Dorchester's vibrant cultural mix welcomes everyone

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / June 12, 2011

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Yaser Mohammad, a Palestinian immigrant from the West Bank, serves steak tips and chicken wings to Cape Verdeans at his Dorchester bar, called the Dublin House.

The bar, also known as Yaz’s Place, is a typical slice of Dorchester, the most diverse neighborhood in Boston. The mix of people with different cultural backgrounds makes the area a vibrant place, Mohammad said, where residents come together to find common ground.

“Everybody here is black, white, Cape Verdean, or Spanish, and they’re all the same,’’ said Mohammad, 51, who lives behind the bar in Upham’s Corner. “They’re all coming for the wings.’’

In Dorchester, the biggest neighborhood in Boston with a population of about 92,000, 37 percent of the residents are black; 28 percent white; 14 percent Hispanic; and 12 percent Asian. The relatively low cost of living coupled with the neighborhood’s close proximity to downtown have attracted a wide variety of people from different ethnicities and cultures to the area, residents say. This array of perspectives gives those who live and work in the neighborhood a broader view of the world.

“I think it brings flavor,’’ said Sandra Kennedy, executive director of the Bow doin-Geneva Main Streets business organization in Dorchester.

Kennedy, who is from Trinidad and has lived in the area for 11 years, lists a steady stream of cultural festivals every summer — Hispanic, Cape Verdean, Caribbean, and a Unity Day for people of all ethnicities. “There’s never a dull moment,’’ she said.

Living and working in Dorchester helps residents learn to communicate with people from around the world. Adilson Rodrigues speaks Portuguese, Spanish, English, and his native Cape Verdean Creole to customers at his computer store, Genius Planet on Bowdoin Street, down the street from where he lives.

Speaking all these languages every day, he said, enables him to strike up a conversation easily with anyone.

“Everywhere you go, you can speak the language, and you’ll be able to understand everyone,’’ said Rodrigues, 30.

Dorchester’s relatively low housing costs attract a wide variety of people. A two-bedroom rental in Dorchester costs $1,150 a month on average, the lowest in the city, according to the apartment-hunting company

It wasn’t always this diverse in Dorchester. The neighborhood was fairly white, with big Irish and Jewish populations, until about 50 years ago.

“I felt diverse because my last name was Bronski,’’ said Kevin Bronski, 60, an Irish-Catholic who grew up near the Ashmont T station. “There were two Protestants, and you knew who they were.’’

In the 1960s, as the civil rights movement was stirring up racial tension across the country, unscrupulous bankers and real estate brokers began warning Jewish residents of dropping property values and giving low-interest loans to minorities who bought homes in the area.

“The real estate agents would go around to people and say, ‘Oh, they’re coming, they’re coming, they’re coming,’ ’’ said Earl Taylor, president of the Dorchester Historical Society.

Judy Greeley, 49, the parish secretary at St. Mark Church on Dorchester Avenue, remembers the stark dividing lines when she was growing up in the neighborhood — with whites keeping to one side of Washington Street and blacks to the other.

The neighborhood, now about 70 percent nonwhite, is much more accepting now, said Greeley, who is white and swaps ethnic spices with a global band of Puerto Rican, Bangladeshi, Vietnamese, and African-American neighbors. “It’s been a huge journey from being a very white, Irish-Catholic neighborhood to being an international one,’’ she said.

Segregation still exists in the neighborhood, though. People of similar ethnic groups have tended to settle in the same parts of Dorchester, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Large concentrations of immigrants from Vietnam live in Fields Corner, those from Haiti stick largely to Codman Square and Lower Mills, residents born in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago flock to the Bowdoin/Geneva area, and people with Cape Verdean and Latino backgrounds congregate in Upham’s Corner.

“In Boston, we have continuing residential patterns that suggest race and ethnic groups live in different parts of the city,’’ said James Jennings, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University.

This isn’t a problem as long as people of other cultural backgrounds don’t feel unwelcome in the area, he said.

Some residents say the strong cultural connections within enclaves of Dorchester have helped.

Even though crime remains a chronic problem in some areas, Bok Kwan, 63, who has owned the Boston Fish Market on Dorchester Avenue in Fields Corner for 27 years, said the neighborhood is not as dangerous as it used to be. Kwan, who is from Korea, said he knows all the Asian shopkeepers around him, from the Vietnamese grocer across the street to the Korean cellphone seller and gift shop owner on either side of him.

“My neighbors, they are watching my backyard,’’ he said.

Ky Tran, who lives in Fields Corner and runs the electronics store My Xuyen on Dorchester Avenue, sometimes gets frustrated when he doesn’t understand recent immigrants who can’t speak English.

But Tran, 35, who arrived with his family on a boat from Vietnam in the early ’80s, is glad he’s able to help the Vietnamese speakers who come into the store — not just with TVs and karaoke equipment but with connections in the community.

“It makes the neighborhood stronger,’’ Tran said.

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at

Dorchester: Boston’s most diverse neighborhood