Mattapan along River Street.
Milton residents, including those who live on Capen Street, have expressed a variety of other concerns — increased traffic, illegal parking, tree removal, environmental impact, handicapped access, loss of privacy. Bicyclists have concerns about their safety, particularly crossing the congested intersection of River Street and Blue Hill Avenue.
But crime has been a consistent theme — not only on Capen Street. Judi Manning told DCR she opposed “a bike path that would involve adding additional bridges from Milton to Mattapan” because of their cost but also because they would be, “although not politically correct to say, an endangerment to the families along Eliot Street,” which runs along the proposed routes in Milton.
Manning added: “If you must have this bike path, then put it on one side of the river or the other. But my vote is not for it to go through Milton.”
Yet a route along the Mattapan riverside, populated mostly by residents of single-family homes on quiet dead-end streets, with some apartment buildings north of River Street, has raised similar concerns.
A bicyclist who attended a May public hearing opposed a spur connecting Ryan Park to the new trail. “I would feel less safe with access or riding on the Mattapan side of the river. I am a woman who rides alone — sorry to be divisive, but I ride where I feel safe,” wrote the woman, who did not identify where she lives.
Cassandra Cato-Louis, a Mattapan resident who plays tennis at Ryan Park in the evenings, said she supports either of two plans that would put the path beside her home because it would increase property values and create a safer environment, with more people and police patrols.
The 100 Mattapan and Milton residents who attended the May public meeting favored a route that would start in Milton at Central Avenue and cross to Mattapan at Ryan Park, according to Cathy Garnett, who is managing the project for DCR. The second choice was the Mattapan-only route.
DCR is taking public comments through Aug. 14 at email@example.com or 617-626-4974. As of last Thursday, most comments had come from Milton.