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Yvonne Abraham

Charlestown’s circle of hell

Is there an uglier, more chaotic place in Boston than Sullivan Square?

The treacherous, traffic-clogged, trash-strewn rotary here is truly the armpit of the city. This part of Charlestown has been agony for residents for decades. For years, longtime activists have been trying to get the city to deliver them from its evils. Last year, they finally got closer, agreeing with the city on a giant plan to turn the gaping wound into a network of neighborhood-sized streets.

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“Then Wynn comes in his helicopter, and destroys it,” says Ivey St. John, a veteran of the long fight.

The Wynn in question is, of course, Steve Wynn, the casino developer who wants to turn a desolate, contaminated patch of waterfront land in Everett into a glitzy casino just a mile or so from the rotary. According to the developer’s projections, Sullivan Square will see about 5,000 extra cars on Fridays, its busiest day, fewer on other days. Neighbors, city officials, and rival Suffolk Downs say that number is way too low. But even if Wynn’s estimate is accurate, the risible rotary will implode without serious traffic changes.

Naturally, Wynn and his people don’t see it the way St. John does. As gambling evangelists so often do, they claim the casino will solve Charlestown’s problems, rather than add to them. A casino, they say, will finally bring the changes for which Sullivan Square begs.

It will take a minor miracle to fix this dangerous debacle.

Rush hour here is maddening, as drivers grow old or reckless waiting to enter the circle. The rotary is a symphony of honking horns, shrieks, and expletives. The roadways that feed it are similarly rank and gross. Rutherford Ave. is post-apocalyptic, all weeds and concrete. The carcass of a flyover juts out in the middle of the eight-lane behemoth, separating Charlestown’s houses from the companies and warehouses on the other side.

This is a place that defies walkers, cyclists, and the faint of heart. A few days ago, an elderly pedestrian was hit by a car on Rutherford near the rotary. A few days before that, a cyclist was killed a little ways out from the circle. On Thursday, a couple of bikers stood at his memorial, marked by a white bike and flowers in a chain-link fence.

“Look at the backup,” St. John said, as we drove past the spot, cars inching toward the rotary from the I-93 North offramp.

How does any world-class, self-respecting city allow this, and for so long? It’s a place Boston should be ashamed of.

The thing is, after 15-plus years of efforts, St. John and her fellow activists were finally making progress here. The city and the neighborhood agreed on a plan for Sullivan Square and Rutherford Ave. that would reclaim the area for the community, knit it back together, make it safer for pedestrians and cyclists, and free up land for development and green space.

The problem is, it’s a $100 million project that could take 10 years. If the city could find the money, the new Sullivan Square could handle all of the cars currently using the rotary, plus the ones that will be headed that way once big developments at Assembly Square in Somerville, and just over the bridge in Cambridge, are complete.

The other problem: The city plan does not account for casino traffic.

Casino development manager Chris Gordon says Wynn will take care of that, with fixes to lessen the scourge of casino cars in the short term, and money to pay for bigger changes in the long term.

“We clearly want to be part of the solution,” he says.

Locals complain they haven’t seen many specifics until now. St. John, who is not a vehement casino opponent, dismisses Wynn’s proposed fixes for Rutherford Ave. as “baloney.” Gordon says more detailed plans will be filed soon. If you travel through Sullivan Square every day, you’d better hope there’s a miracle in there somewhere.

I’m always skeptical of claims that casinos will transform their communities into Shangri-Las. But Sullivan Square does something to one’s sanity. Circling the rotary from hell, even I want to believe. After all, aren’t impossible dreams what casinos are all about?

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com
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