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Spotlight Report

Two sides of the coin

O'Malley will find wide range of poverty, wealth in his new South End neighborhood

By Donovan Slack, Globe Correspondent, 8/18/2003


CORRECTION: The original published version of this story as printed in the Globe City & Region section inaccurately described the location in Boston of the rectory at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley will reside. The rectory is on Union Park Street, not Union Park.


here are no moving vans yet, no boxes packed, and no formal arrangements made. But South End residents are already bracing for their newest neighbor.

When Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley sets up house in the rectory behind the Cathedral of the Holy Cross this fall, he will enter one of Boston's more contradictory neighborhoods, an area where gunfire erupts under cast-iron streetlights on quaint, red-brick sidewalks, where multi- million- dollar condominium developments and swanky, upscale restaurants flourish within yards of homeless shelters and public housing projects.

Like Boston's Catholic archdiocese, which O'Malley now leads, the three-block area surrounding the cathedral rectory is smack in the middle of what many hope will be a rebirth.

A half block from the rectory, lofts with vaulted ceilings and Juliet balconies fetch upward of $700,000. Dog owners can buy their pets homemade "tuna yelper" and "treatza pizza" at a specialty bakery for dogs that just opened down the street.

Union Park, where the rectory sits, was voted the "best block" in the South End by readers of the South End News this summer. Union Park has its own trash pickup service. The neighborhood association maintains its own parks.

But stubborn poverty remains amid the affluence. The area has a 17.5 percent unemployment rate, compared with the citywide average of 4.5 percent. The median household income is $20,806, a little more than half of the citywide median.

"It's a weird mix," said Mike Rapoza, a valet at Caffe Umbra, who says the tips at the Washington Street restaurant are the best he has made in the city. He also says he notices the homeless people on the street every night.

"We've got all the rich over here and all the low-income people over there," said 20-year-old South End native Veronica Burgos, a clerk at Foodie's Urban Market, which sits about halfway between a group of public housing projects and two new condominium developments on Washington Street.

Monsignor Frederick J. Murphy, rector of Holy Cross Cathedral, said that during his 12 years at the rectory, he has witnessed "a lot of urban renewal."

"There's not many low-income here anymore," he said.

The area may simply be returning to its roots. Constructed on landfill in the mid-19th century, the South End was designed for wealthy residents. But when the affluent began flocking to the Back Bay at the turn of the century, the working class flooded the South End, and many of the area's townhouses were converted into apartments and flop houses.

By 1950, the city designated the area for urban renewal and built some public housing. But not until the past few years has gentrification hit the area, along with an onslaught of construction dollars.

Residents can tick off new additions to the neighborhood in the past three years: Pho Republique, Caffe Umbra, Polka Dog Bakery, Rollins Square, and Wilkes Passage Lofts.

At Foodie's, the long-standing grocery store across the street from the cathedral, many are fed up with the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

"They have protesters out here every Sunday," lamented Bernice Dunn, a clerk at the store for the past five years. "They scream `raper,' everything you can possibly imagine. Everybody's just fed up with it already."

Dunn, who is not Catholic, said she has been forced to take an interest in Catholic affairs since the scandal. She said she hopes that O'Malley's presence in the neighborhood will reduce the protests generated by the scandal.

"He's going to have to prove himself; that's the bottom line," Dunn said. "They're not going to be satisfied until then."

Since gunfire injured two men just a block from her house early last Sunday morning, 13-year-old Latise Morrison has not been allowed outside after dark. She lives in a public housing project across the street from the cathedral. While Morrison says she is not afraid of some of the gang members who call the neighborhood home, she says she does fear a retaliation to the recent shooting.

"They want to shoot up the project," she said, while lounging outside on cement construction tubes with her friends.

Morrison is not Catholic, but she knows about the archbishop's plans to move in next door.

"If the archbishop comes over here, what is he going to do for us?" she asked, clearly frustrated.

Seated next to her, 15-year-old Justin Wright excitedly recalled one of O'Malley's recent visits to the cathedral. "He came out of the limousine and everything right there," he said, pointing across Monsignor Reynolds Way.

Yarieli Camacho, a 13-year-old who was baptized at Holy Cross Cathedral, said she hopes that O'Malley will not "be like those molesters."

"I just hope he ain't like them," she said.

On the other side of the cathedral at Sancta Maria House, a shelter for homeless women, the attitude was decidedly more upbeat. For 31 years, Mary McHale has run the shelter in the 130-year-old house, she says. Gentrification has swept away many of the families in need, and McHale said she hopes that the archbishop, along with programs initiated or revitalized by his presence, will help.

"We look forward so much to having him in the neighborhood," McHale said, adding that Sancta Maria, while affiliated with the Catholic Church, does not receive any funding from the archdiocese.

Her volunteers agreed.

"It will be good," Karen Leahy said. "I'll be glad to have a Franciscan in the neighborhood."

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com.


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