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Blue Hill Avenue makes way for fun with festival

Circle the City event cheers crowds

Queenie Howard of Roxbury played double Dutch on Blue Hill Avenue as part of  the Circle the City festivites in Boston on Sunday afternoon.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

Queenie Howard of Roxbury played double Dutch on Blue Hill Avenue as part of the Circle the City festivites in Boston on Sunday afternoon.

Myrna Best, 75, danced in the middle of the street, her feet moving perfectly to the beat as a band played James Brown covers. A few blocks away, smoke from grilling chicken wafted into the air, as children raced bicycles, enjoying the freedom of a broad avenue free of cars.

A nearly 1.5-mile stretch of Blue Hill Avenue was closed to traffic Sunday afternoon, transforming the busy thoroughfare lined with storefront churches and Caribbean restaurants into a neighborhood festival brimming with musicians and families.

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The event, called Circle the City, was part of a nationwide movement to close off streets and reclaim them for local celebrations, and the fourth held in Boston. But it took on deeper meaning on Blue Hill Avenue, a street residents believe has been unfairly maligned as a haven of crime and violence.

“It’s an opportunity to see Blue Hill Avenue a little differently,” said Buelah Providence, who was perched in front of her storefront organization, the Caribbean Foundation of Boston, watching girls play double Dutch. “It’s not all drug-dealing we have here.”

Genevie Woodberry, 61, who lives on Blue Hill Avenue, said the scene reminded her of growing up in the South End, when music pouring from a record shop could spark a spontaneous dance party.

“We haven’t seen anything like this in quite some time,” she said, as she stood in front of her home with her mother, Eva, 93, who sat in a chair, tapping her feet to the band playing James Brown. “This brings me back to when it was easier and friendlier to live.”

Blue Hill Avenue was the fourth street to be closed off in Boston for Circle the City festivals, the most recent being Huntington Avenue, which was blocked off on July 14.

Residents wanted to bring the concept to Blue Hill Avenue after talking about the problems of drug dealing and prostitution in the area, said Latifa Ali, a city official who lives just off the avenue and helped organize the festival.

She said residents felt that, before they could combat those problems, “we need to know each other. So we wanted to come back and recognize this community again,” she said.

On Sunday, the avenue was bustling with sound and motion from Grove Hall in Roxbury to Dudley Square in Dorchester.

Best, who was dancing in the street, said she was thrilled to find a party in her neighborhood. “All I had to do was come out of my door,” she said. “I didn’t have to take the bus anywhere.”

Ali was also in motion, zipping on roller skates past children kicking a soccer ball, a steel drum band playing calypso music, and women holding a Zumba class in front of an auto body shop.

“I feel liberated,” Ali said. “Being in the street is an unbelievable feeling. It’s like violating a cultural norm you didn’t know you could do. And seeing the young people so energized and engaged, I’m almost teary-eyed.”

Joe Johnson, 53, who was playing steel drums in a band called Tempo International, said the festival was part of a “Blue Hill Avenue renaissance” that has taken place over the last five decades, as the street, once pocked with vacant lots and empty buildings, has returned to life.

“It’s inspiring,” he said. “I’ve been here 40 years and this is the first time I’ve seen Blue Hill Avenue like this.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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