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Neighborhood welcomes the president with pride

Visit validates work to revitalize Codman Square

President Obama and Melinda Gates visited a classroom yesterday at TechBoston Academy. After addressing a crowd in the gymnasium, the president visited two classrooms, where he interacted with about 40 students. President Obama and Melinda Gates visited a classroom yesterday at TechBoston Academy. After addressing a crowd in the gymnasium, the president visited two classrooms, where he interacted with about 40 students. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff)
By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / March 9, 2011

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As President Obama’s motorcade rolled down Norfolk Street yesterday afternoon, residents in this scrappy Dorchester neighborhood raised their voices in collective pride.

“Obama!’’ they roared, as the president smiled and waved at a small yet boisterous crowd that lined the street.

Children hoisted flags, women squealed, and the young and old snapped photographs with cameras and cellphones. Many were delirious at the rare, up-close sighting of a US president on the winding street where MBTA buses rumble and faded dreams of a better community have been revived.

“It’s historic, isn’t it?’’ said Larry Dossantos, who owns an auto repair shop near TechBoston Academy, where the president visited. “The president is in the ’hood.’’

Obama’s visit was a huge boost for the technology-driven high school, which earned the honor because of its success in educating students from tough neighborhoods and low-income backgrounds. But his presence also was a validation to Codman Square, whose residents have been making great strides in bringing in new families, fresh foods, and a sense of pride.

“It is recognition that we matter,’’ said Nebulla Stephen, the 29-year-old vice president of the Codman Square Neighborhood Council, who was not around to greet the president. “What matters is that every day we take baby steps to make our community better, and it’s being done by everyday people.’’

Many who came out wanted to touch Obama’s hand, see his smile, talk with him, or get a glimpse of the motorcade. Obama is proof of what TechBoston can do, what the neighborhood can do, and what individuals can do with opportunities, said Till Freeman, a Dorchester resident.

“What’s going on today is history,’’ he said. “This neighborhood used to be gang-involved, but we now have people who take pride in the community. For me, I may never have an opportunity to come out and see the president.’’

The day was not without controversy. Some students grumbled in the early afternoon because they were not among the 200 students who were invited into the gym during the president’s visit; most said they were able to see him only via a monitor set up in the cafeteria.

Jandira Lobo, a 16-year-old junior from Dorchester who attends Dorchester Academy, which shares a building with TechBoston, wasn’t invited.

“I don’t think it is fair,’’ Lobo said. “They pretty much kicked us out.’’

Davina Tran said she was invited to attend the event but did not show up because she would have had to watch his speech on the monitor. “A lot of students . . . want to meet Obama in person,’’ said the 16-year-old sophomore. “They were highly disappointed’’ that they would not see him.

In the end, all 150 TechBoston students were allowed into the gym to see the president, who also went into the crowd and conversed with them, Bruce Pontbriand, an administrator and teacher at TechBoston, said last night after the speech.

A handful of Dorchester Academy students saw the speech via a monitor in the cafeteria. The president also visited two classrooms where he interacted with about 40 students, Pontbriand said.

Outside the school shortly before the president arrived, Neffie Williams, a 17-year-old TechBoston sophomore, was figuring out what she would say to the president if she could.

“I want to talk about gangs and violence around here,’’ she said. “It’s unhealthy for us because we want to go to the top.’’

Outside the school, they came from all over — Mattapan, Hyde Park, or around the corner from the school — for a glimpse of the president. Some brought their children, their dogs, and their high hopes. One woman came while still recuperating from heart surgery.

Residents began arriving at the school hours before the president arrived. They turned up at different entrances to the massive school property, trying to find a good spot to greet him. Some stood on their porches on Peacevale Road; others staked out spots under the barren branches of a tree in a field next to the school, trying to get a good viewing point.

When Patricia Simmons arrived at Armandine Street around 1 p.m. with her 4-year-old grandson, all she could see through her tears was the back of the massive brick school building.

“I don’t understand why we can’t see him,’’ she groaned to a sympathetic police officer. “I see him on TV everywhere shaking people’s hands.’’

By the time Obama arrived after 3 p.m., Simmons and her grandson had made their way to the cheering crowd near Peacevale and Norfolk.

At that spot, she had tears of joy.

“It was awesome,’’ Simmons said, smiling. “I had tears in my eyes seeing a black man of history here.’’

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com.