For the last eight years, the basement of a Franklin Field apartment block that once served as a safe haven for teens and kids had been collecting water, mold and dust - a victim of federal budget cuts that decimated public housing programs. This week, the rooms beneath 70 Ames St. have a fresh coat of paint and an injection of Boston Police Department sweat equity.
The teen center could re-open for the youth by the end of this month, with a tentatively scheduled ribbon-cutting Jan. 30. The turn-around started three months ago after the commander of the B-3 police district, Capt. James Claiborne, discovered that the basement rooms in the city-run housing development were going unused. Claiborne and his officers teamed up with the Boston Housing Authority (BHA) and the non-profit North American Family Institute to prepare the center for a new round of programming geared towards teens and their younger siblings.
"Public housing is supposed to be a stop-gap measure," says Captain Claiborne, who took the Reporter on a tour of the still-empty rooms last week. "We need to teach the kids that one of the goals needs to be to get out of Franklin Field."
The 700 kids and teens that live in Franklin Field have other nearby options too. One of the city's finest, privately run youth centers - the Blue Hill Boys and Girls Club - is just 200 yards away, literally a quick walk across Franklin Field to the elaborate and well-run clubhouse with a spectacular swimming pool, basketball court and much more.
But Claiborne says that the on-site center that he and his staff envision on Ames will likely pluck from teens that don't go to the club for one reason or another.
"One of the things you notice when you're here is that the kids from Franklin Field feel very uncomfortable walking across the fieldâ€¦ to the boys and girls club. They don't feel like they belong, they feel uncomfortable there," said Claiborne.
"One of our challenges is getting these kids socially prepared to get a job and interact outside of here. But I can't get the kids from Franklin Field to go to an event in Codman Square. And you can't get the kids from Codman Square to go to an event at Mildred Ave. Everyone pretty much stays in their own neighborhoods, which kind of accounts for why things are relatively quiet during the summer."
Re-creating that gathering space in the middle of the project is not as simple as it sounds. The space was mildewed and moldy after years of neglect. Through a connection at the B-3 police station, Kennedy Carpets came in and pulled up the old flooring and baseboards as a contribution to the rehab job. A crew from the state's
House of Corrections was brought in to do more demolition, construction and painting - much if it with materials supplied by BHA. Home Depot, which was asked for a discount on paint and supplies, kicked in free paint from Glidden and even sent a paint crew in to help with the work for several days.
The cops at B-3 chipped in labor and ideas as well. One officer donated a television for the lounge. Others scoured Craigslist looking for used furniture for the space. Another enlisted his brother - a computer expert - to wire the center for Internet use.
Even strangers have caught the spirit of the project, Claiborne says, pointing to Craiglist sellers who decided to either drop prices or donate items like pool and foosball tables.
"We're going top make it like a drop-in center, but with as much education as you can have," says Claiborne, who says agencies such as DotWell will likely help program the facility. "We have a myriad of local service agencies that will do a little programming here, but not enough for a full-time program."
The goal, ultimately, is to connect with some of the harder-to-reach teens that may otherwise fall through the cracks of existing programs. Claiborne says these teens are likely the younger brothers and sisters of people who have already been involved in the justice system.
In fact, the idea crystallized with Claiborne last June, after his police officers - part of an inter-agency task force tasked to disrupt drug dealing in the project - arrested 14 people from Franklin Field in a sweep dubbed Operation Gridiron.
"Not one of them have seen the light of day," Claiborne says. "None of them made bail and most will do up to four years in jail. As conditions, they'll have six years probation afterwards, and cannot come within a mile of Franklin Field nor can they associate with any of the people they were arrested with."
That's a great result, says Claiborne, but he fears that he and his colleagues will be back again within a few years to do it all again - unless there's a new strategy in the interim.
"The police department has a history of going in and very effectively shutting down drug operations. We've done it here and Bromley-Heath [a development in Jamaica Plain] and elsewhere. But what usually happens is five years later we have to go back and lock up the younger brothers because not much changes in the environment."
"We're hoping to get these kids up to snuff so they'll be prepared to take a job in town. We want everyone - boys and girls - to take an etiquette programâ€¦ to increase the social competencies."
Claiborne still hasn't figured out precisely how the center will stay operational. He hopes that some funding will come from the Boston Foundation's StreetSafe program that is due to be launched this year - and will target neighborhoods like Franklin Field for outreach and intervention.
"We're hoping with the help of all our partners and to get some of the funds from [StreetSafe] to provide some training here," Claiborne says. "The 16-24 year olds are doing the damage now, but it's their younger brothers and sisters that we have to reach."