Commentary: Say it loud, say it clear: ‘No More Dirty Dot!’

Dirty Dot. That was a common slur for Dorchester when I moved here 50 years ago. The streets were dirty, hundreds of vacant lots were filled with trash, graffiti everywhere, and our T stations were decrepit.

You don’t hear Dorchester being referred to that way today. Street sweeping is a regular service and tickets for parking in areas to be swept have worked. The vacant lots have mostly been turned into new housing, and the T stations have been rebuilt.

But Dorchester is still filthy – just in certain areas. Those areas tend to be places owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Last year, I wrote a scathing column about the Highway Department failing to clean Southeast Expressway land that is clearly visible to the Dorchester community. To be fair to the Highway Department, they responded once to a small area with horrifying amounts of trash in the Tenean Beach area. But most of the trash was not picked up along the Expressway, and it is still an ugly mess.

I wasn’t going to write another column about the disgraceful lack of cleanliness maintenance of the Expressway in Dorchester until I took a trip down to the Cape, and saw Highway Department staff picking up trash along both Route 24 in the Brockton area, and Route 495 in Middleborough. The cleanup crew was putting the very limited amount of trash into yellow bags along the median strip and shoulders for later pickup. The bags were gone the next day.

It’s outrageous that our state Highway Department and the MBTA show no respect for the Dorchester neighborhoods they traverse by ignoring the maintenance of their property. It’s worse than that. The Expressway spews out tremendous amounts of noise and air pollution 24 hours a day. There have been numerous studies on the impact of air pollution on developing brains of children and health effects on adults, especially those with conditions.

The agreed-upon remedy is planting trees, especially evergreens, along the edges of the highways to ameliorate the impact. Along our Expressway, trees are cut down if they impact billboards. Other highways in far less populated areas are surrounded by forests. It’s as if we’ve been redlined for maintenance and trees, as well as a decades-old broken promise to install sound barriers.

Enough already!

Much of the Expressway in Dorchester is on embankments. Perhaps this makes it difficult to pick up, let alone see, trash thrown from moving cars. Last year, we learned that there are only four Highway Department staff deployed for the district, which includes Milton. If the department is unwilling to sufficiently staff a crew to keep their land clean, part of the solution would be to install sound barriers.

In one of the few locations with a sound barrier, a very small section between Savin Hill Avenue and The Beat (former Globe) parking lot, the visible trash begins where the barrier ends. The Beat is planning the use of outdoor space that looks at the Expressway. Those who use it will see lots of trash on the embankment below the highway. No matter where you are in Dorchester, if you look at the Expressway, you’ll see trash.

It’s not our residents who are tossing refuse on the embankment. It’s the thousands of commuters and intercity travelers who are doing so as they speed through our community, polluting our land and our air, and it’s the responsibility of the Highway Department to maintain its property, just like they do on highways outside of Boston.

We also need a plan to plant evergreens along the Expressway. This is a public health issue. And we need the MBTA to deal with its graffiti problem. Regarding the graffiti along Sydney Street above the Red Line tracks, Joe Pesaturo of the MBTA said last year that a planned suspension in service last spring (that’s 2021) “will present the next opportunity for painting work to take place.” 

It’s time for our state elected officials to demand a level of service that the Dorchester community needs and deserves. If the problem is the Highway Department’s definition of responsibilities, they need to redefine those responsibilities and staff accordingly. Dorchester needs the sound barriers that were promised decades ago to be built along the highway, and the evergreens planted. And, until that’s done, the highway shoulders should be cleaned up and the graffiti removed. Regarding the graffitied barriers along the Red Line: High quality murals by visual artists are generally respected and not vandalized. As the most diverse community in Boston, a vibrant showcase of art would be a welcome change.

It should be embarrassing for the state to have trash along its main highway into Boston from the south and graffiti marring its public transit system. Apparently, Dorchester is just Dirty Dot to them. Call your state representative and senator today and say, “No More Dirty Dot!”

Postscript:  After my deadline, Kristen Pennucci, communications director for the Mass Department of Transportation, wrote this note to me: “The MassDOT Highway Division has begun spring activities, including litter pickup and sweeping. The Southeast Expressway, (I-93), in the area of Dorchester has not been addressed yet but will be soon.”  

We’ll see.

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