When city officials met with Mattapan residents last year to suggest turning a former library into a youth center, several neighbors stood to voice their opposition. Teens would inevitably misbehave and disrupt the quiet residential area, they argued.
At the other end of the table, then-15-year-old twin sisters Melissa and Vanessa Simplice sank lower in their chairs, quietly seething.
“They were saying, ‘We don’t want this. When the library was here, the teens did bad stuff like loitering,’ ‘Oh, the kids act wild,’ ” Melissa remembered on Saturday. “We were like, gosh, we’re not that bad.”
“We got kind of mad,” Vanessa said. Fighting their nervousness at the thought of rebuking a roomful of adults, she said, the girls stood up. “We had something to say.”
Saturday, the Simplices — along with Mayor Martin J. Walsh, other city officials, elected representatives, and supporters — attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Boys & Girls Club of Boston teen center at the former Mattapan library on Hazelton Street.
Renovations to the compact but elegant 1930s-era library building are underway. The center, slated to serve 125 teens each day when it opens this fall, will include a quiet space for doing homework, a kitchen, a technology room, a stage for arts performances, and even a music studio. The work is being funded by a $2.5 million grant from the Richard and Susan Smith Foundation and will preserve many of the building’s original architectural details.
When the center opens in October, “we’ll be coming to try to be leaders in our community,” Melissa said. “We’ll be going to apply to college, doing homework. You’re not going to see any of that [misbehavior] around there.”
The groundbreaking was a victory not only for the Simplices, now 16, but also for community leaders, who say the space is a symbol of a prideful and ascendant Mattapan that will nurture a new generation of leaders — and keep teens away from street crime.
“Mattapan has a new energy that it didn’t have before,” said Boston City Councilor Tim McCarthy, whose district includes parts of the neighborhood. “Pride is rising by leaps and bounds. This whole section of the city is really just turning around at a fast pace.”
McCarthy and other officials said the new teen center and recent improvements to Almont Park are helping to change the image of Mattapan as an overlooked corner of the city that struggles to land projects and funding.
“Mattapan is an outlier,” said Sheila Dillon, director of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development. “It’s physically removed from the center [of the city], so it’s really important that the city maintains centers, assets, and programs that are targeted for Mattapan residents.”
In keeping with the Mattapan-centric character of the teen center, the Boys & Girls Club said 65 percent of the people working on the project were residents of Mattapan, Dorchester, or Roxbury, and that the vast majority of subcontract jobs had gone to minority- or women-owned businesses.
Standing on a rough plywood stage inside the building, Walsh directly addressed the teens in the room.
“There’s going to be space in here so that you can come in here and enjoy it as your space, because you are the leaders of tomorrow,” he said. “There’s going to be people at this microphone in a few years from now who are going to be the mayor of the City of Boston, and they’re going to be able to say they went through the Boys & Girls Club of Mattapan.”
Mattapan’s upward trajectory is apparent even to the young Simplice twins.
Vanessa recalled an incident 10 years ago, when she watched out her window as a man was shot on the sidewalk in front of the family’s home. Only 6 years old at the time, she remembers thinking the gunshots were fireworks, and watching through the glass as the man bled out and died despite the efforts of neighbors who ran outside to try to save him.
“But you don’t see that anymore,” Melissa interjected. “Now, all you hear about Mattapan is, they’re doing some community service, they’re building a garden, there’s more job opportunities where teens can work.”
Neither girl is sure whether she will live here as an adult, but both say when they grow up they want to give back to Mattapan. And in the meantime, they will proudly defend their home to anyone who dares malign it.
“People call it ‘Murderpan’ because it used to be violent,” Melissa said. “But we’re like, ‘No.’ There’s so many opportunities in Mattapan. There’s a lot of community. There’s a lot of people here that care about each other.”