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Carrying the momentum forward

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Carrying the momentum forward
Mayor Thomas Menino cuts the cake after the March 3 groundbreaking ceremony. (L to R) State Rep. Byron Rushing, City Councilor Tito Jackson, Menino, pastry chef Julius Johnson, State Rep. Gloria Fox, architect Francine Houben of Mecanoo Architects. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

Author: Eric EstevesMayor Thomas Menino cuts the cake after the March 3 groundbreaking ceremony. (L to R) State Rep. Byron Rushing, City Councilor Tito Jackson, Menino, pastry chef Julius Johnson, State Rep. Gloria Fox, architect Francine Houben of Mecanoo Architects.

Rain fails to dampen Ferdinand groundbreaking celebration

In a ceremony punctuated by standing ovations, Mayor Thomas Menino marked the official start last Saturday of construction on the Ferdinand site in Dudley Square.

The $115 million project will create a new headquarters for the Boston Public Schools with sidewalk-level retail space to increase economic vitality in the area.

As rain pummeled the large tent set up behind the old Ferdinand building, more than 250 community members, city officials and elected officials crowded in to hear the mayor speak.

“By breaking ground at the Ferdinand today,” Menino told them, “we are cementing the comeback of Dudley Square.”

He praised a “great team,” acknowledging the city’s planners, the project design team, the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee, the Dudley Vision Advisory Task Force and the many city and state elected officials present.

“And the neighborhood is here,” he added, to prolonged cheers and applause.

“Our goal is simple: to bring more people and economic life to historic Dudley Square,” Menino said, “unlocking the potential of the Ferdinand as a catalyst for continued redevelopment of this area.”

The groundbreaking came exactly one year after Menino announced the project that could finally breathe new life into the long-abandoned Ferdinand site. The new building, a mix of modern design and preserved historic facades, is expected to bring some 500 new people daily to Dudley Square.

State Rep. Gloria Fox called the pouring rain a sign of good luck and God’s blessing. She stressed that the new building is one step in a chain of events to complete Dudley Square’s revitalization.

“I’m happy to be part of this today,” she said, “and will continue to work so we can see the landmarks refurbished, and the programs and services back in Dudley —because we deserve it!”

City Councilor Tito Jackson reflected on the symbolism of relocating the School Department to Dudley Square.

“Someone who once walked these streets named Malcolm X said that education is our passport to the future,” he said. “I think it’s only fitting that the education complex —the place where those passports are given out — will be here in Roxbury, in the geographic center of the city. As goes Dudley, so goes the city of Boston.”

Along with excitement about the new, nostalgia arose at mentions of the old elevated Orange Line, the safety and bustle of long-ago Dudley, and bygone businesses.

“How many people remember Freddy Parker Chicken?” asked Dudley Task Force co-chair Catherine Hardaway, who introduced the day’s speakers. Claps and guffaws showed that quite a few people did.They quickly began recalling the fried chicken, fries and onion rings.

The rain paused just in time for Menino, Fox, Jackson and a dozen other officials to toss the symbolic first shovels of dirt.

At the post-ceremony reception, the centerpiece was baker Julius Johnson’s meticulously crafted cake in the shape of the new Dudley Municipal Center —windows, bricks, blue “Ferdinand’s” sign and all.

A long line of guests marveled at the cake, exchanged greetings and hugs, and chatted in positive terms about the new building.

Not everyone in the community has been happy with the city’s plans. In a series of Dudley Task Force meetings that started last fall and will continue as the project goes on, questions were repeatedly raised about whether construction jobs and retail leasing opportunities will be adequately publicized to the local community, and whether the right businesses will emerge to create a lively streetscape past 5 p.m.

Some are dissatisfied at the choice of a municipal building rather than housing or a more vibrant commercial use.

Task force member Donovan Walker has frequently pressed city officials and the design and construction teams with sharp questions. On this big day he felt “half-happy,” he said.

“I’m happy the mayor came to show he’s committed,” Walker said after the ceremony. “It was good for us all to be here and feel how big this is, how important it is.”

But he reiterated his insistence that the building include a sit-down restaurant, ideally at rooftop level.

“In order for this to bring economic development, there has to be a mechanism to bring the community together,” he said. “We have to implement a full scale restaurant. We have 60,000 people in Roxbury with no central place to sit down and eat.”

A stone’s throw from the groundbreaking, Manhattan Square Fashion owner Cheunok Butler stood outside her store, watching the police direct traffic as attendees arrived. She was not planning to go to the event.

In late November, the city moved to acquire the two buildings adjacent to the Ferdinand site in order to control the entire triangular block. The action means existing businesses, including Butler’s, will be displaced.

With the city’s help, Butler has since secured another space a few blocks away. So while she was stunned in November after hearing she’d be forced to move her dress store after 20 years in the same space, she can now be philosophical.

“The city’s got to do what they got to do,” she said. “They have the power.”

Next door, Simon’s Fish Market owner Kay Kang is worried. She has been unable to find another nearby space for her takeout and market operation, she said.

She hopes for a space in the new building when it opens in 2014, but has no firm answer on whether that’s possible. The city will help with relocation expenses, but she has no place to go. One option may be to find a smaller space for takeout only, no market. But, she said, “This community needs a fish market. We have a lot of customers.”

No one denies there are still issues to resolve. Jackson, in his speech, reiterated a call for vigilance to ensure local job opportunities, Fox noted the need to provide services for the many people in Dudley struggling with mental health and other problems. The community is bracing for two years in a construction zone.

But for this one day, the balance was tipped steeply toward jubilation, the attention focused on the project’s potential to raise Dudley Square up.

“We have a lot of opportunities here,” Menino said. “A lot of folks said it would never happen. But you folks stayed with it. Let’s carry the momentum we have today forward.”