September 22, 2005

One Neighborhood, Many Stories

This is my latest post on the IJJ-Poynter blog on reporting about race:

Massachusetts Avenue connects the ivied walls of Harvard to the gates of a former urban Hell.

The avenue runs from Cambridge to Boston, bisecting the sprawling MIT campus, crossing the Charles River, skirting the 52-story Prudential Center, leaving downtown and less than two miles farther forming the eastern boundary of one of the city's most notorious neighborhoods, Roxbury.

Using the phrase "urban hell" to describe Roxbury's past is not hyperbole. In the 1960s and 1970s, after the post-War white population had moved to Boston's burgeoning suburbs, Roxbury took on a different complexion - blacks African Americans from the South and brown immigrants from Cape Verde, a group of North Atlantic islands west of Senegal.

Property values plummeted, victim of a society that associated people of color with a neighborhood in decline. Building owners couldn't sell or refinance, so they burned - and burned and burned. Hundreds of Roxbury homes and apartment buildings were torched for insurance money in those decades.

The core of this intentional destruction was the Dudley Street Triangle, the poorest blocks within the larger impoverished neighborhood. By 1984, nearly a third of the Dudley Street Triangle's 60 acres lay empty, 1,300 parcels abandoned by their owners left to decline even further into festering mounds of vermin-ridden trash and garbage dumped nightly by scavenger companies and individuals. Dudley Street, once a thriving blue-collar community, had become Boston's dump yard.

The journalists participating in the Institute for Justice and Journalism's 2005 racial justice fellowships made the trip yesterday from one end of Massachusetts Avenue to the other to meet with members of Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, who had accomplished what must have seemed impossible two decades ago - driven out the dumpers, cleaned up the abandoned lots, gained the confidence of Boston's Irish-American political bureaucracy and, with the help of several million-dollars in loans it has since repaid, built hundreds of new, affordable homes in the neighborhood.

Life is not perfect today in the triangle. About a third of Dudley Street residents - 40 percent African American, 30 percent Latino, 25 percent Cape Verdean and the remainder white - live below the poverty level. A neighborhood walk passes by many houses with barred windows and many others still in disrepair. Cabs consider the area off limits. A bathroom in a local Dominican restaurant displays cards offering help for battered women. Powerful lights illuminate a pocket park a night to deter drug dealers.

Yet, life is better. New houses rimmed by picket fences rise from once dead land. The voices of schoolchildren emanate from a playground built by residents. A community greenhouse, built but not yet in use, promises fresh vegetables. Hope is replacing anger and despair.

What kind of stories does Dudley Street hold for journalists, especially in the context of race and reporting?

Is it a success story - a tale of recovery perhaps told through John Barros, who volunteered to help clean his neighborhood as a teen-ager, found his way to Dartmouth and returned as executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative? Is it a people story, that of Jason Webb, who at age 7 followed garbage trucks on his bike, wrote down their license numbers and turned them in as illegal dumpers? He also helps run Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative?

Maybe, though, it's a more sobering story, a narrative of a neighborhood that despite 20 years of committed struggle remains still a place where thugs control part of the night and even some of the newer homes show ragged edges - flaking paint, fallen fences, ripped screens - that result from inattention or lack of money for maintenance? Sadly, Dudley Street continues to be a neighborhood where the journalists who visited it likely would not choose to live.

All these stories are true stories. Which should we tell? How should we tell them?

Tags: , ,

Posted by Tim Porter at September 22, 2005 09:02 AM