Magic in Beantown


BOSTON - Janice Williams remembers shopping in Boston's Roslindale neighborhood as a youngster, when sidewalks bustled with people heading to banks, delis, department stores and the supermarket.

That was about four decades ago. By the 1970s, suburban malls beckoned and customers drifted away. Dozens of Roslindale merchants closed their doors. "There was a lot of vandalism," Williams recalled. "It became a pretty desolate area."

Today, Roslindale has been transformed, thanks in large part to Boston Main Streets, a neighborhood commercial revitalization program that has spruced up storefronts citywide, recruited businesses, lowered vacancies and helped reduce crime.

Now, in the historically working-class neighborhood, mothers push strollers on brick sidewalks with old-style street lamps. Elderly women with pull-carts chat outside the new supermarket. Visitors strolling along blocks of Greek delis, pastry shops and used-record stores are tugged inside by eye-catching displays and aromas from six ethnic bakeries.

Boston's program, now in 19 districts, has become a model for other cities, including Baltimore, which launched Baltimore Main Streets this month. Proponents say the model created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation brings customers back to urban shopping districts by preaching self-help and limiting government handouts. It gives merchants and residents tools to organize, promote shopping areas, use grants to fix up storefronts and sidewalks and recruit new shops.

The endeavor has been a particular interest of Mayor Martin O'Malley, who notes the need for strong commercial districts in Baltimore neighborhoods. Over three years, more than a dozen neighborhood shopping districts will be targeted for revitalization, with five selected this year. The city will kick in $1 million for the program this year, with another $500,000 coming from the state and $26,000 for capital improvements from each commercial corridor. The city also hopes for contributions from foundations and corporations.

Within a year, city officials believe, districts should be cleaner and brighter, with more store window displays, special events to draw shoppers and new stores filling vacancies.

Since 1995, Boston has reaped more than $40 million in private investment in Main Streets districts - and spent just $5.7 million. The districts have gained 313 new businesses, 120 completed storefront projects and more than 2,300 new jobs. "You can go around a neighborhood and see the commercial districts have a whole new place in their communities, as a place the neighborhood is proud of," said Kathy Kottaridis, director of Boston's Office of Business Development, which oversees Main Streets.

In Roslindale, a former 19th-century streetcar suburb, commercial vacancies have dropped from 20.7 percent to 3.5 percent, and foot traffic has jumped, said Williams, program manager of Roslindale Village Main Streets.

Persistence has paid off for merchants and residents. Together, they persuaded the city to put a commuter rail station in the neighborhood - just 12 minutes from downtown Boston - and to clean up contaminated property to help a supermarket operator open a store there. "We have a lot of activist people willing to donate time," Williams said. "Others see that, and it feeds off itself."

About 10,000 customers per week now shop for traditional, organic and ethnic foods at the 2-year-old Village Market. Residents gather at the once weed-strewn Adams Park for summer concerts and picnics. Developers have snatched up vacant buildings at one end of narrow Birch Street - a former fish market - and brought in clothing and home furnishing boutiques with names like Ampersand, Muse and Zia.

When she began thinking of opening Muse, "Somebody told me things were happening here," said Karen Parrelli, though it never would have occurred to her to set up shop in a place she thought had gone downhill since the days when her father was growing up there. "When I saw Birch Street, I was surprised. For 25 years, it's been so depressed."

Now, people from all over Boston come to browse amid racks of long print dresses and "gently worn" clothing in a shop with hardwood floors and a tangerine-colored ceiling. She calls it "a little bit of Soho in funky Roslindale Village," and expects the momentum to continue with the block's next tenant, a wine bar and cafe.

Most changes have occurred since 1995, when Roslindale joined Boston Main Streets, launched citywide by Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino. Roslindale had a jump start; it had won a Main Streets designation a decade earlier, when, at the urging of then-City Councilor Menino, it became one of the first urban areas to test the Main Streets model.

More than 1,500 communities nationwide now use the four-point strategy of improving storefronts, streets and sidewalks; promoting the district to residents, investors and visitors; creating partnerships among neighborhood stakeholders; and advising existing merchants and recruiting new ones.

Roslindale's early successes convinced city officials that a program created for small towns could work in a big city. Boston became the first city to adopt the program. Each district has a paid manager and volunteer board of directors who plan goals, choose storefront grant recipients and work on projects and marketing.

The program works for cities because neighborhood shopping areas serve as centers of commerce much like small-town downtowns, Kottaridis said. Cities, however, face bigger problems: crime, or the perception of it, vagrancy, absentee landlords, difficult-to-use real estate.

It's impossible for Main Streets staff and volunteers to address such problems alone, Kottaridis said. Instead, Boston Main Streets has formed partnerships with police and other groups. Boston has also been helped by the strong economy, a large immigrant community active in owning urban businesses and homes and increasing numbers of suburbanites going urban.

Boston Main Streets and police have worked together to persuade store owners to do away with after-hours, solid grates. Grates make an area appear unsafe, police believe, and actually promote thefts, many of which occur through roofs and rear windows and out of sight of anyone on the street. Main Streets reinforces the effort by refusing storefront grants to businesses that use grates.

The program, which has a preservation focus, tries not only to attract business but also to prepare existing businesses for inevitable change and gentrification.

"One of the things Main Streets should do is work with the current businesses to help them be better, so when things do change, they're able to benefit as opposed to being pushed out," said Emily Haber, director of Boston Main Streets.

Persuading older merchants to break poor design habits can be difficult, said John Dalzell, chief architect for the Office of Business Development. Projects, paid for from the $100,000 each district gets over four years, often involve removing old signs, adding doorways and redesigning windows, he said. "A lot of it is what's characterized as just good design," Dalzell said.

And good design can mean good business, many are finding out. A large, well-lighted storefront window set off by a green awning has already boosted walk-by business at Turning Heads barber shop in the Dudley Square Main Streets district, in Boston's largely African-American Roxbury area.

"It makes it obvious we're in here and operating," Bruce Bickerstaff, a barber, said between customers at the busy shop. "It brings a whole new presence to the block. The customers feel more safe."

On first glance, Dudley Square appears to have seen better days. Homeless men wander an area dotted with boarded-up buildings. But on a sunny Friday, Joyce Stanley, executive director of Dudley Square Main Streets, points out evidence of a surging renewal. A former boys and girls club is being transformed into 30,000 square feet of offices. A vacant department store and other buildings will become 200,000 square feet of state offices. Business people are trying to organize after-work jazz concerts.

Sop Kim, a 25-year business owner, stands outside his shoe store, Alpha and Omega Athletic Footwear, admiring his new red sign. He says business is up slightly. Just up Washington Street, the Hamill Gallery of African Art, in an old warehouse, is replacing solid grates and the rear entrance with a new glass storefront. Tim Hamill, whose business serves the art community, had seen no reason to invest far more than his building was worth in a big new facade. Then he saw what was going on around him.

"I can't expect everyone else to fix theirs up and make it nicer for me," Hamill said. "I've got to help." Other Boston Main Streets districts had thrived before winning their designation and now use the program to help small businesses compete. Allston Village, a busy commercial area that caters to university students, has some 60 restaurants, with food markets, eateries and services run by a blend of nationalities - Russian, Brazilian, Korean, Greek and Vietnamese.

"Whether you're looking for pho or faux, suds or spuds, fish or Phish, carpets or car parts, you'll find it all in Allston Village," reads the district's Web site, one of its Main Streets projects.

Metal grates have been replaced by glass-paned doors that open to the street. Graffiti that once covered walls are mostly gone, too, courtesy of volunteers who raised money to have graffiti professionally removed and worked with police to catch offenders, said Jennifer Rose, executive director of Allston Village Main Streets.

Baltimore, facing many of the same problems of dis-investment in its urban corridors, hopes to learn from Boston. So far, interest has been overwhelming, with representatives of about 25 commercial districts attending the first of three program-application workshops, said Otis Rolley, an assistant housing commissioner. Districts are to be chosen based on need as well as capacity to organize, work together and commit time and money.

The hard work can be worth it. Ask Kristen Keefe. She started Ampersand Designs Inc. on redeveloped Birch Street in Boston's Roslindale neighborhood more than a year ago. "I wanted to fill a niche between [high-priced] gallery stores and mass merchants," she said from her shop where she displays an Indonesian-made dining table and chairs and decorative accessories. Some whom she told of her idea had misgivings about the area, "but I could sense the neighborhood was changing."

Even so, as one of the first new merchants on Birch Street, she temporarily panicked after signing a three-year lease. Since then, she's turned a profit and started planning a second store. "Now, I'm wishing I signed it for longer," she said.

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