Friday, August 21, 2009

“Don’t dump on us’’

I've posted a few stories about the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) over the years. That's because the this incredible Boston community is responsible for pulling off one of the most inspiring examples of resident-driven community development in this nation's history. What makes their story so powerful is the successful battle residents waged against the forces of racism and prejudice in bringing their once-devastated neighborhood back to life.

A group of local young artists believe that those who live and work in the neighborhood should never forget the struggle or take their success for granted. They proposed to paint a mural that would capture that history and inspire residents to continue their successful revitalization efforts.

Not everyone thought that was a good idea. (GW)

For weeks, a group of Boston youths in a summer jobs program has been researching and painting a mural celebrating the history of Dudley Street’s reclamation, a 25-year story of loss and resurrection in one of the city’s most neglected communities.

But the MBTA, which owns the East Cottage Street wall where the mural is located, told them their depiction of the neighborhood’s roughest days was too negative, that images of fires and words such as disinvestment and arson could not be used, according to the artists, members of Cape Verdean Community Unido. In essence, they said, they were asked to whitewash history.

And they would not do it.

The young people have left the first panel of their four-part mural blank, the portion that was supposed to show the years of neglect in the early 1980s. And even a last-minute peace offering from the state transportation secretary yesterday may be too late, because money for the city-funded jobs program expires today and many of those in the program will be going back to school or leaving town.

“It wouldn’t make sense’’ to leave out part of the history, said Adriana Lobo, a 16-year-old from Roxbury, wearing an orange MBTA reflective vest as she worked on the mural located beneath a Fairmont line overpass. “They just want to show all the good things that happened, and I guess the truth will never be told.’’

The group submitted two proposals for the first panel of the mural.

Their initial sketch depicted fires, the result of arson in the community. They were told that it was too violent, they said, and that a silhouette of a person pointing at the flames looked too much like a youth holding a gun, something many of them perceived as a hurtful stereotype.

On their second proposal, a text version describing the same issues, they were told to strike out the words disinvestment, abandon, and arson from their description of the problems that plagued the neighborhood, they say.

“I don’t get this,’’ said Suely Neves,’’ the 26-year-old project coordinator for the mural program. “The beauty of it all is that we went from something so heartbreaking, so devastating.’’

The mural is the seventh in a community jobs program that began in 2004 as a way to give young people jobs while they learn cultural history and community pride. Others have depicted Puerto Rican, African-American, and Cape Verdean culture, as well as messages of peace. This year, the artists spent weeks researching the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a 25-year-old community organization, before they began painting the latest mural.

“It gives you like an important feeling,’’ said Randy Vicente, an 18-year-old from Hyde Park. “You don’t want to put just anything on the wall. It seemed like we had the perfect idea.’’

Carlos Santiago, the 25-year-old lead artist, refers to his fellow painters as “my crew,’’ and relishes the speckles of paint on his plaid shorts, T-shirt, and white Nike high-tops. He conceived not only of the first frame, representing the neglect, but also the subsequent frames that showed members of the community picking up trash, turning vacant lots into community gardens, holding signs that say, “Don’t dump on us,’’ and admiring yellow and purple affordable houses “that are actually nice, that you can live in.’’

Santiago said he did not mind it when the MBTA’s design and construction department suggested that he add people to the fourth frame, which depicts a celebration of the future, the opening of a planned community center. But the suggestion that vacant lots had to go, that fires had to go, that a boy’s finger had to go - that disturbed him.

“They said he’s holding a gun,’’ Santiago said. “I don’t know where they see that.’’

He added: “They were discriminating towards art. They were discriminating towards a community.’’

Neves said she asked MBTA staff members, who had been speaking with her privately over the past few weeks, to meet with the entire group. But T management could never find the time, she said.

So the students mailed letters to Governor Deval Patrick yesterday. And today at 1 p.m., they plan to debut their incomplete work to the community, while holding a speak-out about the MBTA’s actions.

After the MBTA received calls from a Globe reporter yesterday, state Transportation Secretary James A. Aloisi Jr. called one of the project’s coordinators, John Barros, to apologize on behalf of the T.

Aloisi’s spokesman, Colin Durrant, said the secretary plans to show up at the speak-out today to meet with the students in person. He has also agreed to allow them to paint their second proposal, the one with the text of the community’s troubled past.

“He feels strongly that this compromise design is fine, and he agreed to meet with the youth tomorrow and attend their event,’’ Durrant said.

Durrant said the official who rejected the old designs at the MBTA was Kris Erickson, the chief of staff fired last week after general manager Daniel A. Grabauskas resigned under pressure. Erickson could not be reached for comment last night.

Aloisi’s compromise may be too late.

“These jobs have a window so they tried to work with the T to get this mural up,’’ said Barros, executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. “We’ve still got this half-done mural.’’

Noah Bierman can be reached at


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