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NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH: DORCHESTER

Dot. Dot. Dot.

Before there was Boston, there was Dorchester.

More photos from the Dorchester neighborhood
Photo Gallery More photos from the Dorchester neighborhood
A family gathered on Dorchester Avenue in June to watch the Dorchester Day parade. (Globe Photo / Erik Jacobs)
By Emily Sweeney
September 18, 2005

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This is the fourth in a series of articles exploring area neighborhoods.

SILVERWARE RATTLED AND CHILDREN SHOUTED AS train after train thundered past the house in Fields Corner. My parents, my brother, and I lived there beside my aunt, uncle, and cousins. We played in the backyard and ignored the weather-beaten signs on the MBTA's rusty chain-link fence: "No Trespassing. Danger. Third Rail." If we hit a ball over, we had to fetch it.

Of course, the vacant lot down the street was the playing field of choice. We also played street hockey, rode bicycles, and hunted for snakes in the overgrown weeds between the wood-frame houses. The 19th-century barn in our neighbor's backyard was a popular destination, and we transformed it into a hangout. In the summer, families stayed outside well after dark to escape their sweltering apartments. Our mothers smoked Newports on the front steps and chatted with neighbors.

Occasionally, we visited the beaches nearby. The coarse strips of sand cradled Dorchester Bay like dirty cupped palms, but they had exotic names, like Malibu and Tenean. The beaches are much cleaner now, thanks to an overhaul of Boston's sewage treatment system. And that's not all that has changed since my childhood.

Rents have doubled in less than 10 years. Three-decker apartment buildings considered undesirable a decade ago are being gutted and converted into condominiums. Their small stained-glass windows and antique keyholes are marketed as charming period detail as contractors peel away vinyl siding and repaint the wood clapboards underneath in bright, coordinated hues. Realtors now advertise my beloved Dot as a "hot neighborhood" and list condos for upward of $300,000.

The neighborhood I have known all my life may be gone. But I can't leave. This summer, at age 29, I bought one of those condos.

Gothic lettering stretches across my shoulder blades, spelling out two tattooed words: Dot Rat. It's slang for a kid from Dorchester. My parents grew up in Dorchester, the sprawling neighborhood facing Boston Harbor, bordered by South Boston to the north and Roxbury and Mattapan to the west, and the Neponset River to the South. Measuring 6 square miles, it's Boston biggest neighborhood.

Ma grew up in the old Columbia Point projects, a mass of yellow-brick buildings on a marshy peninsula in Dorchester Bay. It was a low-income housing complex that was built beside two garbage dumps and populated by poor white, black, and Hispanic families. Besides dump trucks, hardly anyone went down Mount Vernon Street, the access road to Columbia Point, unless they lived there. Ma remembers when a 6-year-old girl was run over and killed by a city dump truck, back in 1962. And she remembers how the Columbia Point mothers took action. Holding their children's hands and pushing their baby carriages, they stood across the road, blocking the dump trucks from Mount Vernon Street.

Despite the poverty and isolation, my mother holds fond memories of double Dutch jump rope and ethnic diversity. "It was a great life because nobody knew anything different. Everyone was in the same boat. You didn't know there was another world," she says. "You'd look and see all those trees on Morrissey Boulevard and think, `Wow, one of these days.' But it was neglected by the politicians, the fire department, the police. Nobody would come in."

In the 1970s, years after my mother moved away, the University of Massachusetts moved to Columbia Point and built a fortresslike campus overlooking the harbor. In 1979, the John F. Kennedy Library opened next door. In the 1980s, a mixed-income housing development replaced the old projects. The complex was renamed Harbor Point in 1987. My dad grew up about 2 miles southwest, in St. Peter's Parish, one of Dorchester's many Roman Catholic enclaves. He and Ma got married at St. Peter's, a Gothic Revival church that still towers over the surrounding three-deckers and modest single-family homes.

BEFORE THERE WAS BOSTON, THERE WAS DORCHESTER. COLONISTS settled there in 1630, a few weeks before the establishment of Boston. Dorchester started out as a farming community, and over the years, well-to-do Bostonians built mansions and summer homes along the coastline and atop Dorchester's hills. In the 1840s, large numbers of Irish immigrants began to settle in Dorchester. By 1870, the year Boston completed its annexation, Dorchester was a streetcar suburb that was still growing rapidly, three floors at a time. Boxlike with flat roofs and tiered porches, multi-family three-deckers were built everywhere in Dorchester around the turn of the last century, and row upon row still stand today. Over the years, they have provided stable rental housing for working-class families and immigrants from Cape Verde, the Caribbean, Ireland, Poland, and Vietnam.

Famously pronounced "Dotchestah" by its longtime residents, the neighborhood is divided into small communities shaped by geography (like Jones Hill), historical parishes (like St. William's), or the subway stations that were built in the 1920s. The MBTA Red Line - whose trains rumbled through my childhood memories - is a vital artery with five stops in Dorchester.

The 1970s were a tumultuous time in Dorchester. The courts had ordered busing for Boston's public schools, and racial violence in the city made headlines. Many white families packed up and moved to the suburbs. Dorchester families of all races scrimped to send their kids to parochial school. Businesses fled. Property values plummeted. And there were fires - suspicious fires. To thwart arsonists, Ma pushed the trash barrels away from our house.

"At that time, there were an enormous amount of abandoned properties," says Jeanne DuBois, executive director of the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation. "There were whole blocks burned down. People could get more on torching their house than they could by selling it."

It was in this unsettling climate that the economic development corporation was established. Since then, the nonprofit has built 115 affordable homes and 673 rental apartments. It also bought and tore down the old Boston Insulated Wire and Cable Co., near the Savin Hill T station. That property, vacant since 1984, is now occupied by Spire Inc., a marketing and communications firm that employs 140 people.

"That's how you improve the quality of life. Jobs. We're hoping to do more of that," DuBois says.

Dorchester has long had a reputation for being a rough, working-class place. Outsiders often view it as a rebellious, knife-wielding stepson of Boston's more proper neighborhoods.

In 1990, Boston's homicide rate spiked to 152 killings for the year. After that, the rate dropped considerably, to 41 homicides in 2003, but made a troubling jump last year to 64. Violent crime in Dorchester has decreased in recent years. In 1992 there were 1,488 incidents of homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault in the Boston Police Department's District 11, which covers most of Dorchester. By 2002, those crimes had decreased by one-third, to 999. (There were 1,021 last year.) As crime drops, more homebuyers notice the historic architecture of Dorchester's old houses.

"Now it's kind of a land rush. There's a whole flood of people back into the city. You see more whites coming back and buying houses," says DuBois. "The question is, how do we keep it affordable so people can stay in their same neighborhood?"

Today, more than 92,000 people live in Dorchester. If Dorchester stood on its own, it would be the eighth-largest city in Massachusetts. Between 1990 and 2000, Dorchester's white population dropped by 13,000, while its black and Asian populations steadily increased. In 2000, blacks made up 36 percent of Dorchester, followed by whites (31 percent), Latinos (11 percent), and Asians (11 percent). The demographic shift is slowly influencing local politics, once dominated by Irish Catholics. A Vietnamese-American Community Center opened in Fields Corner in 2002. In April, Linda Dorcena Forry became the second Haitian-American elected to the state Legislature. Sam Yoon, a 35-year-old Dorchester resident, is running for an at-large seat on the Boston City Council. If elected, Yoon would become the first Asian-American to serve there.

One of the neighborhood's main roads, Dorchester Avenue, recently caught the attention of City Hall. Mayor Thomas Menino has promised traffic improvements and a makeover for the 4-mile strip known as "Dot Ave.," a busy street lined with auto-body shops, Irish bars, liquor stores, and Vietnamese-owned businesses like Sieu Vien-Dong Far East Supermarket, Van Phong Mortgage Trust Group Inc., and Vi Vi Hair Salon.

Although much has changed, the Fields Corner from my childhood is still anchored by the T station and has its share of pubs. The old coffee shop, Dippin' Donuts, now has Vietnamese owners. Scratch tickets and chewing gum sit in the illuminated racks that once held crullers and doughnuts. Hot breakfasts attract regular customers, who read the newspaper at the counter over their eggs. Next door, My Xuyen Gift Shop sells jewelry, watches, and CDs of Vietnamese artists and techno music. Across the street, Mickey's Place, with its dark-green awning emblazoned with a shamrock, serves up beer, burgers, and steak tips to Irish old-timers in scally caps. Billboards nearby advertise a hip-hop radio station, WJMN 94.5 FM, and the HIV medication Sustiva.

Savin Hill, once known as "Stab 'n' Kill," has become a realtor's dream. In August, a beautiful new T Station replaced the old one there, which dated back to 1927. (Farther down the Red Line, the Ashmont stop is being redesigned, and construction is underway at Shawmut and Fields Corner, to be finished in 2006 and 2007.)

Five years ago, Arthur Donovan gutted Bulldogs, a bar on Savin Hill Avenue known for its local musicians, and opened C.F. Donovan's, a swank martini bar and restaurant. Around the same time, Tommy Tran opened Savin Hill Variety, a convenience store that faces the corner of Savin Hill Avenue and Sydney Street.

Imported Irish favorites are scattered throughout Tran's store: orange bottles of Lucozade are stacked on a white metal rack, and Irish potato soup mix sits on the front counter. On one afternoon, two white teenagers sit on stools in the front of the store. Later, a man and a woman walk in, conversing in Spanish. Tran, his black crew cut flecked with gray, always watches through the window for regular customers - they get a wave - and for teenagers congregating near the store entrance. "Before, there was a lot of kids," he says. "They hung around." Tran grew tired of the shouting matches between boyfriends and girlfriends - and occasional fistfights - in front of his corner store. "Now it's better. Not every day."

Across from Tran's store stands At Home Real Estate Group Inc., which rents and sells homes in Dorchester. A two-bedroom condo on Sagamore Street is selling for $339,000. A large two-family home located "over the bridge" - the Savin Hill neighborhood that's between the Southeast Expressway and Dorchester Bay - is listed for $919,000. Newcomers who peruse those listings in the storefront window probably do not know that, in March 1982, a gang of white kids chased a 30-year-old black man to his death on the tracks across the street at the Savin Hill T station. But that is history. And longtime residents of the seaside enclave despise the stereotype spun from one incident - a problem that has plagued every part of Dorchester at one time or another.

SECURITY IS TIGHT ON SATURDAY NIGHTS AT the Chez Vous roller skating rink. At intervals, the metal door swings open and a staff member motions the next boy and girl inside, where two security guards - one male, one female - pat them down. Pockets are emptied. Shoes are inspected. Once the patrons pass through metal detectors, they can lace up their skates and roll.

Overseeing this precise operation is Greer Toney, an African-American woman with keen eyes and a ready smile. As a manager of the Chez Vous rink, Toney is an unofficial den mother to these roller-skating kids from all over Dorchester, many of whom are black. Toney, who's nearly 60 years old, has spent half of her life in Dorchester. Her family owns a house on Lyndhurst, the street that gained notoriety this summer when the Rev. Bruce Wall staged a sit-in, calling for an end to crime there. Media reports of Wall's demonstration - on the radio, in the Los Angeles Times, and in the Globe - repeated a nickname for the area used by some residents: "the Hell Zone."

"I resent the fact they referred to it as a Hell Zone, because there's one building on the street drawing a lot of negative attention," says Toney. "Beyond that building, the street is fine."

Toney takes it in stride, and concentrates her efforts on her clientele - the young people in the neighborhood. Chez Vous is a Dorchester institution. It is Boston's only surviving roller rink, and it has been at the same location since Bernard and Faye Leventhal ran it in the 1930s near the intersection of Blue Hill Avenue and Morton Street. Back then, this area was predominantly Jewish. Today, the neighborhood is home to many Latinos, Haitians, and African-Americans. Toney and her sons began operating Chez Vous in the early 1990s. It was around that time Toney sensed a major shift. "I began to see how the social climate among our youth was changing," she says.

She started seeing crack deals in broad daylight. And one day in January 1994, several teens opened fire inside the rink, injuring seven people. The shooting made national headlines, and the rink's name became synonymous with the gang violence escalating in Boston at that time. Toney fought to keep her business open by strengthening the rink's after-school programs. The violence subsided, and for the next 10 years, everything rolled smoothly at Chez Vous. Gang activity has quieted down. But in February, a 15-year-old was stabbed at Chez Vous. Toney was warned that the city could cut the rink's hours back. One day this spring, Toney found graffiti on her building. She recognized the tag immediately; it denoted a group of youths who hang around Lucerne Street, just a few blocks away. She went to them. "You can't do that," she recalls telling them. "Don't put any claim on any property here. Do you pay the mortgage here?" After her scolding, one of the youths removed the graffiti from Chez Vous. And that was that.

Toney sees it like this: "The kids are not bad. They do bad things."

Toney knows young mothers who can't find day care, and children in the projects with nothing to do after school. She knows high school dropouts who can't find jobs, including former gang members who now have children of their own. "Our kids are raising themselves now," she says. "And nobody is helping."

SCOTT AMARAL AND HIS HUSBAND, FRANZ LIMOGES, scoffed when a realtor friend suggested they buy a house in Dorchester. "We didn't know anything about the area or the houses and had this idea that it was a dangerous place," Amaral says.

But they realized they could not afford a home in their neighborhood in Arlington. They decided to check out a house on Jones Hill in Dorchester, where clusters of Victorian-era homes overlook Pleasant Street. The couple was impressed with the stately Queen Anne Victorian. The 1894 building was intact: the parson's bench at the foot of the staircase, the basket-weave pattern ceiling medallion, the dining room's built-in oak china cabinet and velvet-lined silverware drawer, the living room's built-in bookcase and gumwood fireplace, the hardwood floors. They purchased the house for $439,000 and settled in.

Four years later, Amaral now serves as president of the Jones Hill Association. These days, while he repairs his house or works in his garden, he notices prospective buyers strolling through the neighborhood. A physician recently moved in next door.

"Dorchester has made a crucial turn in its history," says Daniel Monti, a sociology professor at Boston University. Today, he says, concerns focus on the pace and effects of that comeback, "when 10 to 20 years ago we worried about how much future Dorchester had.

"A greater variety of people live there. People appear to be getting along better," says Monti. "We're in the happy position now of having to debate just how strong of a comeback Dorchester is going to have, instead of whether it's going to come back at all."

Emily Sweeney is a member of the Globe staff. E-mail her at esweeney@globe.com.

 NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH PART 1: The Sound of Silence in the North End (By Will Kilburn, Boston Globe, 1/23/05) Photo Gallery North End photos
 NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH PART 2: Same Old Southie (By Anthony Flint, Boston Globe, 5/29/05) Photo Gallery Southie photos
 NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH PART 3: Born Again in the West End (By Monica Collins, Boston Globe, 8/7/05) Photo Gallery West End photos
 NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH PART 4: Dot. Dot. Dot. (By Emily Sweeney, Boston Globe, 9/18/05) Photo Gallery Dorchester photos