Mattapan renews Main Street push

Citizens and community leaders— and one business owner — from the Mattapan neighborhood gathered for the fourth time on Monday night with one big purpose in mind: How best to write a proposal for a Mattapan Main Street District that will get City Hall's attention and approval?

The Boston Main Streets organization was set up by Mayor Menino in 1995 to provide the city's neighborhoods with the design and financial support they need to maintain and upgrade their commercial districts.

If the neighborhood's submission — its third application —is approved, a Mattapan Main Street District would become the 20th in the program. The earlier proposals were rejected by the city, which cited a lack of a critical mass of business support for the planning.

Stu Rosenberg, president of the Board of Trade since the 1970s, theorizes that "businesses didn't support this because, primarily in Mattapan, [they] had a board of trade that did just that already." The downturn in the economy has altered that attitude, and Rosenberg senses the opportunity is there now for the Main Streets initiative.

Many of those who spoke up at the meeting at the new high-tech Mattapan Public Library branch lamented the current state of affairs in the community, citing the appearance of the district and the lack of ambitious plans for making things better.

"Mattapan is the first thing you see coming into Boston from the suburbs," one resident said while noting that it's not as pretty a sight as it should be.

Mattapan's proposal has its distinctive makeup to deal with. Unlike areas like Fields Corner or Uphams Corner, Mattapan is made up of a scattering of residential and commercial villages: Morton/Norfolk, River Street out of Lower Mills, and the Blue Hill Avenue stretch south of Morton and down to the square. By all accounts, these communities have come together to try to seize the day with respect to the Main Street program.

The challenge, then, is how new resources will be allotted to these villages if the initiative bears fruit. It is a test that Lillie Searcy, of Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) and others at Monday's meeting seem prepared to meet. Says Searcy: "I believe that when people get together and they organize and they synergize, they will to want to see something different — they can do it."

Area businesses, whose lack of support brought rejection for the previous applications, seem to be coming around this time. Eleven owners are said to have provided letters of support for the proposal. Still, while a number of business owners had attended previous meetings, only one — the Car Wash —came on Monday night.

Civic organizations represented at the meeting included the ABCD's Mattapan Family Service Center, Mattapan Civic Association, the Mattapan CDC, and the Mattapan Car Wash on Blue Hill Ave.

There is a dearth of up-to-date official data on Mattapan's public and economic life. At the meeting, when questions were raised about the history of business life in the neighborhood, or the age of certain buildings, or rental fees, answers came from anecdotal collective memory and not from hard facts. One of the key elements the Main Streets Project provides districts with is current statistical information on their fiscal conditions of the areas where the program is implemented. By all accounts, Mattapan's civic leaders and residents would put that information to positive use.

Residents see The Main Streets enterprise creating jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities and an invigorated sense of community. Some cited the need to resolve safety concerns as a necessary component to a healthy financial district. Said BJ Smith of United Global: "In the 25 years that I've been here, this particular area has been neglected. My big issue is crime. I am hoping that the Main Streets Program will change the minds of people and make it productive. And if we don't, I'd like to see this particular group move forward."

For now, though, it's one step at a time, and all efforts are being put into enfranchising Mattapan as the city's 20th Main Street District.