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In Lower Mills, it’s really all about community

In Lower Mills, a resurgence in community spirit is helping to fashion a revival in the neighborhood life around that little village.

The village has some great strengths – a thriving Catholic church and parochial school (St Gregory Parish), the home office of a strong neighborhood bank (Meetinghouse Bank), a newly-relocated and developed supermarket (Shaw’s/Star), and a collection of one-of-a-kind storefront businesses operated by local merchants.

Historically the Lower Mills business district was anchored by two local pharmacies: McDonough Drug was a landmark on Dot Ave at Washington Street, while Maurice Tessler operated his eponymous Tessler Apothecary at the corner of Richmond Street.  In the 1950s, the old First National Stores company built a “state of the art” supermarket next to the church rectory, but all had closed down by the early 1980s.
A small independent operator attempted to fill the grocery void, but when it went out of business some three decades ago, the CVS Pharmacy chain was quick to replace it, attracted by prescription volume generated by the nearby Carney Hospital.

If the arrival of the chain drugstore signaled a reversal of the business district, the recent emergence of a rejuvenated business group was a key to positive change in the business climate.

Seven years ago, shortly after becoming president of Meetinghouse Bank, CEO Tony Paciulli reached out to network with other small businesses, and the Lower Mills Merchants Association (LMMA) was reconstituted. Joined by insurance man Carlos Vargas, and florist Rich O’Mara, the group began to meet regularly to foster an improved business climate.

The merchants group, now 55 members strong, has made a huge difference in the business climate there: a new owner at Athens Cleaners is rejuvenating that thriving business; two Vietnamese business people opened up a specialty pharmacy; well-known businessman Louis Hadaya finally achieved his goal of constructing a first class office building on vacant land where a fire had destroyed a once-thriving Knights of Columbus clubhouse;  and a thriving dog-walking business has opened a retail store.

Two years ago, Kristen and Mike Ahern renovated the former Common Ground store and eatery, establishing the fabulous Sweet Life bakery/café, which now sustains a steady breakfast and lunch business; and a local woman, Eleanor Arpino, has purchased and redesigned the popular Ledge Kitchen and Drinks, and in its first weeks, dinner business at “ester” was brisk, even as locals await the return of  warm weather and the wonderful outdoor patio.

In Lower Mills it’s about building community, and as business investment increases, so also does a sense of optimism. New tenants have set down roots in new apartments and condos, both in historic Walter Baker buildings and in a striking River Street complex, built around a reclaimed 19th century school house. Local homeowners are stunned to learn that three single family homes came on the market this spring, all at asking prices in excess of $600,000.

Across the city, in the events surrounding this week’s BAA marathon, “Boston Strong” became the banner, “we’re all in this together” the mantra. In Lower Mills, as across most neighborhoods in Dorchester and Mattapan, there’s a palpable sense of optimism. It is all about community.

We really are Dorchester Strong.

– Ed Forry