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An eye-opening ride into the city within the city

Civic leaders tour some of Hub’s bleakest streets

Mariama White-Hammond, of Project Hip Hop, held a rapt audience on the bus. Mariama White-Hammond, of Project Hip Hop, held a rapt audience on the bus. (Suzanne Kreiter/ Globe Staff)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / February 20, 2010

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Taken the tour yet?

For two years, the question has been circulating around corporate boardrooms, financial services offices, foundation planning sessions, even judges’ chambers. Nearly 250 of Boston’s leading philanthropic angels and power brokers already have, and dozens more are on a waiting list to experience what one tourgoer calls “a real eye-opener’’ regarding at-risk youth and violent crime in some of the city’s roughest neighborhoods.

Dubbed the Boston By Night tour, the four-hour bus trip ferries 15 to 20 participants into parts of the city they might otherwise never see, especially after dark. Run by the Boston Foundation as a fund-raising tool for its StreetSafe Boston initiative, the outreach program works with young people in high-crime neighborhoods. The tour is an amalgam of sociological field study, criminal justice seminar, and donor sales pitch, its itinerary typically made up of community centers, housing developments, and law enforcement outposts along a 2-mile stretch of Blue Hill Avenue.

“Fundamentally, it’s a reality check,’’ says State Street Foundation head George Russell, who took the tour a year ago and has urged others to do so. “The issues young people are grappling with in this city are right in your face.’’

Tour stops are carefully chosen for maximum emotional impact. One group visited the Boston Medical Center trauma unit, where gunshot victims often wind up late at night.

At Dorchester’s John Marshall Community Center on a blustery February night, 18 tour-takers shared pizza and conversation with a group led by Vance Mills, head of the Boston Police Department’s Youth Violence Strike Force. A handful of StreetSafe workers and former “impact players,’’ as Mills called them, were also present to discuss their own criminal pasts and strategies for steering at-risk youth in more positive directions.

Streetworker Greg Simpson, an ex-basketball star who got entangled in drugs and served 14 years in prison, and Gary Bynoe, a convicted drug offender and ex-gang member, told dramatic stories of personal missteps and reclaimed lives. “I’m the poster boy,’’ said Bynoe, who now has three children of his own. “If I can get up and go to work, anyone can.’’ A nephew of his was less lucky, Bynoe added, having been gunned down at age 15. “I tell kids, you control your own destiny. Selling drugs and gangbanging ain’t forever.’’

With the floor open to questions and comments, US District Court Judge Nancy Gertner, who was taking the tour that night, expressed concern about urban youths winding up in her courtroom “for crimes they wouldn’t be arrested for in Brookline or Newton.’’

“That’s a conversation I’ve been meaning to have with you, Judge,’’ quipped Mills, supplying one of the evening’s rare moments of levity.

Others inquired about factors that might tip one youth toward crime, and what might deter another. The pressures were laid out by streetworker Lavell Bruton, who narrowly escaped a life of crime, he said, and now goes to college yet still gets harassed by cops. The police are “the biggest gang’’ he has to worry about, said Bruton, while Mills stood by impassively.

No two tours are precisely alike, foundation officials say. This one began at 5 p.m. at the foundation’s Arlington Street headquarters, where vice president Robert Lewis Jr. gave a brief orientation to a group that included representatives from Northeastern University, the Boston Ballet, BJ’s Wholesale Club, and at least two money-management firms.

Lewis advised the group not be judgmental or show disrespect to anyone they encountered by looking down or turning away. The briefing continued as the bus rolled toward its first stop, the South End’s Villa Victoria housing project. Lewis noted that 1 percent of Boston’s 16-to-24-year-olds commit 50 percent of its violent crimes. “We know the population, the location, hours of operation, and exactly who the perpetrators are,’’ he said. “Tonight you’ll be seeing the city ‘live.’ ’’

The group exited the van outside O’Day Park, near Villa Victoria, and was met by a group of StreetSafe workers and Boston police officer George Diaz, who gave a street corner seminar on issues facing his community, from drug-afflicted single moms to hard-core gangbangers. The seminar continued on the bus with Project Hip-Hop director Mariama White-Hammond describing how street rules had changed in her Lower Roxbury neighborhood.

In the 1990s, White-Hammond said, a crackdown on high-profile street criminals created a power vacuum that broke down the code of street conduct set by the gangs. Meanwhile, tough economic times have been making it hard for ex-offenders to resume productive lives. “During the Big Dig, there were lots of jobs,’’ she said. “Not now. You can get CORI-ed for any kind of work,’’ a reference to Criminal Offender Record Information background check.

After hearing from the Marshall Center group, tourgoers and streetworkers took a 30-minute walk around the Fields Corner neighborhood. Northeastern vice president Robert Gittens said he valued hearing from streetworkers directly involved in efforts to make neighborhoods safer. “I’ve dealt with plenty of academics who say, ‘The data says this,’’’ Gittens said. “Then I’d ask, ‘That’s fine, but have you ever been out in the street?’ Not many have.’’

On the return ride, more questions and comments were fielded by Lewis. Asked about StreetSafe training and employing ex-offenders, two of whom were terminated for criminal conduct recently, he admitted that not everybody has been happy with his hiring policy. He noted, however, that the Boston Police Department had been consulted during the process and that the cadre of 20 streetworkers now included three women. Gertner raised a pointed question about intelligence gathering and whether streetworkers share information with law enforcement. “Police give us information; we don’t give it to the police,’’ Lewis replied.

Ending in a round of applause, the tour appeared to have achieved its goals. “I know we were getting a glossy picture, but I put that in context,’’ Gertner said afterward. “What mattered more to me was seeing the intended, and unintended, consequences of law enforcement.’’ Combatting violent street crime while offering hope to at-risk young people “takes more than a judge waving a wand and sending people away,’’ she asserted.

Federal Street Financial principal Charles Walsh said his first thought was to contact clients and urge them to get on the tour’s waiting list. His reaction was similar to George Russell’s a year ago. After seeing StreetSafe in action, Russell helped persuade his foundation to commit $250,000 to the program last year, a total it may match this year, he said.

Lewis compared Boston By Night to another popular city tour: “The Duck Tour goes up Mass. Ave. and turns left,’’ he observed. “Ours turns right, into 02119 and higher. We need more folks to see that Boston, too.’’

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