Leah Rose-Walker’s life is on Blue Hill Avenue: church, local grocery stores, laundry, friends. The Dorchester native walks the length of the thoroughfare at least twice a week — she loves the sense of community she feels as she goes.
But she finds it maddening to drive on the busy corridor; the bike traffic is too close to the cars, she says, and the street is pockmarked with potholes.
“My whole car underneath is jacked up,” Rose-Walker, 32, said.
Concerned about the congestion, lack of public space, and safety along one of the city’s most important arteries — and its second most crash-prone street — the city is embarking on a major redesign of Blue Hill Avenue.
The ambitious project will cover the southern section of Blue Hill Avenue — a 3-mile stretch from Grove Hall, where the two-lane street transforms into an expansive, multi-lane boulevard, to Mattapan Square.
The undertaking may include new storefronts, more parks and gathering spots, and an upgraded bus system. Bus 28, which runs for more than 3 miles along Blue Hill Ave., has the highest ridership of any bus route in Boston, and its packed buses struggle to stay on schedule as they weave in and out of heavy traffic.
“Traffic has increased . . . and the conditions of some parts of Blue Hill Ave. are not the best,” said Boston City Council president Andrea Campbell, who grew up visiting her grandmother on Blue Hill Ave.
She said she gets a steady stream of constituent requests to repave the road, make it safer for cyclists, and curb speeding. It’s time, she said, to determine “what structural changes can we make to make it safer [for people] to walk or ride their bikes.”
Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council president Fatima Ali-Salaam agreed.
“We’re glad it’s being addressed,” she said. “If you live along a major street or avenue that doesn’t function very well, you can’t go to places efficiently like work or school.”
More than that, Ali-Salaam said, a reimagined Blue Hill Ave. should have businesses that complement each other and the community they serve.
“It should be beautiful,” she said, with more greenery and less concrete. “There’s no reason it can’t be — there just isn’t.”
In interviews, few of those who travel Blue Hill Ave. regularly were aware of the project. But public input is crucial. A previous, state-level attempt to improve the corridor failed a decade ago because neighborhood leaders felt the plan was not comprehensive enough and lacked meaningful contributions from the public.
The city is soliciting input online. It is also distributing physical surveys to pedestrians and bus passengers. And this fall, the city will host public meetings about the redesign.
“We’re absolutely doing a block-by-block, intersection-by-intersection, program-by-program approach — what works best for buses in one section might not be what’s best for pedestrians,” said the city’s transit planner, Lindiwe Rennert.
She said there is not “a silver bullet — one fix for the entire street.”
Long one of Boston’s busiest corridors, Blue Hill Avenue has changed dramatically over the last century. Jews began populating sections of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan near the avenue in the early 1900s, establishing synagogues, Hebrew schools, Jewish community centers, and institutions like the G&G Delicatessen.
By 1930, some 77,000 Jewish people lived in the area, but already middle-class Jews had begun moving out of the city to suburbs like Sharon, Swampscott, Brookline, Marblehead, and Newton, said Gerald Gamm, author of “Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed.”
The trend accelerated in the 1950s and ’60s, as racial tensions increased. Following a clash between police and peaceful protestors on the avenue in 1967, a Friday night welfare sit-in turned into a violent weekend. Many Blue Hill Ave. businesses that were destroyed were never revitalized. Discriminatory mortgage lending practices funneled minority residents into the area, and exploitative real estate agents stoked white flight by scaring Jewish homeowners about the newcomers.
Over the decades, synagogues gave way to storefront churches, and eateries like the G&G (where Family Hardware now stands) have been replaced by establishments like P&R Jamaican Restaurant, Lenny’s Tropical Bakery, Ali’s Roti Restaurant, and Brother’s Deli.
Today Blue Hill Ave. is home to many Caribbean immigrants, Haitians, and African-Americans. It remains a lively community nucleus and crucial transportation connector.
But the avenue also suffers from a constellation of problems. “Traffic,” “dirty,” and “unsafe” were the three most common words that 271 early respondents to the city’s Blue Hill Avenue redesign survey associated with the thoroughfare. Some 41 percent said they had been involved in a crash on Blue Hill Ave., or knew someone who had been.
In interviews, residents and commuters echoed these concerns. Natalie Santos-Castillo, who has worked at her family’s business Family Hardware since she was a child, lives in Milton and drives 2.1 miles to work daily. A good day takes her 15 minutes, but a bad day, slowed by trash trucks and school buses, might take her 25 minutes.
David Hall, a cyclist who works at Ashmont Cycles in Dorchester and lives on Blue Hill Ave., commutes to work daily on the corridor. He’s had to put metal tubes in the tires of his neon green bike to prevent broken glass on the street from puncturing them.
“Look, right here in front of me, it’s just way too much,” Hall said, as he pointed to shards scattered next to a tree outside his Mattapan house. “You’re going to get a flat, get it fixed, and then get a flat almost immediately.”
Respondents to the city’s survey also said they’d like to see more variety in the retail businesses that line the thoroughfare. Though there is no shortage of hair salons and car repair shops, other kinds of amenities are lacking, including banks, gyms, and clothing shops. Respondents also said there weren’t enough public spaces, such as parks, where residents can congregate.
Even as they welcomed the possibility of improvements, some residents said they feared the pain they might have to endure to get them. The thought of a construction site adding to the chaos seems almost unbearable to the already overloaded street; Rose-Walker fears it could push the avenue to its edge.
Still, Rose-Walker, a teacher’s aide at a day care, wants to see community institutions flourish here.
“I love Blue Hill Avenue,” she said, standing while smiling and waving at passing pedestrians and drivers she recognized. “It’s home.”