Building on Neighborhood Renaissance

Originally printed in The Boston Globe

December 13, 2003
Charles Euchner (Executive Director, Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston) and Ashley Lanfer (Project Manager, The Heart of the City)

Bostonians are used to understanding their city through the prisms of neighborhoods, parishes, employment centers, campuses, and transportation corridors. These basic ways to order the city make sense, but lose the dynamics of a number of communities that are clustered in unusual ways and have experienced unique histories of rise, decline, and rise. In the next generation, Boston's greatest challenges and opportunities can be found in a group of neighborhoods and open spaces that have come to be called the "Heart of the City."
Located in the geographic center, these communities possess the city's greatest green spaces, social and ethnic diversity, a majority of young people, and a tradition of grass-roots partnerships with city government.
Many wrote off the area after the disinvestment and unrest of the 1960s and 1970s. But the Heart of the City offers unique opportunities for building a way of life that embraces all people and sets an example for the rest of the nation.
Look at a map of Boston and you can see five neighborhoods - Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Jamaica Plain, and Roslindale - wedged into major open spaces like Franklin Park, the Arnold Arboretum, the new Boston Nature Center, and Forest Hills Cemetery. Thoroughfares like Blue Hill Avenue, Washington Street, and Columbia Road connect the area with the rest of the city and region.
In recent years, these neighborhoods have made important strides in improving infrastructure, parks and playgrounds, streetscapes, housing stock, and local business districts. Everyday efforts like community policing, school reform, and ambitious housing development have been supplemented by more focused programs like Main Streets, Back Streets, the Blue Hill Avenue Task Force, and the Boston Schoolyards Initiative. But, as a new report by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston shows, the successes of the area - underscored by the area's exploding property values as well as a more subtle change in attitude of outsiders once afraid of the "inner-city" - must be redoubled in the next generation.
The Heart of the City's biggest challenge comes from the peculiar arrangement of community assets. The rest of urban America would envy the fact that places like Franklin Park, the Arboretum, and the Forest Hills Cemetery lie in their backyards. But since they're located at the "back doors" of their neighborhoods, these natural wonders have not become the civic showpieces or connecting institutions that they could be.
The progress of recent years - construction of facilities like the golf clubhouse at Franklin Park, enhancements of the zoo, improvements of major boulevards and construction of street furniture, better connections with the Forest Hills transit station - needs to be continued. The Heart of the City poses a number of specific design and community-building challenges.
* Recenter: Every great public resource should become a focal point for the neighborhood. World-class parks represent the most obvious candidates. Others include the National Center for African American Art, public schools, the Forest Hills T station, Main Streets districts, libraries, and other public buildings.
* Reconnect: The Heart of the City offers a great collection of urban and natural spaces, but they are often disconnected from each other. The mayor's Blue Hill Avenue initiative and new pathways from Forest Hills to the Arboretum and Franklin Park offer models for connecting the area's pieces. But this process of connections has a long way to go. Pedestrian paths all over require improvements, especially near major attractions and along major thoroughways. Schools, parks, churches, local businesses, and community centers, and libraries should be linked together in "charm bracelets."
* Recover: The bygone years of decline created a lingering image of the area as a dumping ground. Toxic dumping, unprotected trees and plant life, and vacant properties pose difficult challenges. The effort can be expensive but is necessary. The Parks Department's tree "census" and the Department of Neighborhood's disposition of land for housing offer models for this painstaking work.
* Rediscover: Ordinary people have led the heartland's resurgence by starting new businesses, fixing lots and blocks, seeking new educational opportunities for kids, and building coalitions for housing and public health. But to make the Heart of the City a national model, the area's scattered groups need to be connected and coordinated better. With the city's greatest collection of young people, immigrants, and minorities, the Heart of the City represents the future of diversity for urban America. This rainbow coalition needs to be brought together in a way that give it greater voice but also allows the diversity to flourish.
No one can doubt the last decade's extraordinary renaissance of the city and its neighborhoods. The challenge for the next decade is to build on that by connecting and enhancing the neighborhoods that represent so much of our future.