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The unheralded movie that brought Boston alive for me

‘Blue Hill Avenue’ is a gangster film, but it’s also about how neighborhoods change. Today I can’t watch it without thinking of the street it’s named for.

Movie stills from the film "Blue Hill Avenue."
Movie stills from the film "Blue Hill Avenue."Globe Staff Illustration

The Departed.” “Good Will Hunting.” “Spotlight.” “Mystic River.” “Patriots Day.”

Most people in Boston are familiar with these acclaimed movies and their characters, like Frank Costello, Will Hunting, Jimmy Markum, and Tommy Saunders.

Those movies are remembered. The actors and characters are legendary. They have become the image of Boston.

For the record, I love “Spotlight” (I am back for my second stint at The Globe) and “The Departed.”

But I don’t have tugs for that Boston.

My Boston is in a movie called “Blue Hill Avenue,” released in 2001. I am a transplant from New Orleans who moved here for the first time on the day Red Sox Nation celebrated the 2004 World Series title, and I loved “Blue Hill Avenue” because it showed me Black lives in my new hometown. Nothing else at the time did. Watching the film helped me dial in and connect to the city I would call home for the next eight years.

In “Blue Hill Avenue,” local filmmaker Craig Ross Jr. tells the story of four street-smart friends who come of age in Roxbury in the 1970s and ’80s. Tristan (Allen Payne), Money (Aaron D. Spears), E-Bone (William Johnson), and Simon (Michael Taliferro) are high school pals and petty thieves who become small-time drug dealers. Tristan, an honor student and the group’s mastermind, manages to keep his illicit side hustles under his parents’ radar.

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Eventually the four pals get their big break by working for the city’s biggest Black gangster, Benny (RIP to Clarence Williams III, who died this month). But after they grow more powerful and the dealers introduce crack into their inventory, Tristan feels guilty about his neighborhood’s decline, which leads to a big showdown with Benny.

As movies age, so do your perspectives on them. You discover things each and every time you watch a film — and I’ve probably seen “Blue Hill Avenue” 30 times.

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I left Boston in 2012 and lived in Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, and the DC metro area. As I was preparing for my return to Boston this past January, an old friend appeared on my TV screen: “Blue Hill Avenue.”

In a scene at the beginning of the movie, I saw the main four characters playing hoops against older rivals. But this time, as the movie continued, I thought of the actual Blue Hill Avenue.

From Mattapan to Nubian Square, the street goes through the heart of several neighborhoods of color. Community centers. Churches. Small businesses. Blue Hill Avenue is a road that gives energy and vibrancy to Boston. And today I wonder how many of those qualities will remain.

I used to feel that kind of energy in my hometown of New Orleans, which had large pockets of small businesses and people just trying for the best lives possible for themselves and their families.

Then came Katrina and the exodus of so many people who had considered themselves lifers, leaving the only place they had called home.

And those who returned to rebuild found their city changed forever.

Yes, Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, Essence Fest, and New Orleans Saints tailgates are back. But they feel different.

New Orleans lost a part of its soul when so many people left. In a city where residents identify strongly with their high school, many schools have closed. Gone as well are generational traditions, such as when the elders of the block discipline a child when the parents aren’t there to do it; or the festive block parties where everyone cooked out and danced along to good old New Orleans music.

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When I moved back to Boston last winter, I began thinking of the four fictional characters in “Blue Hill Avenue” once again — and the ways the movie mirrors many real-life realities. It shows how some areas of the city become broken over time and ripe for changes that will have especially high stakes for people who have lived in those areas for generations.

Cars drive along Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester in 2019.
Cars drive along Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester in 2019.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

I recently drove around Blue Hill Avenue and surrounding areas. I wanted to feel the area once again and reconnect with the city.

When I reached American Legion Highway, I noticed some changes: “Wait, these bicycle lanes were not here when I last lived here.”

Around that time I also heard then-mayor Marty Walsh proclaim that he wanted to turn Boston into a world-class city.

All this brought me back to New Orleans and what happened in the wake of the hurricane.

After Katrina, gentrification became rampant. There are tennis courts and bicycle lanes in neighborhoods where they would have been inconceivable when I was growing up. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with tennis courts and bike lanes, but usually such upgrades are not made with the intention of improving underserved areas for the people who have lived there for generations. Those communities usually do not reap the benefits of upgrades that improve property values. That’s why the improvements to New Orleans, however necessary they may have been, also triggered a slow process of more people moving out as their housing options dwindled.

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I called my dad to discuss what I had seen on my return to Boston, and we both thought the story had a familiar theme: Much-needed improvements were coming, but what would they mean for people who live in those areas? Would bike lanes here be a harbinger of Black flight, as they were in New Orleans?

A 2019 Globe article noted that Blue Hill Avenue will get a facelift in order to relieve congestion, increase public spaces, and improve safety. It’s the second most crash-prone street in Boston.

In September, the federal government rejected funding for a significant Blue Hill Avenue bus project, but city officials are still committed to making the changes.

A woman walks by the Roxbury Center for the Performing Arts, on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester in 2017.
A woman walks by the Roxbury Center for the Performing Arts, on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester in 2017.Pat Greenhouse

Change is good. The government should look to improve every portion of the city it serves, right?

But I wonder what the upgrades will mean in a time of housing shortages, when real estate prices are rising faster than Jayson Tatum’s stardom in the NBA.

Those prices could push the city’s Black and brown communities out of homes they may have had for generations, and the area could be at risk of losing its identity over time.

This is an unprecedented moment in Boston. The city has the opportunity to elect a nonwhite mayor for the first time.

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I can’t help thinking of Blue Hill Avenue, the place, and I hope that voters will, too. What are the long-term plans for the thoroughfare? Will the next mayor fight for both the infrastructure it needs and for the small businesses and residents who deserve to be able to stay? Once Blue Hill Avenue gets a facelift and is discovered by newcomers, can the next mayor ensure that affordable housing remains a priority for those who’ve always called it home?

The fate of Black neighborhoods is also a theme in “Blue Hill Avenue.” In one scene, Tristan’s uncle, a barber who owns his shop with Tristan, is explaining how the neighborhood was once safe and clean, before drugs and crime infested the area.

Uncle Rob: But you see what I’m talkin’ about, right?

Tristan: What?

Uncle Rob: About the neighborhood.

Tristan: Yeah. How things change. Yeah, I heard you.

Uncle Rob: No, not just how things have changed but why they’ve changed. Have you asked yourself that question?

Today I hear that conversation in a new context. Today we might ask: Why will certain changes be made? Is it possible to make needed changes in an underserved community while maintaining its culture and identity?

At the end of the movie, Tristan reflects on the choices he has made with his life. He does not apologize for what he and his friends have done because “it was just who we were.” But he does leave the business he built on the streets. He changes — without surrendering the foundation of who he is.

Blue Hill Avenue deserves such an evolution.

As part of The Globe’s Juneteenth Film Festival, Greg Lee and Adrian Walker will be talking with “Blue Hill Avenue” director Craig Ross Jr. at 3 pm on Thursday, June 17. Sign up here.


Greg Lee can be reached at greg.lee@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nabjprez2011.