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Cleaning up Blue Hill Ave., block by block

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Cleaning up Blue Hill Ave., block by block
Darryl Smith (L) and the Blue Hill Avenue Neighborhood Response Team in front of Blue Hill Liquors. The store has been sold to new owners and is now being renovated. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

On a May afternoon, Darryl Smith, assistant commissioner of the city of Boston’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD), led a group in a zigzag path along the side streets off Blue Hill Avenue. He paused to examine a large vacant lot on Woodville Street.

The weed-choked lot wasn’t much to look at, but Smith explained it was actually much improved since last year. “It was a drug den,” he said. It used to be connected to the yard of a house around the corner on Blue Hill Avenue. The stretch of hidden, neglected land running behind the house and an adjacent liquor store encouraged loitering, drinking and drug dealing. The area had generated more than 100 police calls, Smith said.

Now a fence separates the lots, the house has new tenants and no more trouble, the liquor store has a new owner who has agreed to renovate the unsightly storefront and to stop selling “nips,” tiny bottles of liquor that are easy to buy and easy to consume on the spot.

These changes are just a few in a long list of improvements chalked up in the past year by the Mayor’s Blue Hill Avenue Neighborhood Response Team (NRT). The program was launched in July of 2011 in response to a spate of drug, alcohol and prostitution-related activities along the Blue Hill Corridor from Dudley Street to Warren Street.

Smith chairs the NRT team, which is comprised of the ISD, the police department, other city agencies including the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND), the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and the Boston Transportation Department (BTD), nonprofit community organizations and local elected officials.

Mayor Thomas Menino describes the NRT as “a vehicle to bring attention to problems in the community and then work to solve the problems.” He is pleased with the NRT’s work in the Blue Hill Avenue area so far.

“I needed results, and this gave us results, in a grassroots way,” Menino told the Banner recently. “The neighborhood walks are effective.”

Every two weeks, Smith, city officials, a few police officers (often including Area B-2 Capt. John Davin) and a handful of community residents roam the Avenue and adjoining side streets to get an on-the-ground look at problems. Issues range from abandoned furniture and appliances to broken stop signs, liquor stores and houses that have generated neighbor complaints and police calls.

According to the ISD, the NRT has taken more than 100 actions in its first year. Dozens of violations have been written to expedite the closing of problem houses and businesses, a sting operation of 14 stores netted more than 2,200 crack pipes and other drug paraphernalia, and a bench near 6 Woodcliff St. used by prostitutes and drug dealers was removed. The owner received assistance in cleaning up the property and starting construction on three new houses on the site.

Michael Kozu, community coordinator at Grove Hall’s Project RIGHT, collects and compiles resident concerns. His list helps determine which streets are addressed during the walk-throughs. Kozu sends biweekly reminders of the walks to an e-mail list of some 1,400 people, and has participated in nearly all of the 20 or so walks in the NRT’s first year.

Kozu, Smith and area residents all noted that during the walks, the team often meets residents who point them to hot spots of drug activity, prostitution or illegal dumping.

“The city can’t do it all alone,” Menino said. “The NRT engages the community. When the community has buy-in, things can get done. They take an interest in the improvements. They won’t let that graffiti come back in; they won’t let the lots get dirty.”

Lorraine Wheeler, a homeowner in the Moreland Street area, has participated in a half-dozen walks and said she has seen the results of the NRT’s efforts in her everyday life.

“This part of Blue Hill Avenue is like a different place,” she said. “So many issues were addressed.”

Wheeler mentioned the closing of a notorious brothel on Mt. Pleasant Avenue and crackdowns on problem liquor stores and public drinking as examples of visible change.

“A friend had a dinner party recently in her yard on Winthrop Street,” she added, “and I was saying, ‘There are no issues at all.’ No large parties, no groups of cars driving down the street looking for prostitutes—those were things we just took for granted before.”

In April, the NRT hosted its third community meeting at the Rev. Dr. Michael E. Haynes Early Education Center on Blue Hill Avenue. More than 100 community members packed the room to hear what the NRT had to say and to voice their concerns and hopes for their streets, blocks, and neighborhood.

At the podium, Smith explained that the NRT’s basic goal is to improve the quality of life along Blue Hill Avenue by tackling prostitution, drug activity, open drinking and loitering while simultaneously raising community participation and spurring economic development.

“Most importantly,” he said, “we want to establish a walkable neighborhood.”

Enforcement is only the beginning of the solution. After a liquor store is closed or prostitution is pushed off a corner, the next challenge is to make sure that the cleaner, safer area remains that way. On a July 11 walk, it was clear that loiterers had simply moved from the liquor store under renovation to the next one a few blocks down.

Real sustainable improvement involves tackling real human problems at their roots. At the Haynes Center meeting, Smith introduced a new set of NRT partners ready to provide treatment for addiction and mental health issues. Representatives from Dimock Health Center, Victory Programs and Metro Boston Alive described medical, counseling and outreach services they can offer to the troubled people the NRT sees. Several noted that when women become sex workers, addiction is often the underlying problem.

“You hear Darryl say we close houses, and that’s a real good thing,” said Kattie Portis, the city of Boston’s substance abuse policy director. “However, that does not take the people off the street, and these people are suffering. These are sisters. They’re somebody’s mother, daughter, friend. We know these women are sick and suffering.”

Portis made a compelling case for compassion and help.

“Treatment works,” she said. “Once a woman gets her perspective again, she can get her life together. She can get her family back, leave the street, get housing, get a job.”

When crime is down and people are receiving the treatment and help they need, the focus can shift to economic development—making the neighborhood thrive again.

“The challenge before us is what do people want Blue Hill Avenue to be?” said Kozu. “It’s easy to go after the problem, but what should go in its place is less clear. And when we do get good businesses, what can we do to support them?”

One immediate target for economic development is Blue Hill Avenue’s many vacant lots. The NRT wants to transform these symbols of blight into sites of productivity. They have pressured owners to clean up and maintain their lots; the BRA and DND are working to identify city-owned lots that could become sites for an entrepreneur’s business.

On the May 2 walk, experts from the Sustainability Guild and the Community Design Resource Center of Boston came along to start imagining creative uses for green spaces even before they are business ready.

In the last minutes of the Haynes Center meeting, attendees were asked what businesses they would like to see along the Avenue. Ideas ranged widely: a florist, a dentist, an office supply store, professional offices, a karate studio, an ice cream parlor, a Midas muffler shop, a bookstore and a fish market.

The discussion brought a surge of hope into the room despite the fresh list of concerns about trash, violence and prostitution.

The challenges are many for the NRT and the Blue Hill Avenue community in making and keeping the area a safe, clean, thriving neighborhood. The good news for them is that Menino gave no sign of cutting back on support for the NRT. Neighborhood improvement programs that are working are always sustainable, he said.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Menino said, referring not just to the NRT efforts, but also to other improvement programs over his long tenure. “One thing that stopped us in the past five years was the economy. But we’re gearing up again. We’re not going to be deterred on Blue Hill Avenue. We’re going to continue to invest, continue to upgrade it.”