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A look at the Fenway neighborhood

An area rich in history and natural resources

By Alan Lupo, Globe Staff, 04/27/97

A middle-aged son was driving his father from a doctor's appointment through the Fenway. The father, not long for this world, talked about how much he missed the old days, the 1920s and '30s.

The father pointed to some apartment houses across from the park and said, ``I woke up one morning in one of those buildings. I had no idea how I got there, or where I was, or who she was.''

``A girlfriend?'' the son asked.

``Not exactly,'' the old man said with a grin.

In its 110 or so years, the Fenway, urban and urbane, has been just about everything it could be to anybody, from institutions of art, medicine and learning to institutions of ill repute.

More than a century ago, Frederick Law Olmsted, the genius of urban design, began creating parkland out of 100 acres of marsh, silt and sewage-tainted Muddy River, and named it after what it was, a fen. It was to be a pastoral and pristine park, affording the weary city dweller some respite from the congestion of buildings, populace and one's own lungs. Within a few years, in the early days of what would become a century-long controversy over what did and did not belong there, tub-thumping Boston boosters, from Yankee architects to Irish politicians, began creating all manner of memorials, universities, hospitals, and apartment buildings, which, with the parkway, became the Fenway, surrounded by the Back Bay, South End, Mission Hill, Roxbury and Brookline.

It is a neighborhood so rich in history and natural resources, its resident leaders and admirers say, that even the latest of its many tragedies cannot destroy its renaissance.

In the darkness of early morning on April 16, a holdup man entered Christy's Market on Jersey Street in the West Fens and shot to death the clerk, Getasetegn ``Geta'' Yalew, 34, a former teacher from Ethiopia who used to send some of his pay home to support his new bride.

For Fenway activists, proud of what they contend has become one of the safer neighborhoods in Boston, the shooting was a reminder that no one is immune to random violence. ``It has freaked a lot of us out completely that it could happen anywhere,'' says Don Hill, vice president of the Fenway Community Development Corporation, ``but particularly in a place we pass by every day, where we know the faces of the people in the store.''

Karen Boxer, president of the Fenway Civic Association, which is often at odds with the CDC, says, ``The Christy's is an intimate part of our lives, our corner store. Everyone in the neighborhood goes into Christy's. The murder was a tearing in our collective lives.

``I was kind of concerned that people are going to think that because this has happened, that this is no longer a safe neighborhood. It's not true. The neighborhood is as safe today as the day before the shooting happened.''

Hill agrees. ``Crime is not a huge problem,'' he contends. ``We're an urban neighborhood, but I don't feel oppressed by crime. We not only have a future, we have a present. This is a wonderful neighborhood to live in now. It has economic and racial diversity and diversity around sexual orientation. The comfort level you feel is very high.''

It was not always so, and to this day, there are serious disagreements over issues of class, diversity, housing, and the very nature of what the Fenway should be. What it is technically depends, as with any neighborhood, on who is defining it: City Hall, with precincts; the Postal Service, with zip codes; the federal government, with census tracts; the Boston Redevelopment Authority, with neighborhood planning districts and statistical areas.

The BRA lumps the Fenway, Kenmore Square and the nearby Longwood Medical Area into one planning district, which, according to the 1990 US Census, had 32,833 residents, more than 70 percent of whom were white and less than 18 percent of whom lived in family households. Less than 7 percent of the housing stock was owner-occupied.

It is not a Boston neighborhood of three-deckers but, rather, a New York City-style district of apartment houses and condominiums, sharing open space with Olmsted's dream and a warren of tax-exempt institutions: the Museum of Fine Arts, Northeastern University, Beth Israel Hospital, the Gardner Museum, Simmons College and so on.

The institutional pressure on housing stock means that for the last few decades, few working-class families could afford to stay or move into the Fenway. As in Allston, Brighton, the Back Bay, and Cambridge, landlords looked at students and saw gold. They subdivided apartments, stuffed students into the smaller units and collected more money from them than a working family or elderly couple could afford. For their part, the students, being young, created a raucous environment, trashing their new homes and nearby property and drinking, shouting, and arguing late into the night.

The Fenway was like a small nation under siege. As student guerrillas worked from the inside to disrupt life, more insidious forces attacked the borders.

Boston launched urban renewal in the 1960s, demolishing 574 apartments, as the Prudential Center came into being and the Church of Christ, Scientist began its massive complex on Massachusetts Avenue.

Speculators roamed the turf. Maintenance too often became a forgotten art. Prostitutes and drug dealers saw their opportunities and took them.

By the 1970s, as rent control and tenant activists began a counteroffensive, some landlords figured the only way they could make out was to engage in an arson-for-profit scheme, which, before activists led by David Scondras, later a city councilor, discovered the plot and alerted the law, resulted in 37 fires and five deaths on Symphony Road. In the late 1970s and early 1980s came a rash of condominium conversions.

``My building went condo in 1983,'' says Helen Cox, who has lived in the Fenway since 1958, ``and three-quarters of the elderly were forced out. A lot of us saw our neighbors displaced. It became more yuppified, and a lot of attractive restaurants came in. And it's all great, but the price that was paid was that a lot of long-term people had to leave. The upside was that things were spruced up.''

In the meantime, various neighborhood outfits rose up to deal with the threats or to accommodate welcomed developments.

The Fenway Civic Association works with public agencies to improve the parkland, cut down traffic and restore what Olmsted hoped would be an Emerald Necklace of greenery. The civic association listens to those who would create or expand a bar or parking lot.

The nonprofit Fenway Community Development Corporation tries to develop affordable and mixed-income housing and, lately, negotiates with landlords to help elderly poor people in danger of losing their homes because of the end of rent control. The CDC takes credit for rehabilitating more than 250 affordable rental and cooperative housing units, transforming a ``crime-ridden eyesore'' condo development on Burbank Street to affordable family housing, creating some apartments for AIDS victims, running a Walk-to-Work job-finding program that matches mostly low-income residents with work at nearby institutions, and working on an after-school program.

Though some residents belong to both organizations, the two have often been at odds over the years.

Boxer, the civic association president, for example, dismisses the CDC as interested only in the amount of money it can generate for its housing operations and questions the success of CDC programs.

``I don't need a CDC turning my neighborhood into a low-income neighborhood,'' she charges. ``How about some middle-income housing?''

Tim Davis, a CDC staffer and former Fenway resident, says such criticism ``shows a sheer lack of understanding about what CDCs do and the funding sources available to us. Sometimes, we'd like to do programs not just for low-income, but middle-income, but our funding sources push us to market-income and low-income, and we're trying to help the middle income.'' Through the efforts of both groups, supported by their political representatives, and the actions of enlightened officials of nearby institutions, there is more cooperation now than ever before between activists and such institutions as universities and hospitals. It shows in the job-finding program and in Northeastern's efforts to rein in disruptive students.

Both the civic association and the CDC cite a better working relationship with police assigned to Area D, District 4, and both have become sophisticated in dealing with City Hall.

``You saw a couple of civic groups get very involved and pay attention to quality-of-life issues,'' says District City Councilor Thomas Keane. ``They hammered on those, getting attention from the police and the city. The Fenway has become a significantly more stable, safer community.''

In separate interviews, civic association and CDC officials display a common bond for their neighborhood. ``I've lived here since 1986,'' says Hill of the CDC. ``Just before, I lived in the South End. Before that, in Back Bay, then Beacon Hill. I've stayed here because of the neighborhood. I'm an African-American and was not feeling particularly comfortable in the Back Bay or on Beacon Hill. This neighborhood values diversity, and that's why I've stayed.''

Boxer, who moved into the Fenway one year after Hill, also had lived in the South End, Back Bay, and Beacon Hill. Moving to the Fenway, she ``felt as if I were going into exile. But it turns out to be one of the best-kept secrets in Boston. It's the first place I've ever lived that I know my neighbors.

``I can walk down the street, and it's like a little town. It's how you read it used to be in the old days.''

Olmsted might have liked that.

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