Two blocks, one city

For many Boston residents, the vote for mayor is more than just a choice between two men. It is a referendum on what sort of city has grown up around them during the Menino years, for better and for worse, and what sort of place they want this to be.

By Maria Sacchetti and Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / October 25, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

Much has changed since Mary and Jim Bryson moved into their white Colonial along a narrow stretch of South Street on the fringes of Roslindale.

They were a young couple in the mid-1980s, raising two children amid the aftershocks of Boston’s racial violence. Jim is a strapping, kind-hearted roofer. Mary is a chain-smoking, blunt-speaking Newbury Street meter maid who slips saucers of milk to a neighborhood cat.

Now their children are grown and gone, and, in their neighborhood, the only constant is change. Down the street and around the corner, they hear Spanish and Haitian Creole. Mary Bryson, 57, patronizes a Latino hairdresser and buys cigarettes at the nearby bodega. As she chatted with a visitor one recent afternoon, her new neighbor approached with a mischievous smile and asked, “Did they tell you the gays moved in?’’

Everybody laughed. The gays, in fact, had moved in, lesbian couples on either side.

In many ways, big and small, the neighborhoods of Boston have changed profoundly over the last 16 years, with new trees, new signs, new businesses, and new people.

But, through it all, one constant has endured, the mayor, Thomas M. Menino, a politician famously devoted to the smallest details of the city’s daily life. In nine days, Bostonians will return to the polls to decide whether to keep Menino in office for an unprecedented fifth term.

While much of the election has focused on controversies at City Hall and debates on television, residents are taking stock of the city in an entirely different way, looking outside their own doors, up and down their streets, and asking themselves whether all the change is for the better and, if so, how much to credit Menino for it.

To that end, Globe reporters spent a week knocking on doors and talking to residents on two different blocks on the opposite sides of Roslindale: one high on a hill in a distinctly middle-class neighborhood, the other hard by the congestion of Washington Street, a short walk from the area’s only public housing development.

What reporters found was general satisfaction with the state of the city, but anxiety over where Boston goes from here, on two blocks that widely reflect Menino’s successes in office but that also offer testimony to his unfinished business and his failures.

The old days, when the Orange Line was called the “terror train,’’ and Roslindale Square was a warren of garbage and graffiti, have clearly been banished, replaced by a collection of bistros and specialty shops. But residents expressed strong feelings about fixing the problems that remain, especially in the classroom, where many students still struggle on state achievement tests.

“I think we’ve come a long way,’’ said Steve Gag, a community organizer who has lived on South Street with his wife, Laura, for almost 24 years. “But we have an even longer way to go.’’

Lorraine Street
A mile or so from the vibrancy of Roslindale Village and up a steep slope sits Lorraine Street. It lies in a decidedly bucolic swatch of the city, and yet it is a street that sounds and smells and feels like home, home in Boston, circa 2009.

As it happens, there is a Lorraine on Lorraine Street, Lorraine Magner, who arrived in the late 1960s at a place she recalls as very different from where she lives today. When her family moved into the corner house, the neighbors circulated a poisonous petition demanding their departure.

“My brother’s best friend was black,’’ explained Magner, a steely nurse-practitioner who bought her mother’s house. “My mother hung out with people who looked like hippies. They were doctors and nurses, but they had long hair. Now, it’s much more diverse and accepting.’’

The proof lives up and down her block. There’s a gay couple across the street and, in several other homes, residents who reflect the city’s increasingly rich racial and ethnic tapestry. There is an Irish brogue at the top of the street, an unhurried Southern drawl at the bottom, and, right in the middle, from a house festooned with pumpkins and pots of marigolds and mums, a Boston accent booms from the first floor, as Spanish drifts down from upstairs.

On the street, there is evidence of the well-oiled Menino municipal machine at work. Young trees, still leafy in the fading autumn sun, provide the first hints of shade for children who have revived an old street in an old neighborhood. The city planted the trees there a few years back. Sidewalks stretch smooth and unpocked, an inviting tableau for an evening stroll. The city refashioned those sidewalks at about the same time they brought in the trees.

Like the broader neighborhood around it, crime on Lorraine Street is low, the street is clean, and property values have roughly doubled since Menino took office in 1993.

“Menino? I’m very happy with how he’s dealt with the neighborhoods,’’ said Tim Keefe, a supervisor at the Massachusetts Port Authority who is raising his family in a sunny house perched on a hillock.

Besides the small achievements of governance, trees, and sidewalks, there are the more transformative, like the rebirth of the winding streets and back alleys they used to call Rozzie Square.

Not so long ago, it was shadowy and forbidding at night, a landscape of steel grates scarred with graffiti. Today, Roslindale Village provides the template for what Menino would like to do with the city at large.

There are English-as-a-second-language classes. A dollar store. A cheese shop perfumed with the aromas of France and Italy. A farmer’s market. Live jazz. In Fornax Bread Co., a photo shows three children on a stoop cradling baguettes; the inscription underneath asks, “Paris or Roslindale?’’

Back on Lorraine Street, Doug Graves is out for a late afternoon walk. He sought refuge here six months ago from Mattapan, a move that illustrates the uneven success of Menino’s neighborhood focus.

In Mattapan, 36 percent of the residents regard shootings as a major neighborhood problem, according to a city report. By contrast, only 9 percent feel that way in Roslindale.

On Lorraine Street, Graves has found serenity. A child ambles by on the sidewalk as dusk descends, and Graves offers a lilting hello. A man, swaying side to side, comes along next. “How are you doing, my man?’’ Graves inquires, prompting a brief soliloquy from the passerby on the wonders of new teeth.

“Look here, it’s like night and day compared to where I was,’’ said Graves, a 58-year-old painter, whose honeyed North Carolina accent seeps through. “I feel safe here. It was like Jed Clampett leaving Tennessee, like Weezie and George moving up. Am I capturing it?’’

South Street
One late night a year ago, a thief tried to steal the tires on Max Fripp’s car on South Street, just days before his wife, Danielle Samalin, was due to give birth to their first child. Their neighbor, a middle-age gentleman who had lived on the street for years, ran outside and chased the thief down the block.

When he recalls the man’s actions that night, Fripp still shakes his head in amazement. “He said, ‘That’s what neighbors are for.’ ’’

This block of lower South Street, a narrow, curvy road where Roslindale flows toward Forest Hills, is a collection of single-family homes and well-kept tenements, some grand and well appointed, others filled with the cheerful disorder of young, working families. It is a mix of suburbs and city life: Backyards unfold into Arnold Arboretum, but they are also steps from busy Washington Street.

Neighbors are fierce about keeping it safe and have no qualms about pressuring the city to help them.

Residents swap telephone numbers and run a listserv that alerts one another and city officials about speeding cars, muggings, and the condition of the streets.

The city reacts in kind. Stop signs, drive-slow signs, and crime watch signs abound, and a guard rail shields a house that was slammed by a car. Nearby, residents ride in the freshly painted bicycle lanes on busy Washington Street and feel safe walking their dogs in local parks. The nearest city park, sprawling Healy field, has received nearly $1 million in improvements since Menino’s tenure began.

Over the last 16 years, many of the single- and two-family houses on the block have doubled in value, and some have almost tripled. Still, for many, it has been an affordable option.

Fripp and Samalin, both 31, chose Roslindale nearly two years ago because, for the price of a condominium in Jamaica Plain, they bought a spacious single-family house in a hip location where they know the butchers in the square by name.

“Max will call and say: ‘Mel, it’s Max. Do you have any chicken left?’ ’’ Danielle said with a laugh.

Last weekend, the neighborhood revived a dormant block party, and dozens turned out for cookies, music, and dip, people like Nancy Laste, whose son Andrew played ball in the barricaded street.

But in a neighborhood that has undergone one of Boston’s most dramatic demographic transformations in recent years, with significant increases in Latinos and immigrants, there are sometimes tensions under the neighborly veneer.

Mary Bryson, the meter maid, has watched the disappearance of many of the familiar faces that surrounded her for years. The swift change makes her feel uncomfortable sometimes, and she is thinking about leaving.

Some families play loud music and don’t turn it down when she asks. Others do not say hello to her as she walks down the street. She used to have the keys to her neighbor’s houses, but she does not have any keys now. She feels less safe.

“It got worse,’’ she said of her neighborhood.

Across the street, Bianca Leiva, a 39-year-old grocery worker who sometimes plays her music loud, said it took her a long time to learn the neighborhood’s rules. For years, she was the only Latina on the block, and she rarely socializes with her neighbors.

Still, she has no plans to leave, and she feels safe here, both because there are more Latinos and because of neighbors such as Bryson.

They are different, Bryson and Leiva, but share one vital trait: They look out for each other.

Sitting in her sunny, smoke-filled kitchen, Bryson recalls one day 20 years ago when Leiva called an ambulance for her. Bryson had suffered a severe allergic reaction to vitamins.

Leiva, sitting on a red couch in the warm living room where she raised her own family, knows her neighbors would help if she needed it. “I know they watch out for me,’’ she said.

Unfinished business
Rachel Lerner and her partner did not hesitate to move to South Street, near the tree-filled arboretum and the farmer’s market in the village. But she is worried about the schools.

It is a fear that echoes from South Street to Lorraine Street and beyond. For all that Menino has accomplished here, schools are his unfinished business.

Lerner’s 8-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son attend the Philbrick, where test scores are similar to the state average. But at their neighborhood middle school, the Irving, nearly half the children are flunking state math tests. Lerner volunteers on a school-parent committee that is trying to improve that school, years before her oldest would enroll.

“We’re trying to make the Irving a school that people will want to send their kids to,’’ she said, as an apple pie baked in the oven. “I hope we can.’’

On Lorraine Street, the Keefes send their 9-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter to the Lyndon School in West Roxbury. It is, Tim Keefe said, everything they had hoped for when he and his wife moved from Charlestown to start a family a decade ago.

“That was a big issue for us, deciding whether we were going to go with public schools or parochial school or private schools,’’ Keefe said, standing on his porch, his words straining to be heard above a cacophony of young voices playing along Lorraine Street. “We decided we wanted to support public schools.’’

Rebeka Reyes, a 19-year-old who lives with her family in a crowded rental on South Street, is among the 45 percent of children in the city whose parents are immigrants. Often, their parents work late and are unfamiliar with Boston’s schools and how difficult it is to pick the best ones.

Reyes attended English High School, at the time one of the worst in the state. She skipped school, dropped out, and ended up in a state alternative program that put her on the right track. Now she is a composed student at Bunker Hill Community College. She has heard that English High improved, but it was too late for her.

“When I was in high school, nobody was after me saying, ‘You can’t be doing this,’ ’’ Reyes said.

On Lorraine Street, Ruth Rodriguez, who works with families at Boston Day and Evening Academy in Roxbury, calls the achievement gap in the schools “immoral.’’

“It shouldn’t matter whether you go to school in Roslindale or West Roxbury or Mattapan or Roxbury or East Boston,’’ Rodriguez said, anger flashing in her eyes. “Every school should be a quality school.’’

Hope for the future
Spend a few days on the doorsteps of Lorraine Street, decorated for the season, and this as much as anything becomes evident: Tom Menino’s Boston, as the people of these streets speak of it, is a city grown more comfortable in its own skin. The old divisions of the city - the turmoil of busing, the perfidy of Charles Stuart - seem distant, though hardly forgotten, memories.

In the assessment of Gene Holmes, a high school English teacher and native Bostonian, the city is less provincial, less parochial. Maybe, he said, that is the natural order of things.

But maybe, residents of Lorraine Street said, it has something to do with Menino, a politician cut from decidedly different cloth than the polarizing, irascible figures of Louise Day Hicks of South Boston and Dapper O’Neil, who lived for many years on Washington Street in Roslindale.

John and Carol DeGiacomo have lived through it all. They moved into their formidable house, smack in the middle of Lorraine Street, 35 years ago.

DeGiacomo, retired from his maintenance engineering job at the MBTA, can reel off the comings and goings of the neighborhood with military precision. There are, for example, the old-timers who packed up and moved to Scituate. (“I talked to them afterward,’’ the gregarious 68-year-old said. “They were mad because of the traffic, just to get home on the Expressway takes forever.’’) And then there are the people across the street who moved from Hull. (“They love the area.’’)

His daughter’s family occupies the second floor of the house. DeGiacomo, who regularly welcomes the neighborhood mail carrier for a chat once his appointed rounds are complete, also rents space to two women from Guatemala.

“Years ago, the Irish and the Italians came,’’ said DeGiacomo, father of four, grandfather of six. “Now, you’ve got people from all over the world. As long as they work and do their thing, this is America.’’

His affection for the city is worn like a badge of pride. He grouses about taxes - who doesn’t, really? - but, in the next breath, concedes that Menino has taken “pretty good care of the area,’’ which he attributes, in part, to Menino living in neighboring Hyde Park.

“It’s like Southie when Flynn was mayor,’’ DeGiacomo said.

On his front lawn stands the lone Flaherty placard on the block, a sign placed there with no rancor toward the incumbent but, instead, an acknowledgement of family loyalty. “My cousin,’’ he said, with a shrug and a smile, “is married to Flaherty.’’

Such is Boston.

Globe librarian Elisabeth Tuite contributed to this report. Maria Sacchetti can be reached at Stephen Smith can be reached at