From the Archives: Rethinking Peabody Square

In a two-part series beginning this week, the Reporter tries to examine all the angles of Peabody Square, a community junction at a crossroads of its own.

From November 20, 2003

Chris Stanley held a cardboard cup of coffee and skirted a rusted Camry as it pulled into the parking lot. Stanley looked across the intersection and counted the telephone poles, traffic light poles, and street signs blocking his view.

"One, two, three … 10, 11 poles - 12, if you include that one," said Stanley, a 36-year-old architect and father of two. "It's the space that freaks me out - between Talbot Ave., Dorchester Ave., and Ashmont Street, it's just so poorly designed."

Stanley was spending his Saturday surveying Peabody Square, pointing out with a local's discerning eye the pros and cons of a heavily-trafficked area of the city, whose critics decry its lack of planned cohesion, and whose defenders tout its potential over its present amenities.

Stanley is both, champion and detractor, a resident of nearby Carruth St. and a co-chair of the community advisory committee for the MBTA's redevelopment of Ashmont Station. In front of Store24 last Saturday, Stanley addressed a host of the neighborhood's gripes: traffic snarls blamed on poor design, difficulty getting around on foot due to haphazardly-located crosswalks, drug activity near the T station and Store24, reluctance on the part of prospective new businesses who have been slow to invest there, a sharing of the territory among local politicians, and a lack of cohesive planning that lends a disjointed feel to the area.

He is not alone in diagnosing its flaws or recognizing its capacity to become a place to seek and a place to stay, instead of a place through which to pass. Joy Campbell, a 40-year-old office manager who moved to Bailey St., on the opposite side of the Square from Stanley, in 2000, said she chose the area because she wanted to live near the Red Line, in a safe area that offered affordable housing. She chose Bailey St., but with reservations.

"The Peabody Square and Ashmont T area just struck me as really bleak," Campbell said. "I remember coming out of the subway at night, and thinking, 'How could I ever possibly think of this as home?' It was charmless … It just didn't seem to have any vitality."

But Campbell said she saw "almost limitless possibility" in the retail and residential cluster along Dot Ave, mentioning, as do other Peabody Square watchers repeatedly, Somerville's Davis Square as a paradigm.

"People are going to be out," Campbell said. "The question is: Do we want people hanging out or do we want people going out? You've got to define [the Square]. If you don't define it, it's going to define itself. And, right now, the definition is: I'm empty space."

A Dorchester nexus that hugs parish, political, and civic boundaries, Peabody Square has begun to clamor for attention.

Crime circles Square

Tom Lee grew up on Bailey St., and remembers when a mounted police officer would patrol the area around Ashmont Station.

Lee, now the captain of Area C-11, Dorchester's largest police district, said last week that he thinks such a close watch over the area would be a good idea today, but budget restrictions prohibit him from assigning a full-time patrol to the area around the station. Ashmont Station and Store24, Lee reported, are two hot spots for a local crime slate that includes muggings and drug trafficking. Both venues, Lee said, serve as convenient meeting spots for drug dealers looking to sell marijuana and cocaine.

"They try to blend in among the people," Lee said. "No matter how many arrests you make, they keep coming back there."

According to Lee, Boston police will increase foot patrols during the holidays, aiming to protect commuters who make likely prey for muggers. But Lee said the stick-up artists have proved adaptable, identifying the increased police pressure, and temporarily taking their operations elsewhere.

"I wish we had the resources to put a full patrol back," Lee said. "I think that'd be a start."

A series of brawls and bar-related incidents also have Lee worried, and blemish the area's reputation, neighbors say.

On Tuesday, at a Boston Licensing Board hearing, licensing commissioners heard testimony from Layden's Pub and from police about a brawl last month that started when two men outside smoking encountered another group walking along the sidewalk. The fight, which split along black-white racial lines, led to several arrests. Lee said the fight was one in a string with racial overtones.

In a much-publicized July incident, a 61-year-old Savin Hill man was killed by a hit-and-run driver after stepping outside Ashmont Grille. Richard Miller was dragged several hundred feet, according to reports, before being run over and killed. Police say they still do not know the driver's identity.

The violent incidents and the drug trade mar the neighborhood's reputation, and Lee said that, while Store24 shouldn't shoulder the brunt of the blame, cutting back business hours could ameliorate crime.

Shaun Marshall, the store's manager, said he hadn't heard many complaints from residents about criminal activity near the 1886 Dorchester Ave. address. Marshall said the Everett Square branch that closed during late-night hours suffered a drastic drop in business, and said supervisors likely would be reluctant to scale back hours in the Peabody Square branch.

'A domino effect'

When Ashmont Station is rehabilitated, finally, as part of the $90 million rehaul of Dorchester's four Red Line stations, neighborhood activists and T officials alike could hardly be blamed for following the lead of Alexander the Great, who famously wept when there were no more lands to conquer. The redevelopment of Ashmont Station, and an adjacent parcel controlled by the Dorchester-based Trinity Financial development firm, represents the brass ring of civic efforts, with construction scheduled for next year.

In the meantime, though, decisions await and problems persist. The 30,000-square-foot development parcel adjacent to the south of the station property remains a question mark.

Vince Droser, project manager for Trinity, said his company is waiting for the T to advance in its planning and financing of the Ashmont rehaul before it commits to a specific development plan for the triangular lot. But, Droser said, when the choices are made, community sentiment will steer them.

"Let's pretend it's a blank piece of paper," Droser said. "If you had a magic wand, what would you want to do to Peabody Square?"

"I think the community needs to form its vision so that developers and others involved can reflect that vision," he added.

The now-unused parcel will be just a start, said Bill Richard, a 33-year-old father and St. Mark's Area Main Streets board member who lives on Carruth St. "We're not just banking on the station, we're banking on the development for the neighborhood. You know how it happens in these neighborhoods," Richard said. "The property across the street improves itself, and then you have to work on your storefront, and working with St. Mark's, there's going to be a domino effect throughout the neighborhood."

Dan Larner, the St. Mark's Area Main Streets director who calls Peabody Square a major commercial hub in the neighborhood, has made a mission out of restoring storefronts along the Avenue, and has several more, including the Ashmont Grille, planned for the Square. Larner said he foresees the roadside cosmetic facelifts, the station reconstruction, and the developed parcel working together.

"All these things together will have a gigantic impact on the area," Larner said, adding that businesses who come to the area tend to stay there.

"Believe it or not, people here have money to spend," Richard says. "And we need to get the word out to the business community."

'What can we do?'

A glance at the mosaic of different elected and city officials representing Peabody Square offers insight into why change's arrival might be slow there. Of the six voting precincts that comprise the Square, there is no consistent combination of City Hall coordinators, city councillors, state representatives, and state senator. Senator Jack Hart is the only official who represents the entirety of Peabody Square, and Hart's seat, the First Suffolk Senate, only came into existence after last year's redistricting. State Representative Martin Walsh and Speaker of the House Thomas Finneran, allies, each claim three precincts. In the City Council, frequent foes Charles Yancey and Maureen Feeney each represent three precincts. In City Hall's Office of Neighborhood Services, Molly Dunford covers four precincts and Mila Monteiro covers two.

Boundaries of civic groups, too, reflect confusion about who has what say where. Groups from Ashmont-Adams, Ashmont Hill, the St. Mark's Area, and the soon-to-be-renamed Atherstone-Bailey-Clermont-Fuller (ABCF) Association all weigh in with politicians and city officials about their opinions regarding Peabody Square.

Dorchester's traditional parish divisions consign Peabody Square to the margins as well. Residents of Peabody Square and its surroundings attend St. Mark's and St. Gregory's on the Avenue, but it's not far to St. Ann's or St. Brendan's either.

The result, many agree, is a sort of "no-man's land," a peculiar section of the city whose failure to lie in the jurisdiction of a singular person or institution who could be held accountable for its well-being damns it to second-class status, a sort of orphan among other, higher-profile, better-resourced, and more soundly-planned sections of the neighborhood like Adams Corner.

"That's part of the problem," said Bill Richard. "No one takes ownership of it. It's the great divide."

"Everyone feels like they have a piece of it, but it's not really in anyone's neighborhood," Droser said. Still, instead of being a marginalized gutter, insist the optimists, Peabody Square can profit from its location. "That's actually good," Droser went on, "because it allows for a lot of different perspectives. And then it becomes not just a tranportation hub, but a neighborhood hub."

Dunford pointed to the annual Christmas tree lighting, scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 29 at 4 p.m. Different civic groups "play nice" in Peabody Square, Dunford said, making the lighting a group effort.

"For a change, it's a lot of people saying, 'What can we do to make it better?', instead of, 'What can we do to make it ours?'," Dunford said.

Eyeing the key decisions over the station-abutting parcel, and hopeful for other changes that might uncrimp traffic flow or brighten the commercial district, a group of Peabody Square residents are planning to meet early next month to debate options and brainstorm ideas. At 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 3, a meeting in the Foley Building on River St. will foster what Droser called Peabody Square's "vision."

"I have every faith that it's going to go from being an urban wasteland to being a vital part of the community, something that draws people together," Campbell said.

Next week: Rounding out the Square

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