Emerging civic groups give window onto local activism

Civic associations come in all shapes and sizes in Dorchester, a neighborhood where you often need two hands to count the number of meetings happening in a single night.

While uber-civic groups like Columbia-Savin Hill cover wide swaths of the neighborhood and sometimes draw three-figure crowds to their monthly gatherings, there is another side to the civic circuit: One might call them micro-civic groups. Focused on just a handful of streets and sometimes attracting an equally narrow number of members, these groups come together out of necessity and, in some cases, frustration with larger groups that aren't attentive to their specific issues.

Along Bowdoin Street, for example, a new monthly civic gathering has grown in recent months. The St. Peter's Neighborhood Association takes its name from the Catholic parish whose campus dominates the northern edge of the Bowdoin-Geneva corridor. And while the group has its origins in the parish bulletin and meets in the St. Peter's grammar school building, its focus, according to member Peter Ureneck, is on safety and traffic issues in the surrounding area.

"The first couple of meetings dealt exclusively with the security in the immediate area around the church, particularly as it pertains to the schools. And, to a lesser extent, it's concerned with the overall traffic situation," says Ureneck, one of a dozen people who meet on the first Monday of each month at 6 p.m. He says that the association, which has no elected officers and has no plans to formalize with a board, is a "situation-oriented" group with no geographic boundaries.

"It's an open forum," Ureneck says. "Anyone who attends can raise issues that they want, but the primary concern is the safety issues, police patrols and response times, things like that."

Ureneck denies that the fledgling St. Peter's group is "in any real conflict" with more established nearby civic associations, most notably the Meetinghouse Hill Civic Association, which meets monthly at the First Parish Church, just a block away.

"There are people who are not totally pleased with the direction that some of the other groups have taken," said Ureneck, who said he feels that Meetinghouse Hill Civic serves as a "rubber stamp" for projects that come before it for review. "I don't think all of the issues can be dealt with by any one group. My own opinion is the more the merrier. Maybe at some point [we'll] have some form of congress of all the different civic groups."

On the other side of Ronan Park, closer to Fields Corner, another civic group, the Five Streets Group, has slightly deeper roots. Initially founded about five years ago by a community organizer based at the Bowdoin Street Health Center, the group is made up of residents from Ditson, Westville, Leroy, Charles and Josephine streets. Vivian Girard, a Ditson Street homeowner who leads the group now, says a myriad of "quality of life problems" prompted him to act after moving into the area five years ago.

"The building that I bought with my now ex-wife was the most troubled spot in the area," Girard says. "It was a crack house, basically, and there was a lot of crime going on. There was also littering and vacant lots."

In addition to meeting once a month inside a senior building on Ditson Street, the civic group organizes a volunteer street cleaning on the second Saturday of each month.

Girard says that the impact of the group has been limited, but has seen some success recently, prompting a transitional home on Charles Street to spruce up its property and engaging the principal of the Grover Cleveland School, which is often the focus of "issues" raised at the civic meetings.

Next up, Girard says, is another effort to tackle a perennial concern: a long-vacant and overgrown lot at the corner of Tonawanda and Geneva Ave.

"I know it's a little bit off our area," says Girard, "but people are really worried about it."

Closer to Codman Square, in a cluster of residential streets west of Washington Street, a more seasoned activist has launched into a new phase of civic life. Joan McCoy, who has lived and organized on Torrey Street since the mid-1960s, is the "facilitator" behind a three-year old civic association with an unlikely moniker: the C.I.A. If you think that's a name that only Dick Cheney could love, McCoy begs to differ. She says that the Civic Improvement Association &endash; a tip of the hat to Dr. Martin Luther King's organizing arm in Birmingham, Alabama &endash; has helped her to more than double the numbers of an earlier incarnation of the association and engage neighbors who, as she puts it, were previously "a-civic-minded."

According to McCoy, the CIA actually has its origins in a group of neighbors who gathered around the branch library in the mid-1980s.

"Gradually, my husband and I began to realize as people shifted and moved and leadership changed that there were only about five of us meeting once a month, and we were making decisions for the whole neighborhood," says McCoy.

Uncomfortable with that dynamic, McCoy and others set out to widen the circle, focusing their energies on a dozen-or-more streets near Codman Square.

"We started with the purpose of educating citizens about the services and how to access them," says McCoy.

"After meeting for a year, I told people that even though we didn't want to have a name and become yet another group, we had to do it. We needed a handle."

The name, she says, has "caught on" in part because "it gets people's attention" and also, McCoy believes because the monthly meeting at the branch library gives people a sense of common ground.

"I'm not sure we'd have a group without the library," says McCoy. "It's such a safe place."

"One thing our group has accomplished: we've become more proud of our neighborhood and we've certainly gotten to know each other better," says McCoy. "The phone calls are very important. It's more than just saying, 'there's a meeting Monday night.' It's, 'Hi, how are you.'"

Meanwhile, McCoy and others from the CIA also attend the nearby Codman Square Neighborhood Council.

"We are all very much Codman Square people," she says. "We have no officers, no treasury. We have a fledgling steering committee that I'm trying to buff up."

The CIA meets on the fourth Monday of each month at the Codman Square Library. Recent guests have included Edward Merritt, the CEO of Mt. Washington Bank, which is building a new branch nearby and Capt. James Claiborne, commander of the Area B-3 police district. Bill Walczak, executive director of the Codman Square Health Center, will be the guest at the next meeting on Monday, March 26.

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