Blue Hill Avenue, In Truth And Memory

By Phillip Martin

Oct. 25, 2010

Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

MATTAPAN -- Blue Hill Avenue runs south to north from affluent Milton to Roxbury’s historic Dudley Square, also passing through Dorchester and Mattapan over the course of its four miles.

During the last 50 years, this avenue has undergone dramatic changes: From Jewish neighborhoods to African American, Caribbean and Latino communities; from synagogues to churches; from kosher restaurants to those that specialize in jerked chicken.  And -- unfairly, many believe -- from having a reputation for commerce to one associated with crime. 

Larry Harmon, an editorial writer for the Boston Globe, is a witness to those changes.  He came of age in Mattapan and Dorchester, and is the co-author of a book about the exodus of Jews from Boston, The Death of an American Jewish Community: A Tragedy of Good Intentions.

A historic map of Mattapan.

A Jewish Past

Harmon is standing in from of Temple Shalom, in Milton, on Blue Hill Avenue.

“(This) is kind of the major conservative synagogue -- the only synagogue in Milton.  There used to be an Orthodox one on the street that closed,” Harmon said.

When Temple Shalom was built on this Blue Hill Ave site 65 years ago, many congregants living in Mattapan, Dorchester and Roxbury moved to be within walking distance of their synagogue. 81-year-old Leila Rosenbaum and her family were among them. 

“Blue Hill Avenue has always been a thread in our lives. And with the temple here, this has been the center of our lives, in so many ways I can’t even begin to tell you,” Rosenbaum said.

But for Ruth Gershman, another member of the Temple who was raised in Dorchester, remembers a childhood spent on Blue Hill Avenue.

“It was a lively business area.  It was every kind of store that you can imagine,” Gershman said. “There was a wonderful candy store in Roxbury.  Oh, you went there and you got for two cents you could get a sherbet -- 3 cents sherbet or a nickel sherbet -- and all kinds of candy.”

Many Jewish families left Boston reluctantly, says Larry Harmon, and came to a community in Milton in the 1950’s that largely excluded blacks and only half-heartedly welcomed Jews.  With a bingo game going on in the background at Temple Shalom, Rosenbaum recalls one particular act of housing discrimination.

“We started to look for a house and I called up one person. And she described the house. And I said, oh, it sounds like just what I’m looking for.  And then she asked me my name.  And when I gave it to here, she said, oh, I don’t think you’d be happy here.”

But Rosenbaum eventually found a home in Milton she could move into near her beloved temple.

'A Story Of Losers'

As Jews exited from Boston neighborhoods along Blue Hill Avenue, the demographics of the community changed rapidly. It was a change accompanied by abandoned housing, mounting crime and less clean streets in Roxbury, Mattapan and Dorchester.

Some social scientists explained the deterioration as resulting from what Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously described as “a culture of poverty.” But driving along Blue Hill Avenue, Harmon argues that this theory doesn’t grasp a more complex social dynamic that helped speed the transition from a relatively stable Jewish neighborhood to a less steady African American and Caribbean community.

Harmon calls it “reverse-redlining.” He says banks drew a line around Mattapan and parts of Dorchester, where they would provide loans to low-income black families only.

“They thought they were doing a social good… essentially, getting people into homeownership, but as it turned out they were saddling people with mortgages they couldn’t afford,” Harmon said.

A historic postcard shows Franklin Park.

And to get Jewish families to move out of their homes along Blue Hill Avenue, some realtors resorted to a practice called “blockbusting.” His household experienced it firsthand.

“Some real state broker would call up a family and say, ‘Look, your neighborhood is becoming really dangerous. You better sell the property to me now because it’s dropping in value every day, you know it’s a changing neighborhood.  It’s going to become an all black neighborhood.  You know what happens in an all black neighborhoods,’ “ Harmon remembered.

“And if you told them to go to hell they would basically escalate the tactic to the point where it would be stuff like, “ Hey what are you, an idiot? You want a mulatto grandchild? You have daughters, don’t you?’ I mean some really vile, crazy stuff.”  

But it worked. Synagogues and Jewish businesses packed up and moved, and many Jewish families followed. They sold their homes for much less than they should have, and many black families seeking the American dream bought them for far more than they were worth.

“So in a lot of ways the whole changeover in this neighborhood is a story of losers,” Harmon said. “People lost homes that they lived in for thirty or forty years that were all paid up; a stable neighborhood where they once had a lot of good institutional support. And then you had these new families moving in that are very similar to today’s mortgage crisis -- where they really couldn’t afford the property in a lot of cases.”

Pride Of Place

But not all cases. Shirley Johnson moved to Dorchester in July, 1960. A retired social service worker, she lived in a wind-swept, tree-lined section of Charlotte Street, where the grass grows green on lawns flush with flowers. 

Bracelets sold at Mecca's Boutique on Blue Hill Avenue display the countries where many of the area's current residents have roots. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

“Everybody keep their houses up around here and it’s a nice neighborhood. I think it’s a very nice neighborhood.   Most of the homeowners are still here,” Johnson said.

Although social conditions in black neighborhoods of the 1960s included mounting poverty and unemployment, drug abuse and substandard housing, some longtime residents of post-Jewish  Blue Hill Avenue share memories remarkably similar to its former residents.

“You could find anything in Grove Hall up and down there that you can find downtown and in any other store,” said Shirley Senior.

But she also remembers a more somber moment in time: The riot of 1968 that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“And I saw how they just tore up, up there, from the supermarket to the furniture store, to Woolworths, to when the Five n’ Dime was up there,” Senior recalled. “I can't believe how people can tear up in their neighborhood where they live or go to any other neighborhood and tear up.  I don’t understand.  But you know when you feel like you’re in a desperate situation, I guess that’s how they do.”
The Boston riot, though less destructive than urban unrest in Detroit and other cities in ‘68’, fed the image of Blue Hill Avenue as a dangerous community.

But to Harmon says the large majority of people living along that road just went on with life.  Going to work, attending schools, going to church -- albeit  in increasingly segregated neighborhoods. 

That segregation—and relative deprivation -- according to a recent Boston Foundation report (PDF) contributes to the crime wave that has swept over Blue Hill Avenue communities off and on for many years.  

Crime in turn spurs a continuing exodus to the suburbs, including to the Blue Hill Avenue of the South: Milton.  But it is now African-American and Caribbean families that are pulling up stakes. 

Lee and Square Patterson say they are proud of their home in Mattapan, near Blue Hil Avenue. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

Leaving For Milton

Harmon is standing back in Milton now. “There’s a lot of middle class upper middle class black families have moved in here over the years,” he says.

Milton’s most famous resident is Gov. Deval Patrick – and it’s a town celebrated for its diversity. Rosenbaum has come to love this community.

“I was thinking how much nicer Milton is 50 years later, because we have a diverse community. We have a diverse synagogue with people of color.  We have inter-married. It’s wonderful. It’s like the real world,” Rosenbaum said.

But another world lies just next door, across River Street: The border separating Milton from Mattapan.  For many drivers on Blue Hill Avenue, to pass from this suburban perimeter into Boston, is to cross a line between a world of safely into a stereotypical world of crime and violence.

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