One Tough Neighborhood

Lyon Street in Dorchester is a modest little thoroughfare. It’s nothing more than a one-block-long connector between Dorchester Avenue and Adams Street, but when the Commonwealth’s biggest law enforcers came to crime-plagued Dorchester with designs on creating a new kind of crime-fighting model in 1993, it was one of the first places they looked.

At the time, Lyon Street was the home of a lively and open drug trade, which hardly made it unique in this section of Boston. But it was also home to a group of neighbors who had begun to do something about the problems besetting their street. This was exactly the kind of thing that Attorney General Scott Harshbarger and Suffolk County District Attorney Ralph Martin were seeking. The AG and the DA, along with the mayor’s office and the police, embarked on a pilot project for a community-based program that would be called the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative.

Upon his appointment as DA in 1992, Martin had spoken of his desire to be more responsive to neighborhoods’ needs, of creating law-enforcement methods that were more community-based than the emergency-response systems that were the norm. This was a desire he shared with Harshbarger, his one-time boss. The two worked together a decade earlier when Harshbarger was the Middlesex DA and Martin was one of his assistants. Shortly after his appointment, Martin began talking with Harshbarger about such a project, and their two offices started discussions with the police and the mayor’s office. The idea that took shape, the genesis of the SNI, was a concept that would embrace such grassroots efforts as neighborhood crime watches and forums for ongoing contact between citizens, police, and prosecutors. It called for designating specific high-crime areas and, in a bold step, establishing “community prosecutors”–assistant DAs, that is, who were assigned expressly to handle cases arising only from their assigned areas. The plan further recognized the need for addressing these neighborhoods’ crime-related economic problems, such as business closures, by providing training and technical assistance for small businesses.

Ellen Mason had already developed a reputation, as she proudly recollects today, as Lyon Street’s “pushy broad” at the time when Ralph Martin and the others were looking at her part of town as a likely test site. She was the one who had decided that the young drug dealers who had set up shop on her street wouldn’t ruin the lives of her and her neighbors.

“I was the instigator,” says Mason, a jovial woman who works as the executive assistant at the Fields Corner Community Development Corporation in Dorchester. “We were having some very heavy drug activities on the street that were not responding to police efforts. There was constant activity, and people were afraid to let their children play on the street.”

Mason started the enterprise on her own, taking her dog, Hershey, on regular walks up and down Lyon Street. She and Hershey would walk right through the groups of sellers “just to let them know they didn’t own this place.” Meanwhile, she’d begun working on her neighbors, few of whom she actually knew, to form a neighborhood organization designed to get the dealers off the street. The going was slow because neighbors feared the potential consequences of engaging the young dealers.

“It took about two years of working at it before I actually had crime-watch meetings,” Mason says. “And from there, you watched it build.”

One day, Mason received a phone call from the state attorney general’s office. The caller was Marcia E. Jackson, an assistant AG who had been assigned to prosecute cases as a special assistant DA in Dorchester’s high-crime turf encompassing Fields Corner, Meetinghouse Hill, Jones Hill, Bowdoin Street, Geneva Avenue, and Four Corners. It was the first area targeted for the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative. Mason invited Jackson to attend the next meeting of the Lyon Street crime-watch group. Jackson did attend, along with Suffolk County First Assistant DA Robert P. Gittens, and one of the first community-based links that would come to define the SNI was forged.

The ups and downs of crime

Today, the Dorchester SNI is cited by a wide array of people–prosecutors, police, elected officials, neighborhood workers, and citizens–as a ray of hope in the fight against crime. It is an example, they say, of a collaborative, community-based initiative in which citizens, neighborhood groups, and law-enforcement and governmental entities join forces to fight not just criminals, but the conditions that foster criminal activity.

What happens when government and community leaders team up to get tough on crime?

According to Boston Police, crime in the Dorchester SNI has declined significantly since the inception of the program. Crime is down in all major categories from 1993 through 1995. The number of violent crimes reported to police fell from 495 to 398 during that time, and property crimes fell from 1,326 to 1,231. The drop is even more dramatic when 1995 figures are compared to 1991 and 1992, before the program began.

et by no means has trouble been eliminated from the district. There were six homicides in 1993 and 1994, and four in 1995. This spring a series of gang-related shootings rocked the Bowdoin Street area. In a two-month period, three youths were killed. Authorities responded with a show of force that put several gang members behind bars. At least for now calm has returned.

Meanwhile, according to its advocates, the SNI has done more than reduce crime. According to prosecutor Jackson, the driving principle of the SNI is “the concept of law enforcement in combination with neighborhood revitalization.” After the SNI’s creation, the effort received a $55,000 state grant, notable because it came not from a business-development organization but from the Massachusetts Commission on Criminal Justice, to fund an effort called “This Neighborhood Means Business.” TNMB is operated out of the Dorchester Center for Adult Education and provides training for all the mom-and-pop businesses that comprise the area’s commercial base. Many of them are operated by foreign immigrants strong in entrepreneurial drive but lacking in technical expertise.

The idea behind linking law enforcement with neighborhood revitalization is that in an area like this one, the two endeavors are mutually dependent. “A community can’t be stabilized if it doesn’t have the amenities to survive,” says Susan C. Worgaftik, director of the Dorchester Center for Adult Education, who has worked in the area for 19 years. “If there are boarded-up buildings all over the place, it’s less likely that you’re going to see this as a community you’re going to stay in. And if there are boarded-up buildings, they become natural centers for criminal activities.”

“A community can’t be stabilized if it doesn’t have the amenities to survive,” says Susan C. Worgaftik.

To Joe Carpenito, who has been involved in Dorchester neighborhood activities for 25 years as director of the Log School, a multi-function neighborhood agency that he founded, neighborhood revitalization requires parallel processes.

“Once you start dealing with the crime issue, the major thing I see that’s going to turn neighborhoods around is economic development,” says Carpenito, seated in his comfortably cramped rear office in the large Victorian house that is the Log School. “You have to be in sync. You can clean up neighborhoods, you can get kids off the corners, you can make many arrests, you can have zero tolerance, but you also need economic development so that the neighborhood can be revived.

Joe Carpenito: “Once you start dealing with the crime issue, the major thing that’s going to turn neighborhoods around is economic development.”

“You need to be able to compete with what I call the underground economy. There’s a vast underground economy that takes place in these neighborhoods, and what happens is that that money doesn’t benefit the neighborhood. A lot of revenue is generated through illegal activities, but that money is not spent in the neighborhood because there aren’t many places to spend it.”

The Log School is located on Bowdoin Street, just east of its intersection with Geneva Avenue, in the heart of a commercial area dominated by bodegas, hair salons, and beeper-rental stores. (According to Worgaftik, beeper rentals proliferate in poor neighborhoods not so much because of beeper use by drug dealers but because it’s cheaper to rent a beeper and rely on pay phones than to pay a monthly phone bill.) There are several storefront churches. But there is no bank. The nearest one is located on Dorchester Avenue at Fields Corner, a 15-minute walk away.

Jesus Rosa, chairman of the Bowdoin-Geneva Merchants Association and owner of the Rossi Market on Geneva Avenue, says he has seen a huge difference in the neighborhood since the inception of SNI. “I can tell the difference just in terms of attitudes,” he says. “A couple of years ago, people were afraid to walk up Geneva Avenue from the Fields Corner T station. Now you see ladies walking around at all different hours. The kids on the street are actually playing now. They’re having fun.”

“I can tell the difference just in terms of attitudes,” says Jesus Rosa. The SNI “brings everyone to the table.”

According to Rosa, 15 new businesses have opened in his area since the inception of the SNI. Prior to SNI, he says, business openings had become almost nonexistent and merchants were fleeing the area. He says there are no vacant storefronts in the Bowdoin-Geneva area now. The “For Sale” signs that popped up during the worst period of violence a few years ago when several merchants were murdered (the last of whom, Geneva Avenue grocer Manuel Monteiro, was killed in February, 1994, when U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was in town for an SNI event only a few blocks from the murder scene) are gone now, he says. In Rosa’s opinion, the SNI is largely to credit for the change because “it brings everyone to the table, and people are working together.”

Dialogue with community

Ask the people who are familiar with the Dorchester SNI about its apparent success and they will invariably list two factors: the specially designated prosecutors, like Jackson, whose job is to expedite “SNI cases,” and the collaborative, community-based structure governing its operation. In Dorchester, the SNI is overseen by an advisory board of some 30 members who represent the police, the prosecutors, neighborhood groups, businesses, etc., and who meet once a month. The subject matter, according to advisory board members, typically focuses on specific problem areas, problem individuals, case dispositions, and the like.

To prosecutors, groups like the Dorchester SNI advisory board provide an opportunity to ask questions. Gittens, the First Assistant Suffolk DA, says that one of the things he’s learned in Dorchester is that while people are obviously concerned about serious crime, they were also concerned about “those types of crimes that undermine the sense of order in a neighborhood.”

“We go to neighborhood people now,” Gittens says, “and we ask questions: What are the things that you see that are law-enforcement related that may not be on our radar screen right now and we need to respond to? It might be graffitti, it might be prostitution, it might be kids hanging out and shoplifting from local stores, things like that.”

In the Dorchester SNI, three prosecutors–two from the AG’s office and one from the Suffolk DA–are designated to handle “SNI cases” exclusively. The fact that prosecutors are assigned to neighborhoods instead of courts is one of the most significant characteristics of the SNIs.

“If a case comes out of that area, we designate it as an SNI case,” Gittens says. “Based on the facts and the circumstances, we will present that case in court in a way that reflects the concerns of the community.”

For example, he says, if an area has been plagued with car theft and someone whom the police arrest on a car-theft charge has been a problem to the community in the past, the DA may forgo the normal district-court procedure and instead indict the person in Superior Court. Similarly, he says, they may take a seemingly unimportant graffitti case and press the issue in district court if it’s an area that has been plagued by graffitti.

Meanwhile, residents who belong to the variety of neighborhood-watch organizations that have followed the lead of Ellen Mason’s group on Lyon Street have learned how to write “community impact statements” for the courts’ considerations in evaluating alleged wrongdoers. These impact statements provide a means which a judge probably would not otherwise have for seeing why a person charged with a minor crime might be more of a community problem than would appear to be the case.

“We can work the cases better,” says Susan H. Spurlock, deputy chief of the Attorney General’s Criminal Bureau. “We’re better advocates for the Commonwealth because we’re reaching out to the neighborhoods and understanding the significant contribution the community can make.”

“There’s a lot of communication that goes on between prosecutors and the police and the community about those who are particularly troubling individuals,” Gittens says. Recalling the shootings early this year in the Bowdoin-Geneva area, Gittens notes the response that followed because of the SNI designation. What seems to have stopped the violence was an already legendary demonstration of the new unified approach to crime-fighting in Dorchester: 15 known troublemakers were summoned to Dorchester District Court for an unusual meeting. When the young hoods walked into the room, they came face to face not only with cops and an assistant DA, but people representing the U.S. attorney, the state attorney general, the Drug Enforcement Administration, probation and parole officers, and school police. They were told that these various agencies were sharing information to find who was behind the recent killings. They also were informed that a 24-year-old Roxbury man with a long record had been sent away for 20 years without parole on a Dorchester SNI case for possession of a single bullet.

If there was any doubt that the area now known to troublemakers as the “Miracle Mile” was no place to push the law, the single-bullet case removed it. The summer in the Dorchester SNI has been peaceful.

Changing the climate

To people who have lived or worked in the area for a long time, the primary benefit of the new order in Dorchester is one of perception. “To be blunt,” says Bowdoin-Geneva area resident Davida Andelman, “there’s been a fear of the police, or even downright contempt, in communities of color. So what we’re trying to do is break down that fear and that contempt because only by all of us working together is this community going to change for the better.”

Andelman is director of the community and occupational environmental health program at the Bowdoin Street Health Center, a neighborhood activist, and a member of the SNI board. She speaks surrounded by the din at Ashley’s Breakfast Shop, two blocks down Bowdoin Street from the health center, sipping on an iced coffee to cool the effects of a hot August morning. Andelman lives just a few blocks away, on Clarkson Street, and is a regular here.

Andelman spent part of her growing-up years in Dorchester, then left when her family moved to Worcester and then to Virginia. She returned to Boston as an adult and bought a house back in her old neighborhood 13 years ago. She’s seen big changes on Clarkson Street. “A lot of people get flighty very easily when they see new people coming in and the new people might be different from themselves,” she says. “The street where we bought our house changed over a period of two years, just like that. It was mixed, but after a couple of years it flipped completely to the point where we’re almost the only white family there on Clarkson Street.”

Her neighborhood, she says, is an amalgam of African-Americans, Cape Verdeans, Jamaicans, “and I feel totally comfortable there. This is the type of community I prefer to live in, much to the chagrin of some members of my family and also maybe some friends.” Some of her friends and family members are reluctant to come for a visit, which angers her. “It really pisses me off, to be honest with you, when people talk about ‘this crime-ridden part of Boston.’ Ninety-nine percent of the people who live in our community want to provide for themselves and their families. Less than one percent of the population is wreaking havoc here, and that’s what everyone else sees.”

To Andelman, one of the chief benefits of the SNI is its ability to “break down the barriers of mistrust” between groups. It’s an effective program, in Andelman’s opinion, but she’s seen other effective programs come in and then go when the funding dies. “That’s a problem with all these programs that come and go. You get to a point where you’re ready to make some substantial changes, and then they end. That’s my fear with the SNI as well.”

In fact, the annual operating budget of the Dorchester SNI, financed by a combination of grant money and dedicated human services, is somewhere between $700,000 and $800,000, according to Sara K. Trenary, the AG’s SNI program administrator. And in two years, she says, the grant money runs out.

The future funding of the Dorchester SNI, in reality, is guesswork. After its creation in 1993, the SNI received a $382,000 federal grant in 1994, the first and largest of four scheduled annual payments. In 1995 and 1996, the grants were each $341,000, but according to Trenary, her office and other SNI principals had to lobby hard for restoration of a planned $120,000 cut this year. Next year, the final grant appropriation is scheduled for $191,000, Trenary says.

Meanwhile, however, the state legislature this year has gotten into the act of funding the SNI in Dorchester, as well as seven other locales following Dorchester’s lead, for the first time. This spring, the legislature approved an allocation of $375,000 for the SNIs, one fourth of which was earmarked for “jobs for youths” programs in each area, according to Trenary.

But the degree to which the state’s lawmakers will continue to fund SNIs is anybody’s guess.

ver at the Log School, Carpenito ponders the question of the SNI’s future and concludes that “if the funding were to evaporate today, we would still be able to function.” Perhaps the community prosecutors could be partially replaced by regular court-specific prosecutors with special responsibility for areas like the Dorchester SNI. “I think the groundwork has been established so that we can maintain it,” he says.

If things are better around Bowdoin-Geneva and Meetinghouse Hill and Fields Corner these days, listening to Carpenito’s experienced assessment leads to the conclusion that these improvements are the results of some fragile relationships. As the Log School’s director, he sees it every day. “Gang members come in here and they feel safe here,” he says. “They trust this place. And yet I’m fully involved in community policing. I need to maintain that. I need to maintain the trust of the community. I also need the support of the SNI. It’s important for me to work with the community at a grassroots level and for me to be communicating to the citizenry, the neighborhood, that the police department is trying to do their job. I’ll be honest with you: The police, at one time, were the enemy.”

As part of the SNI, the Area C-11 police headquarters provides the regular presence of Community Service Officers–the old walking policemen, throwbacks to the kinder, gentler days preceding the rapid-response model of recent decades. The Dorchester cops also engage in Operation Nightlight, in which probation officers ride with the police to check on the whereabouts and activities of their probationers. SNI coordinates classes teaching youngsters conflict-resolution skills. It channels some troublemakers into more constructive pursuits, such as the Young Graffitti Masters art program that is coordinated by Boston Public Schools.

Based on the apparent success in Dorchester, several more SNIs now dot the urban Massachusetts map. Since last year, they’ve been set up in Chelsea, East Boston, and Roxbury. Outside of Suffolk County, there are now SNIs (in varying degrees of likeness to Dorchester) in Lynn, Brockton, Fall River, and Taunton. According to Spurlock, a total of 11 assistant AGs are now assigned as special assistant DAs to prosecute SNI cases.

Long-term prospects

Back at the Log School, Carpenito is unwrapping a cigar and contemplating SNI and the neighborhood he serves.

“Now everyone’s at the same table. It’s alleviating some fear in the community. But you could have zero crime and still have bad houses, you’d still have unemployment, and you’d still have very few opportunities for people in this neighborhood.

“There’s no reason I should be running a food bank in this country. Tomorrow morning there’s going to be 200 people out there waiting in line for food! That has nothing to do with the SNI and nothing to do with crime. It’s something greater that we’re dealing with.”

But maybe SNI is a step.

“What makes it work,” says Jackson, the SNI prosecutor, “is that people are using common sense. They’re working together and they’re motivated. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out.”

“What people want in these neighborhoods is exactly the same as what people want in Lexington,” says Worgaftik. “It’s the same stuff.”

Meanwhile, back on Lyon Street, the drug dealers have departed. Working with the police, Ellen Mason and her neighbors learned to be good observers. They took notes on what they saw, compiling bodies of information that might be useful in court. They learned how to write neighborhood-impact statements for court and discovered that they were valuable in the hands of an SNI prosecutor who wanted to convince a judge that a small-time drug dealer should go to jail because his activities are disrupting a neighborhood’s quality of life.

Meet the Author
Even though the bad guys have become scarce on Lyon Street, Mason and her neighbors continue to meet once a month. It seems that they’ve gotten to know, and like, each other. “We’re plaid,” she says. “In terms of ethnicity and whatnot, we’ve got everything including the kitchen sink. I found out that you might have someone down in a stereotypical box, like ‘Hispanics play loud music and so therefore I don’t like Hispanics.’ But suddenly you’re finding out that they have a mortgage just like you, that they worry about their kids at school, that they have the same concerns that you have. And suddenly, it’s like click. We’re all alike. And that’s where you start.”

Richard Dahl is a free-lance writer in Somerville whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine and the ABA Journal.