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Lawrence Harmon

Main Street model revitalizes Roslindale

By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / July 11, 2010

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IF URBAN commercial districts can be fairly compared to ecosystems, then Roslindale Village is Boston’s healthiest environment. Residents and shoppers interact in balance with each other and their surroundings. Boundaries are clearly defined. Busy restaurants and shops supply the vital nutrients. The area even boasts its own energy source — about 100 active volunteers working with the Roslindale Village Main Street program, a nonprofit group dedicated to the area’s economic vitality.

It wasn’t always an urban paradise. In 1988, former state representative John McDonough told the Parkway Transcript that the most common complaint he heard on the campaign trail was that “Roslindale Square was a pit, that it looked lousy, and that people wanted it to go away.’’ Arson was suspected in several blazes in or near the square. General seediness had taken root. But not irreversibly, as it turns out.

The comeback of Roslindale Village — or Roslindale Square as older Bostonians prefer — during the past 25 years is rich in lessons for city dwellers still living in down-at-the-heel neighborhoods. Redemption is always possible by following the Main Street business model that emphasizes incremental improvements over grandiose plans.

A timeline of revitalization in Roslindale Village tells the story: city agencies enlarge a pocket park in 1989; a few properties become eligible for federal historic preservation tax credits in 1994; the 18,000-square foot Village Market food store fills an ugly gap on Corinth Street in 1998; in succeeding years, upscale restaurateurs take a chance on the neighborhood; in 2007, the city’s public works department commits to cleaning up litter on sidewalks daily.

Individually, none of these is earth-shaking. But together, they gave residents the backbone to stay in the neighborhood and business owners confidence to improve storefront facades, even removing the ugly metal grates that made their establishments look like five-and-dime fortresses.

“It’s the small improvements that beget more improvements,’’ explained Jody Burr, executive director of Roslindale Village Main Street.

Much has been said and written in urban studies about the broken window theory, which posits that even a single occurrence of urban blight, like a turned-over trash can or abandoned car, opens the door for widespread lawlessness. Thankfully, the theory also works in reverse.

Many small business owners in Roslindale Square fled in the 1970s and ’80s when the city’s school desegregation crisis drove middle class residents to the suburbs. But other merchants adapted. Clothier Joseph Beck of J.B. Edward Uniforms, for example, simply switched his inventory to school uniforms to accommodate increases in private and parochial school enrollment. He’s still going strong on South Street. And Sullivan’s Pharmacy & Medical Supply on Corinth Street held its ground against both urban blight and the encroachment by chain drug stores.

Today, the attraction of Roslindale Village is not just that it is clean and safe. It’s one of the rare neighborhood commercial districts in Boston where diners from the suburbs are just as likely as locals to be found in the popular restaurants. It’s still a place to go for $4 plus-size ladies’ blouses, dish rags, and flyswatters. But it’s also a destination for customers whose tastes run toward truffle cheese at $29.95 per lb. A farmers’ market on Saturdays has been drawing about 2,000 people at a stretch.

The revitalization of Roslindale Village is closely linked with the rise in political fortune of Mayor Thomas Menino. In 1984, then district councilor Menino looked beyond Boston to discover the Washington-based National Trust for Historic Preservation, which oversees hundreds of mostly small town Main Street initiatives nationwide. Menino lobbied the preservationists to do an urban demonstration project in Roslindale Square that still stands as one of the Trust’s major successes. It made both Roslindale and Menino look good.

During his first mayoral term in 1995, Menino created a citywide Boston Main Streets program, which now spends about $1 million annually to support efforts in 19 commercial districts. Main Street efforts in Dorchester’s Fields Corner and the South End’s Washington Street corridor look promising. But none of the groups have yet to match the success of Roslindale Village. Most still need to do a better job prioritizing projects and cultivating constituencies consistent with the local character of their own business districts.

Renewal can take place, even in the city’s neediest commercial areas. But only in finite steps.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.

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