THE YEAR THAT WAS
There was much ado in Dorchester in 2008: New schools, the housing crisis, political scandal.
The year 2008 featured some tremendous highs and terrible lows. The election of a new president stirred historic voter turnout, while a nation-wide economic meltdown triggered by a collapsing housing market hit neighborhood streets hard. Homicides continued to rattle already beleaguered sections of the city, even as overall crime stats slowed. Scandal rocked the State House and City Hall, as two longtime city politicians were accused of graft in a federal probe.
A crisis of confidence - both in the integrity of some of our leaders and the soundness of our nation's financial future - belied other progress on the local front: A revamped Catholic grammar school system debuted in September; plans for ambitious new communities in and around Columbia Point hit the planning boards; and Carney Hospital - which began the year amid widely-held concern about its future viability, received new assurances of stability and growth from its parent, Caritas Christi Health Care.
Politically, the year 2008 will always be remembered for the rise of Barack Obama. In Dorchester and Mattapan, where the Illinois senator recorded lopsided wins over Hillary Clinton and then John McCain, there was a surge of new voters presaged by a similar romp by Deval Patrick in 2006.
The year also saw the spectacular tumble of one of the city's most controversial figures: Dianne Wilkerson, the state senator from the Second Suffolk, was considered a likely mayoral or congressional prospect when she burst onto the political scene in 1992. A series of legal problems and campaign finance violations made such a succession unlikely years ago. But few thought that Wilkerson's Roxbury and Dorchester power-base could be breached. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who lost a close sticker fight to unseat Wilkerson in 2006, mounted a second insurgency this year and - defying skeptics - toppled Wilkerson in September's low-turnout primary election.
Weeks later, Wilkerson's pledge to win back the seat in a quixotic November sticker race came to an abrupt halt when she was arrested at her Dorchester home just days before the election. Now indicted, Wilkerson has been publicly disgraced, but has lately shown signs that she has not entirely lost her fight. As the finals days of December drew near, Wilkerson told a small gathering of supporters that she was targeted for defeat by powerful ministers who conspired with federal authorities, a charge they have roundly dismissed.
Churck Turner, the incumbent district seven councilman, was similarly indicted for alleged corruption and conspiracy unearthed in the FBI probe. Turner spent the final weeks of the year waging a campaign aimed at restoring his image. Both Wilkerson and Turner will next have to prove their innocence in a court of law, or face stiff sentences.
Mayor Tom Menino, now in his 15th year as the city's CEO, showed no signs of tiring from the job or shying from what could be his most difficult political showdown since 1993. Menino began the year with a State of the City address at the Strand Theatre, where he promised an enhanced effort to staunch violence and beef up city schools. Menino took a national role in advocating for tougher gun laws in 2008 and streamlined city services to confront the widening menace of blight caused by the foreclosure crisis. At year's end, Menino faces a stark reality with state and federal cuts likely to prompt budget cuts that will slash into his administration and make an already tough re-election road that much tougher.
The year started off with a deadly wave of shootings that alarmed civic activists and cops alike. The rate tapered off - but the lion's share of the city's 62 homicides to date in 2008 - have been recorded in Dorchester.
A Boston Police initiative aimed at curbing handgun violence - the Safe Home Initiative - proved too controversial to see widespread use. The pilot effort, in which police and street workers seek parental permission to search private homes for guns thought to be secreted by youngsters on the verge of a life of crime - got a cool reception from many leaders and activists in targeted neighborhoods.
More successful was a BPD deployment that saturates city villages with targeted, daily foot patrols. First employed in the spring of 2007 - and then launched more broadly in several Dorchester and Mattapan villages last summer - Operation Safe Streets has become the signature strategy of Commissioner Edward Davis's two-year-old administration and could expand into new sections of the city in coming months - including Uphams Corner - if funding allows.
In September, reacting to an outcry from neighborhood residents in the Greater Neponset area, Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis ordered the deployment of an additional six officers to patrol the area on foot and bicycle.
The lesser-known dangers of Vietnamese gang violence was brought into the spotlight in 2008 thanks in large part to a video that was popularized on a variety of Internet sites. The video - filmed in a Fields Corner parking lot in 2007 - showed the vicious beating of two young people at the hands of an organized gang of kids, teens and adults. By year's end, people were given probation sentences for their role in the incident, which prompted a series of community meetings to address the gang issue.
The other top stories of the year locally included:
* Hendry Street, a short side-street near the Bowdoin Street business district became the city poster-child for the foreclosure crisis last year. Mayor Thomas Menino announced a foreclosure intervention plan for Hendry Street in February, by which point at least 12 properties on Hendry, Clarkson, and Coleman streets were already in distress.
* St. Peter's grammar school closed its doors in June after a tearful final graduation, ending 110 years of Catholic education on Bowdoin Street. The closure was part of a Archdiocesan consolidation plan announced the year before.
* A $1 billion proposal to build a new mixed-use community on what is now the Bayside Expo Center on Columbia Point began a review process required by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, but by year's end, the future of the project was clouded. The project's developers - Corcoran Jennison Companies - want the MWRA to alter their plans for an odor control facility next to the site that they fear will undermine their project and pollute the local air with fumes - a fear that state officials say is unfounded.
* Residents and officials gathered in September to mark the grand opening of Fields Corner MBTA station, which underwent $30 million in a total renovation job.
* The former St. Williams Church on Dorchester Avenue was sold to a Seventh Day Adventist congregation, which is now using the building for services. An earlier plan to transform the church and its grounds into housing was abandoned by the previous owners, Viet-AID.
* Dorchester's Ernest "E-Knock" Phillips and five other members of the dance group Status Quo finished second in the MTV "America's Best Dance Crew" show.
* Hundreds celebrated Monsignor Paul Ryan's 50th anniversary as a priest at St. Gregory's Church in May. Ryan stepped down as pastor at the Lower Mills parish after 27 years in June.
* More than 450 people from across the city attended City Council President Maureen Feeney's first-ever Civic Summit in May. Feeney co-chaired the day-long summit with James Rooney, who heads the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority and helps operate the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.
* From a video link in his jailhouse, Anthony Warren apologized and then thanked Kai Leigh Harriott, the little Dorchester girl he shot and paralyzed in a 2003 incident on Bowdoin Street. Warren is currently serving a 15-year sentence for the crime. The 7 year-old girl watched the message in April with friends and relatives at the Dorchester House.
* Ryan Woods was declared the winner of the 2008 Mayor of Dorchester contest in May after he tallied a total of $24,259 in contributions for the Dorchester Day Parade Committee.
* More than 1000 people jammed Florian Hall on May 23rd for a "Night to Remember" the late Mike 'Porpar' Leahy, the Port Norfolk man who passed away in December 2007.
* In perhaps the year's most bizarre political item, Dorchester's state Rep. Marty Walsh was thurst into the sordid tale of a former colleague's arrest. Arlington state Senator Jim Marzilli, while being arrested in June on charges of sexual assault in Medford, insisted to police that his name was 'Marty Walsh.' Senator Marzilli, we know Marty Walsh, and you, sir, are no Marty Walsh.
* A new youth sports league set up their goalposts in Dorchester last year: St. Brendan's Gaelic Athletic Club brings Gaelic football and hurling to Dorchester's fields.
* Lena Park Community Development Corporation (CDC) abruptly closed its popular daycare and after school programs last fall - and has since mothballed its building on American Legion Highway.
* The year began on a bleak note: Two children killed in a Bellevue Avenue house fire on Dec. 29 were buried in January, as the Zizi family - left homeless in the blaze which was caused by a space heater - mourned Rooben, 11, and Rebecca, 9. The community rallied to their aid, assisting in a fire fund.
* A Dorchester crossing guard was run down on a Meetinghouse Hill street on Oct. 21. Marie Conley, 58, later died of her injuries and was hailed as a hero for protecting a youngster who was crossing to the nearby Mather School. The elderly driver of the car that stuck her - was cited for negligence.
* An August event at Savin Hill and Malibu brought hundreds together for the first-ever Dorchester Beach Festival.
* The neighborhood can boast a new restaurant by Chris Douglas, who opened his second neighborhood eatery, Tavolo, in the Carruth Building next to Ashmont Station last summer.