SATURDAY MARKED the second time in four years that Mayor Tom Menino has stood in the middle of Dudley Square, broken ground on an ambitious municipal office project, and proclaimed a new day in the heart of Roxbury. This time around, the mayor arrived in Dudley with money and political will, both of which were lacking the last time the city staged a groundbreaking ceremony at the abandoned Ferdinand building. At this point, Menino needs to show the neighborhood that it can benefit from City Hall’s attentions, which in the past have either waned too soon or made the once-thriving area’s troubles even worse.
That 2008 ceremony kicked off demolition and excavation behind the Ferdinand, a historic flatiron building that marks the entrance to Dudley Square. But the city failed to commit enough money, so work on the project stalled shortly thereafter, leaving a city-owned equivalent to the Filene’s crater sitting in the middle of Roxbury’s commercial hub. Saturday’s ceremony, which celebrated the beginning of construction on a new $115 million headquarters for the city’s school department, made good on that earlier promise by putting real money, and a concrete development plan, behind the city’s Dudley Square efforts.
While money and political will are certainly helpful, they’re not everything. One reason Dudley Square needs public investment right now is precisely because City Hall rode into the neighborhood a half-century ago, with money in hand and a strong desire to remake the area. What City Hall lacked then was a clear plan for leaving Dudley in a better state.
Throughout the 1950s, the neighborhood that made Ferdinand’s furniture store a Dudley landmark had unraveled. Roxbury’s middle class, both black and white, had shrunk rapidly. The housing stock decayed. City Hall launched a massive 500-acre urban renewal program as a last-chance bid to hold onto the neighborhood’s dwindling middle class.
That urban renewal effort - the first spearheaded by Boston Redevelopment Authority chief Ed Logue - was primarily focused on rehabilitating homes, especially along the wealthier streets near Franklin Park. The poorer areas near Dudley saw the bulldozers roll in more frequently.
The same thinking that built Government Center downtown shaped Dudley’s redesign. Both efforts relied on government buildings, built on a grand scale, to anchor neighborhood uplift. The same architects who designed Boston City Hall drew up plans for a renewed Dudley Square. In 1964, construction crews demolished six acres containing a church, a movie theater, and an opera house, replacing them with a police station, a courthouse, a library, and a boys’ and girls’ club.
The construction of Boston’s new City Hall, and the neighborhood clearance that preceded it, sometimes gets credit for reinvigorating the city’s economic spirit; at the least, the concrete monolith and massive brick plaza at Government Center haven’t kept the surrounding downtown from humming. Dudley Square had no such luck. The neighborhood was hemmed in on one side by clearance for the doomed Inner Belt highway, while the sprawling, inwardly looking set of government buildings drained the life from the other. The city invested in Dudley, but poorly; it put up imposing structures with no relationship to the neighborhood around them. Just 10 years after the civic complex was finished, a BRA report labeled Dudley “perhaps the most tragic and forgotten corner of Boston.’’
Yet those failed attempts at urban renewal offer some grounds for optimism, because the city has learned some lessons. Menino’s current efforts recognize that Dudley Square’s problems can’t be solved with a commemorative shovel and a big number on a capital-budget spreadsheet. Instead, he’s approaching Dudley as an urban-design problem. That means turning a landmark building that’s been vacant for three decades into a gleaming workspace for 500 city workers who eat and shop in the area. It also means recognizing the limitations of any single development project, and piling good projects on top of one another.
At the square’s edge, the BRA is soliciting bids for a pair of parcels that have been vacant since they were cleared for the Inner Belt. On the square’s other side, an MBTA bus yard is being redeveloped into mixed-income housing and retail space. Once work on the Ferdinand is finished, the city will replace its 1960s-vintage police station with a commercial development that will nurture, not stifle, street life. On their own, none of these projects would be enough to turn Dudley around. Which works fine, since the city is finally planning Dudley’s rebirth as it always should have - block by block.Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.