‘Over the Bridge’ signals break with longtime Savin Hill civic group

A new neighborhood group that says it wants to serve the “Over the Bridge” (OTB) portion of Savin Hill is making waves on both sides of the Expressway. But a local state representative and others say the group is unnecessary if it’s aiming to be a civic group, citing the present existence of the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association.

According to organizers, the Historic Savin Hill Advocates, a group of residents centered around that neighborhood’s historic district east of Route I-93, is banding together to promote the interests of their enclave.

“This organization has evolved over the past five years to address problems in the Savin Hill community that exist by default,” said Historic Savin Hill Advocate trustee John Moran.

Moran said that the group plans to incorporate as a non-profit entity, which would make it eligible for charitable donations and grants.

The new group is an evolution of the neighborhood’s efforts to establish crime watches and stay in touch with each other to thwart criminals. Moran does not expect the group to hold regular meetings. They will instead rely on what has worked for them in the past- the email lists and phone banks they have used in their efforts against crime.

“It sort of came out of this Yahoo group we had,” said Grampian Way resident Peter McNamara, who has headed up the hill’s efforts to fight back against the sex and drug trades that lurk in the neighborhood’s park and beaches. McNamara reports that since taking up their effort, crime over the bridge, such as drug sales, car breaks and prostitution, has dropped.

The effort to break away from an established civic association has been met with some criticism among neighbors and civic leaders who see the group as splintering a neighborhood in two.

State Rep. Marty Walsh said that an additional civic association is not needed.

“I think if it’s a crime watch, absolutely,” Walsh said, adding, “If it’s a civic association, we have one already.”

“Splitting a community into competing groups doesn’t help,” Walsh said.

Walsh warned that redundancies within the civic association system could harm the neighborhood and stretch already thin resources.

Lauren Smyth, who was until last week Mayor Thomas Menino’s neighborhood liaison for Dorchester, said in an October email to community members that the Savin Hill “community is one neighborhood, whether OTB or not, and, if you start dividing up meetings this way, I see a slippery slope to dividing a community and I do not think that is a good thing or something anyone in the neighborhood wants.”
“My response is, it’s a problem for whom?” Moran said when asked to respond to criticisms of the group’s formation. “If people are upset with that, that’s their problem.”

“You know what, we are splintered,” McNamara said, adding that members of the new group “really feel left out” of the deliberations of the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association.

He cites his group’s direct meetings with Boston Police officials over the past year as one of the factors that lead to a more focused effort and the newly formalized group. “After two years of requesting it, things got done,” McNamara said.

Moran said that a “major wedge” that pushed the “over the bridge” neighbors to form their own group was the civic association’s failure to support residents’ efforts to curtail a city basketball league from using the courts at Savin Hill Park, which Moran said were “taken over” by the league each basketball season.

When contacted by the Reporter, Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association president Maureen McQuillen said that she had not heard of the new group and was not aware of any efforts to formalize a civic entity, though she added that she did know that some neighbors from over the bridge have complained of not being able to attend the association’s monthly meetings, usually held at the Little House on East Cottage St. and which, according to McQuillen, attract about 50 attendees each month.

“I don’t really know anything about the group,” McQuillen said.

McQuillen said that she encourages any residents to become more involved in civic organizations and thinks that the Savin Hill Historic group is positive.

“It seems natural that a more cohesive group would form in that area,” McQuillen said. ““By and large I don’t see any splinter at all.”

McQuillen said that the Columbia-Savin Hill group has done a lot for the entire neighborhood, including meeting with police and elected officials about crime problems over the bridge and hearing zoning issues related to new eateries opening near the Savin Hill MBTA station.

Where the new group goes from here is a matter of debate.

“We’re still a member of the [Columbia-Savin Hill] civic association,” McNamara said, but Moran told the Reporter in a separate interview that he will allow his personal membership in the association to expire at the end of this year and has no plans to renew it. Moran said that the group will continue to evolve based on the wishes of its members and would not rule out the possibility that the Historic Advocates could one day attempt to become something similar to a traditional civic association.

“It will evolve as necessary to assure the quality of life in the neighborhood,” Moran said.

The group may also focus on some of the less controversial and neighborly aspects of civic life. McNamara said that the group has plans for a Christmas Carol night and a holiday decoration contest this season and Moran said a garden program is in the works.