Overnight shift gives mayor’s neighborhood coordinator enhanced view of Dorchester

Elizabeth Murray,  Special to the Reporter
Jul. 26, 2012

Chris English is one of Mayor Thomas Menino’s “eyes and ears” in the Dorchester community. For the last two years, English has been one of three staff members responsible for covering Dorchester.

Last Thursday, English, along with all of the other Neighborhood Coordinators in Boston, spent 24 hours out in their respective communities in order to get a better “snapshot” of the day-to-day happenings. The real challenge for English and the other coordinators was how to actually stay awake for the full 24 hours. His trick?

“Lots of coffee,” English told the Reporter. “It’s going to be a long night.”

Luckily, English’s mother owns Minot Mud House on Neponset Avenue, so access to coffee was not an issue. English admitted that though he had never stayed up the whole night for work, he had done so “every now and again” while attending school.

“I used to work [at the Mud House] before I had this job and get up at 4 in the morning every day and go to about 5 or 5:30 p.m. five or six days a week,” English added. “I had a little practice being up at that hour of the morning, but staying up the whole night is going to be challenging.”

English scheduled things to do in the neighborhood for the whole day to better get a sense of concerns and issues that needed to be addressed and to meet small business owners and residents alike. He said the idea for the 24-hour marathon in the neighborhood had been one that just came up when the neighborhood coordinators were discussing different ways to collect information from the community for Mayor Menino.

“A lot of stuff that we get calls about, we don’t actually get to see,” English said. “Especially the overnight stuff. We’re in the office during the day, and then we’re at meetings in the evening, but there’s other times where we’re not out and about in the neighborhood, so it’s just giving us a first-hand look at some of the stuff that goes on.”

The day started at 8 a.m. sharp with a meeting with Executive Director of Fields Corner Main Street and Vietnamese Liaison Diane Huynh, where English and Huynh learned about some of the new businesses in Fields Corner and then went out to meet the owners. Huynh, who mainly works with the Vietnamese community in Boston, was also taking part in the 24-hour neighborhood rounds. Darling said all of the businesses visited had only been opened in the last year to year and a half.

“It’s nice to provide them with access to us,” English said. “Some new businesses, if they move into this area, they may not know that we exist, so we want to get the word out that we’re here and we’re here to help.”

At each of the stops, Darling, Huynh and English each handed the business owner their business cards and Darling gave the owner a packet of information about Fields Corner Main Street’s services. Many of the businesses the trio tried to connect with were closed since it was still early in the morning, but Huynh decided to re-visit some of the Vietnamese places that had been closed during the first round of visits.

“When you see [people] in person, that to me is a big difference,” Huynh said. “They can share more information. I’d like to be able to do this more often. . . It’s more fun to breathe the air, instead of being at the desk.”

The next stop for English was an unplanned visit to a historic building on Arcadia Street that had been struck by lightning the evening before. (See story, page 3). English chatted with Fields Corner Community Development Corporation coordinator Donna Finnegan about the damage before moving onto his next planned event at Garvey Field – a ‘Sox Talk’ with Red Sox coaches and players. At this point, English was already mentally collecting information to share with Mayor Menino.

“I’ll definitely talk about the building getting struck by lightning, but one of the things that the mayor is really interested in is meeting new businesses and finding out who is operating small businesses in the neighborhood,” English said. “He’s very supportive of small businesses, and they’re a key economic driver in the city so we want to show them that we care about them too.”

English stayed with his neighborhood visits until 8 a.m. Friday morning. He and Huynh visited St. Mark’s Area Main Street Thursday afternoon, and they took a walk through executive director Dan Larner to meet new businesses and hear their concerns. English also used his Citizens Connect smartphone app throughout his neighborhood excursions to take pictures and report things that needed fixing, like missing trees and poorly painted crosswalks.

With this app, problems in the area can be reported by taking a picture that goes directly into a City of Boston database. A tracking number is then assigned, so whoever reported the problem can keep track of it and make sure it gets fixed.

“The photos really help because it gives us something visual so we know exactly where we’re going and what we’re looking for,” English said.

English also attended a Pierce Avenue Crime Watch meeting to introduce himself to the neighborhood group and then checked out some of the “problem properties” and city parks about which the Mayor’s office had received complaints.

“Several of our parks are hangout spots for teenagers and troublemakers,” English said in an email. “I didn’t notice too many issues, but that may have been because it was a Thursday night!”

Before his last nighttime activity – a ride-along with some District C-11 police – English used his Citizens Connect app once again to check for street light outages and streets that could use increased lighting. English said the police ride-along was definitely his most interesting part of the day though. He responded with the police to a few calls, including one for breaking and entering and watched for nighttime drug and prostitution issues, about which he had heard continuous reports and complaints through the Mayor’s office.

“It was a really eye-opening experience to see what goes on in the district overnight,” English said. “I always hear about it, but seeing it first-hand really gave me a better understanding of my district and the neighborhood that I’ve lived in my entire life.”

Since the response of the community to this 24-hour neighborhood visit was so positive, English said the neighborhood coordinators will probably do this again. He said the overall experience for him was very positive, though the hardest part was trying to stay awake and alert enough to think of solutions to some of the community issues.

“I definitely learned that there are things that go on in my district that need to be addressed,” he said. “I like to think that I have a pretty good handle on the issues that come up, but being able to collect all of this data that I did during the 24 hours will allow me to better address issues in real time.”