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Adrian Walker

Making it home for all

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / July 16, 2011

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The police sirens started blaring early on the Fourth of July weekend, but the drama had begun even before that.

The battle of Fort Hill was in full swing, a neighborhood skirmish that began as a conflict over late-night parties and fireworks, but has quickly metastasized into a donnybrook over race and class.

Rodney Singleton freely admits to having played a role. He is active in the community, and says he called police when some of his neighbors got out of hand. In the neighborhood’s activist tradition, he vividly described the scene on a widely circulated neighborhood e-mail list.

“For my family, the Fourth of July weekend didn’t start well at all,’’ he wrote. He described a party, sanctioned by a nearby condo association, that had, in his view, too many guests and lasted far too long. Then came the element that truly got to him: As he was heading outside, well after midnight, to ask the partiers to leave, he says he was confronted by a woman relieving herself in his backyard.

But where some see wanton disregard for civility, others see the routine inconveniences of living in the city. Neighborhoods can get loud on a summer weekend, they argue. People will generally tone things down if politely asked. And they maintain that calling in the police undermines community bonds and can lead to all kinds of unforeseen consequences. Aside from some just-on-principle anxiety about police, some folks worry that someone with an outstanding warrant or on probation could wind up in serious trouble if arrested in the wake of a minor complaint.

“You move to Roxbury and you’re surprised that people are having parties at 10:30?’’ asked community activist Malia Lazu, who moved in a couple of years ago. “That doesn’t seem realistic. It’s a microcosm of much larger cultural assumptions. “I think you have to be open when you live in close proximity. . . . Not everybody does things the way you do.’’

In any Fort Hill dispute, the disparaging word gentrification comes up early and often, and this contretemps is no exception. The neighborhood, with its sweeping vistas of downtown Boston, has undergone dramatic change ethnically and economically in the past decade or so, leading to occasional friction.

But gentrification is one of those words that doesn’t strike everyone the same way. One person’s class dispute can come off to others as a race dispute. When one resident e-mailed that he would be happy to meet with the “other half’’ of the community to discuss the roiling tensions, he drew a quick rebuke from Lauren Clarke-Mason, an African-American resident and Boston schoolteacher.

“Who might this other half be?’’ she asked. “Don’t play the ‘black card’ for a few fools who have no self-control.’’

In an interview, she told me that the fireworks keep her two children up at night and rejected the idea that there was anything wrong with calling the police to break up an after-hours party. She seemed to regret that race had become a focal point in a dispute that to her seems to come down to good manners.

“Anytime you talk about this city there’s some racial element,’’ she said. “That’s just the way it works. But how can you invoke [race] over bad behavior that has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin? I just want peace and quiet restored to my neighborhood.’’

At this point, one of the few points of universal agreement is that the neighborhood needs to find a way to make peace with itself. But no one seems to have any idea how that is going to happen. You might think that, given the violence gripping Roxbury these days, this collision among neighbors is trivial. But it sure didn’t seem to feel that way to the people grappling for a way to live together without rancor.

“I want to talk about how to make this the best neighborhood in Boston,’’ Lazu said. “This isn’t how neighborhoods are created. This isn’t how communities are built.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.