Proposal to Increase Citizenship Services Budget

By Ryan Meehan

DORCHESTER – Last week, state representative Linda Dorcena Forry proposed an amendment to the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition’s Citizenship Services for New Americans program, which would increase the state budget by $1.25 million in fiscal year 2009.

The proposal, of $750,000 more than this fiscal year, will provide money to community-based organizations such as the Vietnamese American Civic Association and other immigrant naturalization services.

“There is a huge need and there are a couple of areas that are not even served [including] the Cape, Leominster and Fitchburg,” said Carly Burton, a policy associate at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

Burton said many organizations have barely received enough money to fund the programs they offer, such as language courses, health services and assisting people in becoming citizens.

The money is given to the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants and is filtered to 13 groups statewide that provide citizenship services, according to a Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition fact-sheet.

The Citizenship for New Americans program assists immigrants and refugees assimilate to the country. Burton said refugees generally have an easier time getting green cards, but they often have a difficult time adjusting psychologically and culturally.

Emmet Folgert, community activist and director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, has witnessed adjustment difficulties in the lives of young immigrants, particularly among the Vietnamese and Cape Verdean population.

Folgert said a lot of the violence in Dorchester is among immigrant groups; those who have police records are often not likely to be granted citizenship.

“There are many opportunities to be involved in crime,” Folgert said. “It’s a real pressure that folks live with.”

The Can Cart-Pusher's Mecca

By Ryan Meehan

DORCHESTER – The clamor of glass bottles clanking, cans crunching, and the hollow sound of plastic bottles hitting the floor echo in the damp garage that is Dorchester Bottle and Can as customers usher in and out of the open door. An unkempt man downs the remainder of his King Cobra 40-ounce malt liquor beverage before handing it over along with three transparent garbage bags of Budweiser cans.

Dorchester Bottle and Can, 1278 Dorchester Ave., acts as an intermediary between collectors and beverage distributors, providing cash on the spot to those who want to deposit recyclables.
Redemption center manager, Lee Nguyen, 43, a Vietnamese refugee who came to Dorchester 22 years ago, has been working around the smell of sour beer, sorting bottles and cans on the sticky garage floor for 10 years.

“It’s hard work because you have to remember everything,” said Nguyen, gesturing to the individual boxes and 15-foot piles of bulging trash bags surrounding him.

Nguyen and about four other employees sort through each bag brought in and place the bottles and cans into different garbage bag-filled boxes by size and brand. There are 120 20-fluid ounce plastic bottles, 40 two-liter plastic bottles, 240 cans and 24 glass bottles are bundled, tied and tossed aside until their corresponding distributor comes to pick them up.

Beverage distribution companies pay Dorchester Bottle and Can 7 cents for each bottle or can, which, in turn, pays customers 5 cents per bottle or can. Nguyen said the companies, which include Budweiser, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, come three times a week to pick up only the products their company manufactured.

Customers range from homeless men to businessmen.

“I come here once a week and I make $30 a week on average,” said Joseph Smith, 36, an immigrant from Barbados who moved to Dorchester five years ago.

Smith said collecting bottles and cans from the areas of Uphams Corner and Stoughton is his only source of income because he cannot get a job.

Nguyen said there are many regular customers he trusts to tell him the correct number of cans without having to count.

“We look forward to summer,” said Nguyen, noting that business is usually slow in the winter.

Ashmont Station Renovation Nears Completion

By Ryan Meehan

DORCHESTER – Reconstruction of Ashmont Station, the starting point of the Red Line T service, is about 50 percent complete, despite being about six months behind schedule, Mass. Bay Transit Authority construction officials said.

“A new schedule was made and updated when milestones were not reached, but the delay has not affected the overall schedule,” said Scott Kelley, senior project manager in charge of rebuilding Ashmont Station and renovating all Dorchester branches of the Red Line.

The entire $35 million project has been split into two contracts, one focuses on the structure and the other on the architectural detail. The first contracted is estimated to last three and a half years, while the second contract should only take 18 months, Kelley said. The entire project is expected to be complete in August 2009.

The historic Mattapan High-Speed Trolley is operating after 15-months of interruption, having been replaced by buses. Fare collection and other operations in the southern end will begin in one month. As for the northern end, demolition begins in May. The Red Line has not stopped running due to construction.

“There’s a whole science to working around the trains,” Kelley said. “We have to sequence all the work around the every day operations of the MBTA.”

The south head house, or entrance, is erect and its roof is one-third complete, while the reconstruction of the High-Speed Trolley viaduct, a series of three bridges leading the trolley to the station, is already finished, Kelley said.

“The trolleys are like antiques,” Kelley said. “There was a community outcry for the old trolleys to remain on the line.”

Postponing service to Ashmont Station during the reconstruction of the viaduct on the Mattapan line enabled the MBTA to also revamp the eight trolley cars with air conditioning, heat and handicap access under a separate contract.

Aside from a roofing job in the 1970’s, Ashmont Station had no substantial renovations since construction finished in 1928, said chief engineer Michael Kearney. The old station was 80-years old.

The new station will be roughly the same size as the old station, including the platforms, which are about 460 feet long, enough to fit six train cars. It will be been moved closer to Peabody Square, from which the old station could not be seen. There will be three elevators, two escalators and it will be equipped with state of the art surveillance and fare collection services.

The surrounding area has been modified to better accommodate the estimated 3-4,000 daily commuters, Kelley said. There will be a new bus lane for the 11 buses that stop at the station, in addition to new bus shelters. There will be a park leading up to the Station from Peabody Square. A chunk of the land has been contracted to Trinity Financial, Inc., a developer who has since put up a transit oriented, mixed income housing and business complex known as the Carruth building across the street.

The revitalization of business along Dorchester Avenue is part of a larger project of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, initiated by Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

New Italian Restaurant in Peabody Square

By Ryan Meehan

DORCHESTER – Aware of the potential profit from the modernization of Peabody Square, Chris Douglass, owner of the Ashmont Grill restaurant on Talbot Avenue, has been cooking up a new plan to serve the community.

In July, Douglass, who also owns Icarus, a restaurant in the South End, plans to open Tavolo, an Italian restaurant in the mixed-income Carruth building on Dorchester Avenue.

Tavolo will serve quick pickup fare, such as pasta, paninis and pizza. He said he is expecting a high number of take out orders, given its proximity to Ashmont Station and its location in the Carruth.

“I wouldn’t have taken it on if I didn’t think the market could bear another option for people,” Douglass said. “It will take a lot of time for the market to mature.”

The aim of the Ashmont Grill is to make its menu options, prices and general ambiance appeal to a wide audience. Douglass has the same goals with Tavolo, but he plans a non-traditional, Italian restaurant with a modern, stained-concrete floor and a black lab stone for the bar.

“Who knows what business will be like in the future; we hope that everyone who comes [to the Ashmont Grill] will check [Tavalo] out,” Douglass said.

As the reconstruction of Ashmont Station and construction of the Carruth near completion, Douglass and his employees are hopeful that the Ashmont Grill will draw new customers.

“We expect business to grow,” said Megan Noone, assistant general manager of the Ashmont Grill. “We have a strong local, loyal clientele that will hopefully spread the word to incoming neighbors.”

Kendy Amazan, the daytime bartender at the Ashmont Grill, will start working at Tavolo when it opens. The idea is to have a familiar face from the Ashmont Grill for people to recognize at the new establishment, she said.

“I remember when this place was the old Ashmont Grill,” said Mac McNulty, a patron who frequents the establishment three to four times a week, referring to the restaurant before it reopened in 2005. “It made the Eire Pub look like the Four Seasons.”

Douglass said he thinks restaurants are pioneers in the sense that they help new businesses prosper by bringing life to the surrounding area. Icarus, which opened 30 years ago, contributed to change the definition of the South End to the trendy scene it resembles today, he said.

The Ashmont Grill has endured construction outside its doors for several years, and it will enter a new phase this summer as transit reconstruction begins in Peabody Square, transforming Talbot Avenue into a pedestrian plaza and the five-corner intersection to four, Douglass said.

“The whole area is changing,” Douglass said. “It has not [yet] affected us negatively.”

Convenient Living in Ashmont

By Ryan Meehan

DORCHESTER – After 17 months of construction, the Carruth, a transit oriented development project at 1910 Dorchester Ave., is nearing its projected spring completion.

The Carruth is a six-story complex consisting of 74 rented apartments, 42 condominiums, 80 underground parking spaces and 4 retail spaces, according to the Massachusetts Housing website.

“The rentals are affordable – it’s for the working class,” said Belinda Louie Luscinskas, construction manager for Trinity Financial, Inc. “The main advantage is in its urban and transit attributes.”

Two-bedroom rental units are intended to be for those who earn about $40,380, which is 60 percent of Boston’s median income, according to the Massachusetts Housing website. Eight of the rental units are designated for those who earn 30% of the median income, which is $20,200.

Marketing representative Nathaniel Rashean Kalokoh of Winn Residential, the building’s management agent, said Carruth advertised in 16 publications in January, and by the end of the month, 53 apartments had been rented. The remaining 21 units were rented in February.

Luscinskas said the condominiums are not yet occupied but are now being marketed to appeal to mixed audiences, including young professionals. “We already see a lot of kids in the building,” he said.

Project manager Phil Jean, who works for Trinity Realty, which represents real estate sales for the MBTA, said Carruth was built to defray some of the costs involved with reconstructing Ashmont Station. The Carruth is built on land annexed from the station.

The Carruth is emblematic of the modernization that has become a characteristic of the area, particularly from Fields Corner to Peabody Square. The Boston Redevelopment Authority is working on fostering economic development with the Dorchester Avenue Project, an endeavor initiated by Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

State Representative Linda Dorcena Forry has been actively involved with transit-oriented development and “community building” along Dorchester Avenue. Shasha Link, her spokeswoman, said Dorcena Forry is trying to unite people in the community “whether it’s a development in housing or providing people with a place and a role to decide whether or not they want the new Walgreens down the street.”

“Dorchester is attractive because there are little ethnic pockets,” Luscinskas said. “Carruth can lend itself to different communities in that way.”

Auto Theft Down, Criminals Wising Up

By Ryan Meehan

DORCHESTER – Over the past six years, the number of vehicle thefts have declined in District C-11 and in Boston overall.

From Jan. 2002 to Dec. 2007, there was a 57 percent drop in vehicle thefts in District C-11, according to police reports. In the same time, there was a 52 percent decrease for the entire city.

“Car thieves are usually caught in the act,” said Sergeant John Daly, a District C-11 community service officer. “When [police] follow a car, they know right away whether or not it’s been stolen.”

The increasing sophistication of police technology may be deterring auto theft, Daly said. Before computers, police used a "hot sheet,” which listed all stolen vehicles. The hot sheet took hours to update and transmit to investigators. Now, when following a suspicious vehicle, police can run the plates immediately.

“It is very infrequent that someone steals a car and we have a suspect we must pursue,” said Sergeant Dan Conboy, the District C-11 auto investigator. “If they’re stopped by the police, they’re boxed in and arrested.”

Conboy investigates crashes and helps in the prosecution of civil infractions. He has handled many cases involving stolen vehicles. It is common for car thieves to smash into someone’s car for retribution, he said. “Usually, in these instances, they are long gone when police arrive,” he said.

Daly speculates theft rates have gone down due to insurance companies wising up.

“When I first started, people would torch the car, [claim it as stolen], and would just get the insurance check,” Daly said. “Now, the insurance companies will do an investigation and they are reluctant to pay people off.”

Insurance company investigations have influenced the police report filing process. When reporting a stolen vehicle, victims must sign a statement that can be used against them as perjury if the investigation reveals them to be guilty of fraud.

A major concern of the mayor’s office and the BPD is motor vehicle larceny, more so than vehicle theft, due to the growing popularity of global positioning devices and iPods.

In District C-11, between 2005 and 2007, there was an 18.8 percent increase in larceny offenses, according to police reports. In Boston, larceny has increased over the past three years by 8.3 percent.

Organizations such as the Safe Neighborhood Initiative, a federally funded program consisting of members from the Boston police department, city agencies, representatives from the attorney general’s office and other community groups, work together to inform members of the community about pressing issues.

“The Safe Neighborhood Initiative has definitely had a positive effect on reducing crime,” Daly said.

Paul Heithaus, program coordinator of the Bowdoin-Geneva Safe Neighborhood Initiative, said the purpose of the coalition is to improve the quality of life in District C-11. Once a month, the SNI meets to discuss problems they hope will prevent crime by raising awareness. He is proud to hear that auto thefts have fallen, but cannot attribute this directly to the action of the Safe Neighborhood Initiative.

Slippery Slope of Foreclosures on Meeting House Hill

By Ryan Meehan

DORCHESTER - Lined with abandoned three-story homes, Hendry Street could be the center of housing foreclosures in Boston.

Last week, Mayor Thomas M. Menino visited Hendry Streeet to announce an initiative to stem the toll of the rising number of foreclosures in the city. His plan relies on a foreclosure intervention team that is responsible remedying the plague.

Charles Henderson, CEO of Cirvco International LLC, a real estate solutions agency, said that Hendry Street has a stigma. "No one wants to live there," he said.

After one week, Mayor Menino's intervention team has already acquired properties to eventually renovate and resell.

Other organizations, such as Cirvco, have been working to help homeowners facing foreclosure understand their options.

"We are like counselors for homeowners and inform them of things they might not know about," Sherina Hendrix, a Cirvco employee currently working with a family facing foreclosure on Hendry Street, said.

Hendrix has helped indebted homeowners with a process known as “short selling,” which involves negotiating prices with a bank to enable the owner to pay their debt at a reduced rate. She also assists residents moving and rebuilding their credit. She said that all options are explored before short selling.

“Banks are not being realistic,” Henderson said. “They hire brokers who estimate the price of homes without knowing how much it will cost to repair. What the banks don’t realize is that no one is in place to hire a contractor to fix up all the things wrong with the property.”

When it comes to investing, Henderson said potential buyers now must put down a deposit from 20-25 percent as opposed to the former 100 percent financing. Many people cannot afford to pay. Interested buyers are now both holding out and waiting for the price to drop or having “straw buyers” with good credit pay for the property for the person that could not afford it in the first place.

Jeanne DuBois, executive director of the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation, said the state should secure loans for mortgage holders, because problems arise when the loans become larger than the house is worth.

The next step is to manage or renovate the houses. The sooner the houses are fixed, the sooner they can be rented. DuBois said the “gap” between the cost of construction and what a first time homebuyer can afford is growing.

“When houses around you are becoming foreclosed, you have the ripple effect – one after another. All of a sudden no house is worth what their mortgage is,” DuBois said.

The ripple phenomenon, which is exemplified by Hendry Street, breeds crime and violence. Area residents fear that due to the crisis, living near Meeting House Hill will become increasingly unsafe.

Profile: Lev Bryant

By Ryan Meehan

DORCHESTER – Ten years ago, after having grown up conflicted and distraught in Savin Hill, Lev Bryant, 33, left behind all that he knew and drove “aimlessly” until he settled in Tampa, Fla., in search of a better life. Today, the humble, bearded man finds himself back in Dorchester, living in a religious commune, finally having found peace within himself and in his environment.

“Until five years ago, I was sure there was nothing to live for,” Bryant said. “I thought there was no point in getting married or having kids. Now, I think the opposite.”

Bryant says that his newfound comfort goes beyond his beliefs in God because he has discovered love. Growing up, he had never experienced anything significant; he had no close personal relationships with friends or family members – he was a lost soul.

Bryant is now happily married to Yahanna Bryant and is the proud father of an 11-month-old boy named Asher. He works full time at the Common Ground Café on Dorchester Avenue, which the members of the community built and operate themselves.
“He’s awful nice for growing up in Dorchester,” Nezer Al-Dokhi, the café manager, said in jest. Al-Dokhi, 26, is one of 30 people who live in the community with Bryant in an old Victorian house on Melville Avenue.

Everyone in the house has a role to fulfill, from cleaning the dishes to repairing the roof. Selfishness does not exist – neither in their actions or thoughts. Bryant’s wife, for instance, is responsible for home-schooling all of the children in the community. She says that Bryant is the house headmaster.

“We work for fun,” says Bryant. “There are a lot of needs in the house – we keep plenty busy. I don’t believe in ‘free time’.”

Some residents grew up in the Boston commune or in one of the many branches that exist across the world. Others, like Bryant, discovered the community during a troubled period of his or her life. Residents come from various religious backgrounds, so the commune does not adhere to one specific religion. Rather, the members share similar religious beliefs. Helping and loving others are the foundations of their beliefs.

The members of the community vary in ethnicity and age. Many of the younger members cherish his company and are inspired by his charisma.

“He writes the funniest songs ever!” Shomeret Johnson, a student of his wife, said. Johnson, 10, has grown up in the house her whole life.

“I talk to him all day about my problems and he always has answers,” says co-worker and community member Sarah Johnson, 19, originally from Chicago. “He’s so wise.”

The community house on Melville Avenue resembles the community of Dorchester itself. It is a melting pot of individuals from all corners of the globe. In a neighborhood rumored to be so tumultuous, Bryant and his community members have managed to find peace.