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Columbia Point gives way to upscale Harbor Point

Once notorious project now a desirable address

What was once the dilapidated neighborhood of the feared “Columbia Point Dawgs” gang is now Harbor Point on the Bay, an upscale-looking, mixed-income, gated residential community.Globe Staff

When Keiwon Crump was 6 years old, just venturing out of his family’s apartment in the Columbia Point housing project was frightening. He often sprinted to his destination, fearful of the violent crime that engulfed his neighborhood in the late 1980s.

When the street light flickered on at 6 p.m., he said, children knew to be on the lookout for a posse of delinquents. Taxi drivers refused to drop customers off within a half-mile. City fire trucks would not enter the premises without police protection, residents said.

“A sign in the front said ‘Enter at your own risk,’ ” recalled Crump, now 32.

The recent roundup of gang members who grew up there in the 1980s was a reminder of how much has changed. An even greater reminder is Boston 2024’s just-announced plan to further transform the point into an athletes village if Boston hosts the 2024 Olympics.

What was once the dilapidated neighborhood of the feared “Columbia Point Dawgs” gang is now Harbor Point on the Bay, an upscale-looking, mixed-income, gated residential community with a fitness center, tennis and beach volleyball courts, and a prime ocean view near Carson Beach on Dorchester Bay.

Monthly rent in the complex begins at more than $2,000, according to its website. Still, about 400 low-income families reside in the development, management said.

“I think it’s the safest place to live in Dorchester,” said Haemin Burke, a 22-year-old student at University of Massachusetts Boston and Harbor Point resident. “Especially for UMass students.”

As alleged members of the Columbia Point Dawgs were being picked up by police last month from across the region, the gang’s original neighborhood overflowed with laughing children, walking single file on their way home from school. On the same shores that gave birth to the gang, a woman practiced yoga against a backdrop of peace and quiet.

In 1975, courts declared the Boston Housing Authority an “unfit landlord” based on Columbia Point’s dilapidated conditions, said Jane Roessner, author of a community history of the area. And by October 1983, the city approved a bold new project, intended to dramatically reshape the Dorchester Bay waterfront.

The integration of college students, market-rate housing, and low-income families was the brainchild of developer Joe Corcoran, who certainly believed that mixed income was the way to go, Roessner said. “That you would have people paying full market rate right next to people paying subsided rates and . . . they would all look the same. He thought that was the key for a viable community.’’

“A sign in the front said ‘Enter at your own risk’,” recalled Keiwon Crump, now 32.

Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

“A sign in the front said ‘Enter at your own risk’,” recalled Keiwon Crump, now 32.

The transition of Columbia Point to Harbor Point occurred in two stages, according to a 2008 case study by the Institute for Urban Development in Cambridge. First, in 1986, 20 buildings were demolished and 456 new apartments took their place. Next, a zero-tolerance crime policy was enacted, and property management installed a 24-hour security force to restore law and order.

During this phase, 17 percent of all Columbia Point tenants were evicted from the new Harbor Point based on criminal involvement, according to the study. Youths headed for gang life were among those forced to move inland.

Miles Byrne was a property manager at Harbor Point. He said that out of the 48 alleged gang members targeted by police in June, he knew about 30, and remembered them as fun, eager children.

“They look so scary in pictures, but we knew them as people. We knew how they got broken and why they got broken,” Byrne said. “They got sucked into the void.”

Byrne, who currently sits on the property’s Quality of Life committee, called Harbor Point the “most successful mixed-income housing development in America.” According to Byrne, 48 children raised in Harbor Point’s low-income units are now in college.

In conjunction with residents, the committee meets monthly to sift through every neighborhood police report and noise complaint, or discuss concerns about a neighbor’s well-being, he said.

“We now get what it takes . . . and we’re going to make sure Columbia Point doesn’t happen again,” Byrne said.

Still, it has not been easy to escape the reputation of the past.

“No one” in Boston’s urban communities refers to Harbor Point by its correct name, a 14-year-old Harbor Point resident and high school freshman said. At school — and in the streets — it’s always referred to as “Columbia Point” or simply, “The Point.”

“Some of those people still meet up around here,” he said, referring to the gang members arrested in the sweep.

When asked whether he was afraid to say he was from Harbor Point, he said: “Depends on where I’m at . . . ”

When resident Mary Torres, 47, gives her address, people sometimes react dramatically.

“Sometimes when I say I live on North Point Drive, people will look at me like, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” she said.

Residents sat in the courtyard of a senior center at the Harbor Point apartments.

Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

Residents sat in the courtyard of a senior center at the Harbor Point apartments.

Torres previously volunteered as building captain. In that role, designated residents meet weekly to hold neighbors responsible for the community’s physical upkeep. The residential community also approves executive decisions in tandem with Harbor Point’s management.

The aggressive cleanup also had unintended consequences: According to the FBI affidavit, the drug traffickers displaced from Columbia Point sought new turf, sparking gang violence statewide.

“The result was predictable,” the affidavit reads. “Gang warfare erupted throughout Boston, shootings were prevalent, and many Boston gang members and innocent bystanders were killed.”

These days, the neighborhood is in the news for a different reason: Organizers of the city’s bid to host the Olympics proposed transforming Columbia Point into the game’s athletes village.

“The new community will introduce approximately 3,000 units housing units to one of Boston’s most desirable transit-oriented waterfront neighborhoods,” according to the proposal.

The hope is that the mixed-income success of Harbor Point can be extended after the Olympics, to include nearly all of Dorchester Bay.

Torres, the Harbor Point resident, said she and her neighbors would seek more information from Boston 2024, the Olympic committee.

Roessner, the author, is skeptical. “I don’t like the pressure the Olympics would put on [the neighborhood,” she said.

Harbor Point, she said, is a fragile neighborhood, and its success takes a careful mixture of people and ideas.

Byrne is more bullish. “I wish we had the programs we have today, because the Columbia Point Dawgs wouldn’t be there,” he said.

Meanwhile, Crump, the child who used to sprint to stay safe, now works at the store in the Harbor Point central complex. His clientele includes many former Columbia Point neighbors, but also college students, young professionals, and working families.

More importantly, he said he now runs only for fun.

Astead W. Herndon can be reached at