First in a series of articles on the state of race relations in and around Dorchester.
If anything tries to be all things to all people in Dorchester, it's the mural on Bank of America in Fields Corner. The mural shows a row of faces - American faces with family origins in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Caribbean. Beneath the faces, there's a Red Line train, with a slogan: "We're strong because we communicate."
Slogans may be wishful, but Dorchester's population has long been mixed, even if divided. In the early and mid 20th century, the mix and division were mostly Catholic and Jewish, later giving way to black and white. As Dorchester rides the Red Line into a new century, official figures show an area that, from 1980 to 2000, has gone from two-thirds white to two-thirds people of color, with almost one-third of the total being immigrants. Almost seven years after the last federal census, community leaders speak less about polarization. If they take pride in Dorchester's diversity, they still acknowledge divisions, and they wonder if there's enough common ground and affordability.
One example of common ground is Hiep Chu, the executive director of the Vietnamese American Initiative for Development (VietAID), a non-profit based in Fields Corner. A Dorchester resident continuously since 1994, he's a regular at meetings of the Field Corner Civic Assn. and often dines with his family at the Blarney Stone.
"I would want to have a diverse neighborhood, a safe neighborhood, and a vibrant neighborhood for everybody," says Chu.
In Fields Corner, that neighborhood includes the racially mixed clientele at Vietnamese restaurants and Dippin' Donuts. There's also an overlap with the classic immigrant urban village: weekend crowds for ping pong and martial arts at the Vietnamese American Community Center, and older Vietnamese immigrants coming to roost at coffee shops or the Kit Clark Senior Center. But Chu sees few other Vietnamese-Americans at meetings of the civic association.
"I don't have any problem with that, because they try to reach out to the Vietnamese," he says. "And it's not that the Vietnamese are not active," he adds. "They're active in their own way."
Before the last US census, the most noticeable changes in Dorchester's population had to do with race. In 1990, whites became the newest and largest minority. From 1980 to 2000, the white population in Dorchester was down by 25,092, or 46.2 percent. The fall-off was almost that high, at more than 45 percent, in the single decade from 1970 to 1980. Overshadowed by the attention to "white flight" during the 1970s was the dramatic loss of population in predominantly black census tracts. From 1980 to 2000, there would be only a small change in the racial composition of Mattapan, where the black population has ranged between 84 percent and 77 percent.
But what used to be black and white has turned international. According to the 2000 US Census, people in close to one-third of the households in Dorchester and Mattapan speak a language other than English, at least part of the time. Three-deckers sprout multiple satellite dishes that can receive television programs from other countries. And the Dorchester Day Parade has a whole spectrum of identities: Haitian, Vietnamese, Caribbean, the predominantly white St. Ann's Color Guard, the predominantly black marching band from the Thomas J. Kenny School, and DotOUT, the gay and lesbian political lobby.
There are places where Dorchester's diverse population comes together on a regular basis. These include a new and larger generation of chain supermarkets from South Bay to Lower Mills, community health centers, even a fabrics store on Morrissey Boulevard. People cross paths in open spaces such as the Neponset River Greenway, Pope Paul II Park, Franklin Park, the Boston Nature Center, and the shoreline of Harbor Point. There's diversity among clients at some of Dorchester's growing number of ethnic restaurants. And new establishments that keep a semblance of old names - such as the Blarney Stone and the Ashmont Grill - have a diverse clientele that, unlike the old regulars, can look out on the diversity of Dorchester Avenue through spacious windows, or even from a seat outside.
But, in some parts of Dorchester even old boundaries have a way of persisting. By 1970, the line between Jews and gentiles along Washington Street became a boundary between black and white. In the first decade of the new century, areas on one side still have genteel and spacious Victorian homes, with diversity in race and sexual orientation. The other side has tightly packed multi-family houses, along with more convenience stores. The store windows are crammed with boxes of macaroni, signs about food vouchers and lottery tickets, and ads for cigarettes. They're on the side with less racial diversity, the side where students at Codman Academy hung pairs of sneakers in a memorial to Boston's murder victims. And official figures show Dorchester has clear racial disparities in health, household income, and poverty rates.
"In reality, there are only a few sections of the city where integration has really taken place," says Savin Hill resident and CEO of the Codman Square Health Center, Bill Walczak,
"It's not really racial issues but cultural issues that have driven people apart," he says. "And where you do see integration, it's mainly in middle-class neighborhoods."
City Councilor Charles Yancey makes his home on the other side of Washington Street, in the Melville-Park neighborhood. He sees a Dorchester population that's getting younger, with more young people left behind.
"We have a ticking time-bomb in our midst that we're ignoring," says Yancey, "that we're losing 1,500 students every year from the Boston Public Schools who are dropping out."
Despite the divisions, new development has taken place throughout Dorchester. Social service agencies have been opening or expanding from Blue Hill Avenue and Columbia Road to Codman Square and Dorchester Avenue. Many of the vacant lots created between the late 1960s and the early 1980s are once again filled with housing. The declining number of parochial schools has been at least partially offset by four new charter schools and private schools. Despite the scarcity of white students at some of the schools, there's boasting about everything from rising test scores at the Dorchester Educational Complex to the college enrollment rates out of Codman Academy.
Population changes have also led to political changes. As late as 1995, a polarizing white candidate, at-large City Councillor Albert L. "Dapper" O'Neil, finished second in three of Dorchester's five wards. In 2006, all five wards were carried in the primary and final elections by the state's first African-American governor, Deval Patrick. Along with supporting the first person of color to be elected Suffolk County Sheriff, Andrea Cabral, Dorchester was the home of the first Asian-American to win elective office in Boston, City Councillor Sam Yoon.
"I think the one of the reasons we were successful in electing Sam Yoon," said Yancey, "was because of the demographic changes in Dorchester."
What started as a change of race, with a fall-off in voters, would later swing the other way. Compared with results from November, 1994, the number of votes last November near the Vietnamese American Community Center in Fields Corner (Ward 15, Precinct 8) more than doubled. Over the same period in Ward 14 (Grove Hall, Mount Bowdoin, Four Corners, Franklin Field, and Mattapan's Wellington Hill), the number of votes increased by more than 55 percent. The increase was almost exactly the same in Mattapan precincts further south.
While Mattapan figures over the last four decades show racial change, Yancey points to high levels of home-ownership and increasing activism in the West Indian community. The Vietnamese who started moving into Dorchester around 1980 stayed and developed a commercial center, even though Southeast Asian immigrants in other Boston neighborhoods moved out. One reason for the difference, according to Chu, was the receptiveness of social service agencies developed by earlier residents.
To judge by Dorchester's murals and the sculptures near Mattapan Square, diversity has become a public identity, a branding that can even be embraced as a selling point.
City Councillor Yoon says the diversity was one reason he and his family moved to Dorchester in 2003. He cites the racial mix among his neighbors near Fields Corner, and at the public school attended by his children in the Franklin Field area. He describes diversity as an educational advantage.
"Your life is just fuller," he says. "I want for my kids to have as broad an understanding of human experience as they can have."
Where there are people moving in, there are also people moving out, passing away, or only staying briefly before moving again. Census figures from 2000 show less than 60 percent of the residents in City Council districts for Dorchester and Mattapan were living in the same house five years earlier. Parish closings of the past few years follow a decade in which Boston's Irish population, much of it raised Catholic, declined by more than 35,000. Dorchester's Catholic parishes are more racially diverse. But residents say churches in general are less local, sometimes drawing members from outside their neighborhoods or even the city.
And, instead of a diverse neighborhood, Walczak says parts of Dorchester might be thought as part of an expanding, cosmopolitan Boston.
Yoon points to an even bigger picture.
"It's just the way our country is going, our society is going," he says. "What it means to be an American is constantly undergoing change."
But Walczak says change without common ties will be "scary for democracy."
"When you have no commonality with massive numbers of people in your own country - citizens in your own country," he says, "that's not a good thing."
One sign that Dorchester residents try to forge ties is the participation in the City-Wide Dialogues on Boston's Ethnic & Racial Diversity, which are sponsored by a number of groups including the Urban League of Eastern Mass. The co-chair of the steering committee for the dialogues, Jeff Stone, calls Dorchester one of the "star neighborhoods." He says, "That reflects a willingness, a commitment, an eagerness on the part of Dorchester residents to engage each other."
But one force pulling the other way is the cost of housing.
A community organizer living in Dorchester since 1971, Lew Finfer has seen the changes in concerns about housing. In the 1970's, these were mainly about the loss of housing through abandonment and fire. By the year 2000, he was involved in trying to make housing more affordable, and he says a "significant number" of Cape Verdeans and African-Americans have moved to communities outside the city "because of the cost of housing in Boston."
"There has to be change," he says, "but if it's economic necessity, it's kind of saddening."
Next week: A look at diversity in neighborhood schools.