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Yvonne Abraham

Morning in Chelsea

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / September 15, 2011

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CHELSEA - Two decades ago, when he was 70, Buck Mugford had words with the drug dealer who lived next door to him on Chelsea’s waterfront.

“I went to him, nose to nose,’’ Mugford recalled, sitting with some buddies at the Washington Deli earlier this week. “I said, ‘I’m going get you arrested.’ He said, ‘You can’t get me arrested, I know every cop in the city.’ ’’

He had a point. So when the dealer threatened to burn down his house, the retired ironworker sent his wife to live with their daughter in Medford.

Mugford was on his own, because his city was collapsing. The mob ran Chelsea. Mayors and the police had been on the take for years. Those who weren’t had their hands full with the city’s imploding finances and violent crime. Developers wouldn’t touch the place.

“It was a farce.’’ Mugford said. “You lived in Chelsea, everybody laughed at you.’’

By September of 1991, the city’s finances were so dismal that the schools couldn’t afford to open.

“Don’t open the gates of heaven and let us in, but for God’s sake, please open the gates of hell and let us out,’’ bartender-turned-mayor John “Butchie’’ Brennan told legislators, pleading for the state to blow up his administration and save Chelsea.

Twenty years ago this week, Beacon Hill authorized the first state takeover of a city since the Great Depression. Then-Governor William Weld sent in James Carlin as receiver to bring Chelsea back. The no-nonsense millionaire, working for $1, quickly proved he was serious, and that he understood the city’s problems weren’t just fiscal.

“Democracy didn’t fail in Chelsea,’’ Harry Spence, Carlin’s deputy, recalled this week. “It was stolen at the point of a gun.’’

Carlin and Spence, his successor as receiver, broomed City Hall. They shut down the bars where you could order cocaine like beer and took the gambling machines out of the clubs. They remade the police force into one the city’s growing Latino population could trust.

After Carlin sat with Mugford in his kitchen, the dealer was arrested.

“Carlin was the best thing that ever happened to this city,’’ Mugford said. “He regained our confidence.’’

It’s fashionable these days to kick government around. But Chelsea’s story is a tale of how vital government is: of how it can throttle a community, or transform it.

By the summer of 1995, the budget was balanced, and the city was returned to its citizens. Done with mayors, they voted to have Chelsea run by city managers instead.

Jay Ash, a Chelsea native and former Beacon hill staffer, has held the job since 2000. He has collected fans for keeping the city’s finances in line and attracting new businesses, including a Wyndham hotel (a Marriott is on the way). Today Broadway thrives, and community groups once at each other’s throats work well together.

One recent morning, Ash sat in the café at the huge, heavenly Market Basket just off Route 1, beaming at the flagship supermarket that chose his city.

“All the pieces are in place for us to do something spectacular,’’ he said.

Still, this tiny city remains very poor. Youth and domestic violence rates are among the state’s highest. And though the city, with a lot of help from Boston University, has given its children beautiful new schools, MCAS figures are not where they should be. The 60 percent Latino city is still the first stop for immigrants, including those here illegally, who tend to be transient.

Mugford laments the loss of the traditions he knew. And he could do without the smell from the nearby hide plant that wafts over his neighborhood.

But these are the problems of any struggling city - luxuries compared to the bad old days.

“Today I walk the streets with my head held high,’’ he said. “I have no fear.’’

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com