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Ashmont dedication caps long road to Red Line justice

Ashmont transformed: The late Vince Droser, left, was a key voice in the re-invention of Ashmont station, one of four Red Line stations in Dorchester rebuilt over the last decade. Photo by Bill ForryAshmont transformed: The late Vince Droser, left, was a key voice in the re-invention of Ashmont station, one of four Red Line stations in Dorchester rebuilt over the last decade. Photo by Bill ForryGovernor Deval Patrick will be in Dorchester this Friday afternoon (3p.m.) for a ceremony marking the ceremonial grand opening of Ashmont’s new MBTA station, the last of four Red Line stops that have been either entirely re-built or renovated over the past eight years. But the push to win transit equity and quality stations along Dorchester’s leg of the Red Line dates back to the hazy, high-flying 1990s and the administration of William Weld — five governors ago. With all that has happened in the meantime, tomorrow’s event is a credit to the sweat and ingenuity of neighborhood folks who finally rose up together to get Dorchester its fair share.

Two decades ago, the Ashmont, Shawmut, Fields Corner and Savin Hill stations were without question the disgrace of the MBTA system. By the mid-to-late 1990s, the platform at the old Savin Hill station was so decrepit that T workers had to shore it up with exposed two-by-fours in a last-ditch effort to keep it from crumbling underfoot.

Daily commuters at Ashmont and Fields Corner wore raincoats every day no matter the forecast, because if you weren’t dodging raindrops from the porous roof, you were ducking bird poop. Many days, it was both. And, Shawmut— Dot’s lone underground stop— looked as if Indiana Jones had just rolled back a rock and uncovered the long-lost resting place of Charlie on the MTA.

Savin Hill station, 1998: The old platform was held up in places by two-by-fours. Photo by Bill ForrySavin Hill station, 1998: The old platform was held up in places by two-by-fours. Photo by Bill ForryTo make matters worse, the rest of the Red Line into Boston was so demonstrably better that any conscious person who traveled the route could see that Dorchester was getting royally screwed, although few people outside the neighborhood seemed to notice. In 1999, the Reporter noted that the “Red Line was named ‘Best Subway Line’ by the Boston Tab, proving that no one from that paper has ever journeyed south of JFK-UMass.”

By the late 1990s — with the commonwealth flush with cash and a powerful speaker from our community at the helm at the State House— Dorchester residents had great hopes that their “year of the Red Line” was finally in the offing. But the goal proved frustratingly elusive.

In 1997, they came close: Freshman state Rep. Marty Walsh —with Speaker Tom Finneran’s ready help— pushed through $120 million in spending through the House in a supplemental budget. A $7 million chunk of that paid to build out Pope John Paul II Park in Neponset. The bulk of the money, though, was line-itemed to renovate the “Filthy Four.” But Walsh and Finneran weren’t able to get then-Gov. Bill Weld, or the state Senate’s leadership on board. And while the beautiful 72-acre park we know today started to take shape along the Neponset River, Dorchester’s Red Line stops continued to decay.

The real turning point in the fight came when Dorchester’s own version of the “T” party began to take shape in 1998-99. The now-defunct Dorchester Allied Neighborhood Association — or DANA— recognized the pan-neighborhood dimensions of the problem. Its young, plucky Ashmont president— Mark Juaire— rallied like-minded activists to the cause by using e-mail, which at the time was still a relatively new tool for organizing. Soon, the e-mails became a regular forum for activists from across the four sometimes disconnected parts of the neighborhood to share strategy, plan letter writing campaigns and lobby their lawmakers. When Walsh added new money to a transportation bond bill in 1999, the Red Liners seized it as a rallying point and began a relentless push to persuade the Senate and the Republican administration under then-Gov. Paul Cellucci to get on board.

“ I feel the transportation bond bill provided the opportunity for all of us to coalesce around the issue,” recalls Jenny Moye, who lives near the Shawmut station and was one of the key players then and now. “The e-mail issue snowballed and then we’d also physically go to speak to civic groups and then the issue would get onto their listserv, and that list grew.”

Ed Crowley, long one of the loudest voices pushing for fixes to the Fields Corner station near his Parkman Street home, said that the issue lent itself to an all-hands-on-deck approach.

“It happened to be that the four stations all ran right through the neighborhood and it made sense to say, ‘Let’s all talk with one voice.’ The only way to get your station done was that everyone was on the same page,” Crowley said.

The activists’ campaign culminated in a February 2000 DANA-sponsored meeting at the Murphy School cafeteria in Neponset, which featured the then-general manager of the MBTA, Robert Prince, and a respectful, but animated crowd clamoring for a commitment.

“The very specific theme of the meeting was for the citizens to ask the elected officials about the bond bill and how they would handle any delays,” recalls Juaire. “It felt foreign for some of them and I think a couple of [the state officials] wanted to run the meeting. And we said, ‘No, we’re having the meeting and you’re the guests.’”

Juaire and other advocates put the heat on Finneran in particular, along with state Sen. Brian Joyce — who had just recently won his seat, which included much of Dorchester, including Ashmont and Shawmut stations, and who needed a win to prove his salt locally. Joyce’s staff were key partners with now-Congressman Steve Lynch in the push to get the $66 million in that year’s bond bill through a Senate committee.

By August, the money was secured and Gov. Cellucci came to Fields Corner to make the announcement, surrounded mainly by suited officials and one or two of the long-suffering Red Line activists. Most of those who’d labored so long to get the funding through— of course— weren’t there for the photo op, but almost all of them spent the next few years hunkered down in monthly meetings to make sure the stations they were promised actually got built, starting with Savin Hill.

In the case of Ashmont, what has been delivered by the T and its partners at Trinity Financial, Inc. — the builders of the landmark Carruth Building— has far exceeded anyone’s fondest hopes during those salad days in the 1990s. A good deal of it is thanks to Chris Stanley, who chaired the grassroots committee that worked closely with the T on the design, and to the late Vince Droser, Trinity’s project manager who helped navigate the neighborhood through the cumbersome land deal that allowed the private Carruth building to rise and help to fund a far more ambitious Ashmont build-out.

Droser once famously cautioned his neighbors to “stay on top of” the T design team or “they’ll design a station for the T, they won’t design a station for the community.” The project dragged on longer than most expected, but the result is one that causes even the most weary advocates to cheer.

“I think it’s the nicest station in the whole T system,” says Juaire, who now lives in the Carruth building and marvels each day at the new station and the transformation of the whole area. “I’m a firm believer that architecture can change day-to-day behaviors. At the old Ashmont station, it was a very volatile place and you felt that. It was loud, disorganized, it seemed like the human presence and behaviors were not particularly joyful. Now I walk through there a few times a day. It seems like everyone is calmer. And I love it.”