Among Dorchester’s many outstanding community development corporations, Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) has a national reputation – one that it deserves. Starting in the 1980s, residents turned Dudley Street’s abandoned, fire-scarred, trash-filled neighborhood into an urban village with parks, playgrounds, and an urban farm. Along the way, they persuaded then-Mayor Ray Flynn to give DSNI the power of eminent domain so that it could take possession of abandoned lots in their community and rebuild their neighborhood according to community desires. More than 225 families now live in housing that will remain affordable for 99 years.
That was then. Today, the neighborhood where outsiders dumped trash and set insurance fires is ten minutes from downtown on the Indigo Line train. Rents are rising. More than half of Dudley Village’s residents have to spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Predatory investors are offering people half a million cash for their homes. As the tidal wave of wealth starts washing down Dudley Street, can DSNI keep developing its neighborhood for the community and by the community?
They’re certainly trying. DSNI was involved when St. Kevin’s Church on Columbia Road was turned into Uphams Crossing. They co-led the community process to turn the Maxwell Box factory next to the Uphams Corner train station into Indigo Block. Last summer, after a year of negotiation with two local developers, they signed a community benefits memo of understanding for 18 units at 407 and 409 Dudley Street. Now, neighbors are working with a developer who’s proposing 13 units on Robey Street.
DSNI reviews smaller projects, small business development, liquor license applications, and the other details that create a healthy business district.
Still, “as soon as the neighborhood starts building up a few assets, someone comes in to steal them,” veteran community leader Bob Haas said in a conversation at DSNI’s annual meeting last week. “You need to be poised to act the minute it starts.”
DSNI can’t keep people from selling their homes to shady buyers. But they can shape private developers’ plans, and they do. “We use the fact that zoning is a privilege, not a right in Boston,” DSNI community organizer Eliza Parad told the Reporter. “We review projects that need zoning variances. They’ll go before the Zoning Board and they’ll need community support.” For projects that don’t require variances, Parad added, “it comes down to the force of residents and abutters and how much organizing they do. Our decision on how much to push the developer depends on how much residents want it.”
The city’s Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) is a partner in this project, Parad said. “We have a memorandum of understanding from the 1980s,” she said. “Any project on city land will be co-facilitated by DSNI. DND attends our Sustainable Development Committee meetings. They are a resource on city requirements, permits, and processes.”
How about the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which steers development in other neighborhoods? “We don’t interact with the BRA as much,” Parad said. “If a project requires BRA approval, DSNI will write a letter.” But outside Dudley Square, the BRA has no major initiatives in DSNI territory right now.
However, all these arrangements don’t guarantee community voice, as the Indigo Block’s twisted story shows.
Late in Mayor Menino’s last term, the BRA started looking at new uses for the Maxwell Box factory. The agency set up a Fairmount Indigo Planning Initiative, said Harry Smith, DSNI’s director of Sustainable Economic Development. The Initiative’s Uphams Corner group, co-chaired by DSNI and Uphams Corner Main Streets, recommended a mix of light industry, wholesale distribution, white-collar offices, and affordable housing for the factory site. The BRA endorsed the plan. The path forward seemed clear.
A month later, City Hall dropped a bombshell. The Public Facilities Department announced that it was taking the property to store street repair materials. “I know you planned other uses,” Smith recalls PFD head Bill Galvin saying, “but this is what we’re going to do.”
The DND held a community meeting to review guidelines for use of the property. They were very broad, and didn’t mention the Fairmount Initiative report. Dudley Street countered with a community meeting to present the report. After 70 residents showed up, the city drafted new guidelines that prioritized the report’s recommendations. Then DSNI turned out residents to hear would-be developers’ plans.
Dorchester Bay EDC’s proposal seemed closest to the community vision, and DSNI mobilized residents to support it. Since then they’ve been watching closely “to hold Dorchester Bay accountable to the guidelines,” said Smith – not because the EDC is unaccountable, but because community-controlled development means constant vigilance.
“You can’t take your eye off it,” Smith said. “This is a case study in how to do broad-based organizing. You have to be inside the process and outside it – in the streets when needed.”
How do you get residents so involved in development that they’ll join committees, attend meeting after meeting, keep going when the process turns against them, and hit the streets at crucial moments? DSNI trains people to understand the issues, gives them tools to analyze development proposals, and develops leaders who can represent their communities. “Cultivating leadership is DSNI’s most powerful way to ensure development without displacement,” DSNI board president Keila Barros asserted last month at DSNI’s annual meeting.
There’s more, though. DSNI pours support into Dudley area homes. It offers family wealth-building classes. Its No Child Left Homeless campaign stabilizes desperate families’ lives. Its school and mentoring programs help students succeed. DSNI employs and trains 40 youth and young adult organizers to mobilize residents. And DSNI’s democratic structure lets residents shape the neighborhood’s future through its huge board and active committees.
If DSNI is a uniquely successful community development project, it’s not because DSNI develops real estate. It develops families. And they, in turn, shape development in one of Boston’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.
Mike Prokosch is a Dorchester resident and civic activist.