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In Jamaica Plain, fire destroys American dreams

Arson strikes shops that immigrants had built up

Maria Joseph (lower right) stands outside her Maria's Hair Fashions, which was heavily damaged yesterday by an early-morning blaze that spread rapidly.
Maria Joseph (lower right) stands outside her Maria's Hair Fashions, which was heavily damaged yesterday by an early-morning blaze that spread rapidly. (Globe Staff Photo / George Rizer )

It took just gasoline, a spark, and considerable ill will yesterday morning to set ablaze the hopes of a small Jamaica Plain community of immigrant entrepreneurs on South Street in Jamaica Plain, authorities say.

In the space of a few hours before dawn, an apparent arson decimated the businesses of a Dominican hairdresser, a Bolivian pizza maker, a Latino spiritual adviser, and a budding hip-hop impresario.

All had struggled to make it in America. After the fire in their shared building was out by late morning, they realized that the struggle would start again.

''My pizzeria isn't here anymore," said Felix Merida, 51, proprietor of Felix Pizzeria. ''We have to be working to make payments on the house."

Kevin MacCurtain, the acting Boston fire commissioner, said the fire was the work of an arsonist who first smashed a plate glass window in one of the stores, poured gasoline into the interior, and set it afire. No suspects had been identified by late yesterday.

MacCurtain said the arson may be connected to a similar incident in which a nearby Cuban restaurant was burned down last July. That fire is still under investigation as an arson.

''We are going to stay on top of it, and we are going to follow it all the way through," he said. ''We are going to do everything we can to find out who did this."

Building owner Nikolaos Skourtis, a Greek immigrant, said he had no idea why someone would target his property, one of four Boston buildings he owns or has part ownership in.

''I don't have any enemies at all, but you never know," he said. ''It's the worst thing that's happened to me in 35 years."

Some of the business owners salvaged equipment from the fire, and some had insurance. But all of them said they relied on daily income from their businesses to make ends meet and pledged to rebuild their businesses on the block or elsewhere.

Some of the businesses had been in place for more than a decade, while the pizza shop and hip-hop parlor were more recent arrivals, all part of an increasingly vibrant swath of Jamaica Plain where immigrant-run businesses cater to nearby residents.

Yet looming over the charred scene yesterday was the realization that somebody may have wanted them out of business.

''You never know. There are people who are jealous to see things are going well for you," said Maria Joseph, owner of Maria's Hair Fashions, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic 22 years ago, worked hard, and had styled locks on South Street in her salon for 15 years.

The fire started in Maria's Hair Fashions, authorities said. Her salon was at one end of the 6,000-square-foot building. The businesses share a common attic and roof along which the flames spread, fire officials said. The fire, which was called in at 2:43 a.m., went from one to three alarms in 15 minutes, fire officials said.

''I'm going to look for another place," said Joseph, as she stood in front of the slumped, off-hinge 'Maria's Hair Fashions' sign. ''I can do everything: straighten, permanents, color, highlights, eyebrows. I specialize in everything."

Five storefronts over, Maria Espiritu Santo, 48, sold candles, oils, plants, and spiritual guidance to mostly Latino clients who came to her from all over New England. She kept long hours in her Botanica San Miguel, a tiny shop filled with statues of saints, where the Dominican native has worked for a decade.

''You can fix the broken things and replace material objects, but not your life. At least no one was hurt," she said, adding that she has insurance.

A few doors down, Richard Pena could often be found recording the latest aspiring rappers from the neighborhood at his JP Inc. Urban Apparel, where you could buy a hooded pullover or ballcap or record a demo. ''What hurts is the studio. We put a lot of work into that, but the water ruined it all," he said. ''It was a local store, spreading love. It was beautiful."

Devlin Estrella, 21, who wore a Jamaica Plain T-shirt, stopped by to see what had happened.

''People come by here to buy clothes and hang out," he said. ''It was a good environment; no one ever started trouble. It is so sad to see it like this."

MacCurtain said investigators are exploring several motives, including a connection to the July 19 arson that heavily damaged the El Oriental de Cuba on Centre Street.

In both cases, the business owners were Hispanic, and the property owners Greek.

There are broad similarities between the two arsons, including the neighborhood, the ethnicity of the business owners, and the ethnicity of the property owners.

As MacCurtain's crews yesterday tended to the burned out stores, Merida and his wife, Carolina, 40, stood in front of their pizza shop as customers came by to offer their support.

The couple had long ago decided they would first buy a house, then open a pizzeria, and finally have a child. Seven weeks ago, their daughter Jackelyn was born. Life was good, they said.

After 11 years working in other restaurants, Merida had mastered the delicate art of the New York-style slice. His store had become a Jamaica Plain snacking stalwart. But now it was up in smoke.

''It took years of saving, and finally I had this business and a secure source of work," he said. ''It was my dream to have my own business."

John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report

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