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Finally, a new Dudley Square

Finally, a new Dudley Square

Finally, a new Dudley Square

“Man, the development of Ferdinand’s is the keystone of this project.”

Decades ago, the population of Boston reached its greatest size. According to the 1950 U.S. Census, there were 801,444 residents in the city, a mere 5 percent of whom were African American.

This was before the shopping malls now ubiquitous in the suburbs had begun to flourish. The greatest shopping center in the metropolitan area was downtown Boston. Jordan Marsh and Filene’s were the main attractions, but there were also a number of other department stores that thrived: Gilchrist’s, Kennedy’s, R.H. Stearns, Raymond’s and R.H. White’s.

The second most attractive shopping area was Dudley Square in Roxbury. The elevated train that ran along Washington Street from Forest Hills to downtown made the area easily accessible. Stores in the area included Dutton’s, Kresge’s, W.T. Grant, Woolworth and McLellan’s. However, the star attraction of Dudley Square was Ferdinand’s, then the largest home furnishings store in New England.

Times change. Not one of those stores, either downtown or in Dudley Square, survives in its original form today. The shopping malls, easily accessible from the city by car, are now the primary retail destinations. The loss of retail traffic in Dudley Square caused the area to deteriorate. The two movie theaters in the area, the Rivoli and the Dudley, closed. The Dudley Theatre was converted into a sizable grocery store, Blair’s Foodland, but it also became non-competitive. Both buildings have been demolished and are now parking lots: the Dudley on Washington Street opposite Ruggles Street, and the Rivoli, adjacent to the Area B-2 police station.

The list of efforts to revive the area is surprisingly long. The Boys and Girls Club converted its old, inadequate building on Malcolm X Boulevard into quality office space, and they built a modern, functional facility on Warren Street. The project was made feasible by the destruction of the old, Dickensian Roxbury District Court, which was replaced by a modern building on Warren Street.

The post office built a new facility on the corner of Shawmut Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard, and the city tore down an eyesore on Washington Street opposite Dudley Station and constructed a new center for elders at the corner of Vernon and Washington streets. The MBTA removed the elevated railroad, which depressed the value of real estate along Washington Street, and built a new bus terminal.

The Madison Park Development Corporation (MPDC) renovated Hibernian Hall on Dudley Street and converted it a quality space for community events. The MPDC had already converted the Woolworth building at 2201 Washington Street into quality retail and office space. Nuestra Comunidad Development Corporation renovated two historic buildings, the Dartmouth Hotel and Palladio Hall, which face one another on Warren Street at Dudley. The construction of a new retail and office building by Jubilee Christian Church on Warren and Palmer streets demonstrates local confidence in the renovation of the area.

Yet despite all of this development, something is missing. The deteriorating Ferdinand’s building looms like the ghost of a more affluent time. Mayor Thomas M. Menino understands that the area cannot be fully reborn without a Ferdinand’s construction project breathing new life into Dudley.

Menino’s plans involve relocating a city agency to the site. Community leaders must pay close attention to developments because plans to reassign government workers to Roxbury have gone awry in the past. Nonetheless, the mayor deserves accolades for pushing the project forward.

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