Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Maintaining Jamaica Pond an Ongoing Battle

By Abe Scherzer

Gerry Wright pauses to take in the grand, tree-surrounded pond. Whenever he gets a chance, he strolls the dirt path around Jamaica Pond.

“It’s an experience regardless of the season; it frees your mind,” says Wright, the director of the Jamaica Park / Olmsted Park Project. “The pond, every day for me is mystical - you have a sense of eternity.”

But the Park Project and other Jamaica Pond organizations worry that Jamaica Pond has become too popular and that it’s pristine nature might be threatened.

Wright says developers have proposed building townhouses on the hill to the west of the pond three times over the last 40 years. Thousands of signatures and demonstrations helped defeat the proposals, Wright says.

“I consider my most important task preventing the townhouses from going up,” Wright says. He says the townhouses would replace a watershed that helps keep the pond clean and would increase noise and clutter.

Jamaica Pond was first included in Boston’s Emerald Necklace in 1892. The Emerald Necklace is a series of green spaces designed by Frederick Law Olmsted that rings the city over seven miles.

Wright cites Olmsted’s philosophy when justifying his vision of the pond. “[Olmsted’s] philosophy was that the pond should be a place where you leave the worries of the city behind,” Wright says.

Wright opposes efforts to allow swimming in the pond. Wright cited noise, pollution and safety as problems with swimming. “It could change the whole environment of the pond,” he says. “It would turn it into Coney Island.”

Steven Baird, an Emerald Necklace naturalist and caretaker with Friends of Jamaica Pond, measures water quality in the pond and performs wildlife surveys throughout the Emerald Necklace parks. He says the water quality is the best it has been in 50 years, but he still worries about the pond.

“In July there was an explosion of algae and aquatic growth,” Baird says. The organisms can kill aquatic animals and insects. His studies on the organisms are in the early stages, and he has reached no conclusions.

Baird also worries about overuse of the Pond. “We have erosion problems with people and dogs walking around the pond so much,” Baird says. “We do repairs every five years instead of every two to three because of under-funding.”

Baird hopes the recession doesn’t result in more cuts in park funding, but he does cite one positive that comes from under-funding.

“The over-growth protects the wildlife,” Baird says. “You see a few more butterflies and rabbits.”

Sarah Freeman, the coordinator of the Arborway Coalition, works to connect the pond to the rest of the Emerald Necklace by making it more accessible to bikers and walkers.

“There was a major restoration in the path around the pond years ago, and it’s already eroding,” Freeman says.

Wright and the others want to keep Jamaica Pond thriving and in the image Olmsted wanted.

“Olmsted was clearly committed to the natural landscape and open, pastoral spaces,” Wright says. “[Olmsted] was fine with things like ice skating; he just wouldn’t want a Ferris wheel put in.”

Melo’s Market a Popular Shopping and Hangout Spot for Dominicans

By Abe Scherzer

It’s always busy at the cash register at Melo’s Market. Kids weigh whether to buy Snickers or Jaw Breakers, and adults scratch out lottery tickets or gossip about baseball. No one is in any hurry to leave. And if it seems like they’re all family, that’s because they are – if not by blood by nationality.

Angel Cronosco works at Melo’s with his aunt, who owns the business. Cronosco says the market has served the neighborhood’s large Dominican population for over 30 years.

“Over in Brookline, you have to have products white people will buy,” says Cronosoco, 21. “Here, you’ve got to have products for Dominicans.”

Dominicans were the second most populous Latino group in Massachusetts with 74,499 people, according to U.S. Census Bureau data in 2004. Boston had the fourth most Dominicans of any metropolitan area in the country with 39,063 people, according to U.S. Census Bureau data in 2000. U.S. Census Bureau data from 2000 also shows that 23 percent of people in Jamaica Plain are Hispanic.

Melo’s employees are proud of their roots. Dominican pesos are proudly taped on the cashier’s desk. Raggaeton music blares from a boom box to which Angel’s aunt unabashedly gyrates behind the cashier’s desk.

There are over-ripe bananas on the shelves. The aisles are full of varieties of cornmeal, beans and hot sauce. A back wall is lined with candles adorned with the image of Christ.

Cronosco describes his journey from his native Santiago.

“Me and my four brothers came to Jamaica Plain when I was 9 years old,” he says.

Cronosco and his brothers legally immigrated to the United States after his parents and their siblings immigrated illegally.

“Some went through Mexico, others took boats over.”

Cronosco says he feels fortunate to be an U.S. citizen, and to be able to expand his family in the United States.

“Because of the opportunity our older generation gave us, me and my brother’s kids will be born American citizens,” Cronosco says. “It’s all about looking for the American dream.”

Jamaica Plain Business Districts Band Together

By Abe Scherzer

With its wide doors revealing a crowd of customers sifting through Halloween leftovers and the new Christmas stock, Boing! JP’s Toy Shop immediately catches the eye of passerby. But, Boing!, like other businesses in Jamaica Plain, is looking to expand its customer base.

“We want to connect with real estate companies [in Jamaica Plain] to know when people buy property,” says Elaine Hackney, the owner of Boing! “[Jamaica Plain] businesses would then put together a gift basket with gifts from different businesses to welcome them to the community and attract them to our stores.”

About 45 Jamaica Plain business leaders met on Oct. 16 to discuss promoting its three business districts.
As the economy threatens small businesses, local stores plan to combine marketing strategies to increase recognition and customers.

Carole Downs, co-owner of Bella Luna Restaurant and Milky Way Lounge and Lanes, emphasizes the importance of so many businesses meeting together.

“It was a historic business meeting with the three business districts invited to come together as a whole,” says Downs, 42.

The Jamaica Plain business districts are along Centre and South streets, Hyde and Jackson Square, and Egleston Square.

Downs says the Main Streets organizations for the business districts should prod customers to walk to Jamaica Plain stores instead of drive to malls. The organizations promote their own district.

Betsy Cowan, the executive director of Egleston Square Main Streets, cited a “Taste of J.P.” scheduled for Nov. 20 and a holiday event still being planned as events that could help unite the districts. “Our area has a very different identity than the rest of Jamaica Plain,” says Cowan, 26. “Ours is a predominantly Latino and African-American community. Promoting the history and unique products it has to offer is very important.”

Downs says the businesses need to familiarize themselves with modern marketing techniques. “There’s been a huge technological wave of change to help get customers to come back,” says Downs. “We all need to get in on e-mail marketing.” Downs also praised the host of the meeting, the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood and Development Corporation, for inviting both English and Spanish-speaking business leaders and providing translators.

Juan Gonzalez, the director of community organizing for the corporation, also calls for upgrades in business technology. “We need more technical assistance and software to help companies,” Gonzalez says. He adds the districts should increase parking restrictions to bring more customers in and out of Jamaica Plain, but should be aware that the restrictions may alienate residents.

Gonzalez called the meeting a first step in attempting to solve Jamaica Plain’s businesses’ problems.

“There will be another meeting next week, which will again be a brainstorm, and then we are going to meet again to rank priorities.”

Jamaica Plain Youth Violence Tests Local Schools

By Abe Scherzer

On Oct. 18, three teenage boys, one 12 –year-old and two 11-year-olds, were allegedly shot in the Jackson Square area of Jamaica Plain. The prime suspect in the crime is a 17-year-old Jamaica Plain resident, the Jamaica Plain Gazette reported.

As youth violence escalates, it becomes increasingly vital for schools to educate students on the dangers of the streets.
Bisi Oyedele, principal of Nativity Preparatory School just off Jackson Square, says his school’s extended education programs help keep kids off the streets.

“Violence is a reality of these students’ lives,” says Oyedele, 26. “Our extended school year program is designed to take them away from the influences of the streets.”

Nativity Preparatory School teaches students grades five to eight. During July, fifth and sixth graders attend a day camp at the school while seventh and eight graders go on an over night month-long camping trip.

Oyedele says students’ students spend two hours after school in a mandatory sports program, and the fifth and sixth graders attend an evening program that includes recess, dinner and a two-hour study period. “It gives them a healthy alternative to being out on the streets,” Oyedele says.

Andrew Curtis, a fifth and sixth grade teacher at Neighborhood Schools Inc., which teaches pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, says his school’s small size is helpful for dealing with street violence.

“We only have about 60 students, and we mostly deal with personal issues,” says Curtis, 40. “It’s more of getting a sense of students’ concerns and then letting them drive an in-class discussion.”

Terry Belli, the clinical director at Compass Inc. school, which is a school for emotionally disturbed kids and is a few blocks from Jackson Square, says his school addresses violence.

“Everything we do is about addressing violence,” says Belli, 44. “We do counseling and therapy. Everything is focused on our kids dealing with violence in healthy ways.’

Belli says incidents like the one in Jackson Square validates Compass Inc.’s mission. “These incidents reinforce what we’re doing,” Belli says. “During the 1988-1989 school year, one of our students was shot and killed. We developed a program that addresses violence both in and out of school As violence increases, it just reinforces what we’re doing.”

As part of Boston Public Schools’ and the Boston Police Department’s “Safety Collaboration Efforts,” the Boston Police Department School Police Unit monitors activity of students in school and patrols surrounding neighborhoods before and after the school day. The School Police Unit also provides gang prevention services and anti-gang/crime presentations.

Denise Hamilton is director of marketing and admissions at Italian Home for Children, a school of 42 students in Jamaica Plain. Italian Home for Children is a residential treatment center for students with mental disabilities. Hamilton says she and her staff urge to avoid violence.
“Most of what we do around issues of violence is we talk with students about the issues of bullying,” says Hamilton, 45. “We teach students to not bully others.”

New Hyde Square Housing Project Causes Concern

By Abe Scherzer

Anaisy Ruiz walks by the new construction site on the grounds of the old Blessed Sacrament parish every day on her way home from school. Ruiz says she the condominiums and rental co-ops under construction will benefit the neighborhood if they are affordable.

“I hope they’re affordable, and not for just a certain class,” says Ruiz, 21, who has lived in Jamaica Plain most of her life. “I understand that rent is going to go up, but I hope it’s not just business class here.”

The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation and New Atlantic Development began construction on 36 rental co-op units and 16 condominiums about a month ago. As joint partners, the two development companies stress that the units will be affordable when finished.

Peter Roth, 51, President of New Atlantic Development, says the average condominium will cost $177,000. Each condominium is a two-bedroom unit, which Roth says can serve two to four people. Roth says the rental units will be set by the area median income, and that rents will be $250 to $300 less than market rents.

Brian Goldson, Construction Director for New Atlantic Development, says they have catered to the community. “We’ve worked hard to keep in close contact with the community,” Goldson says. “We had a community meeting when we undertook the project and went door-to-door with pamphlets. Overall, I think it’s been a positive response.” Goldson says the main lingering community concern is the built-in affordability of the housing.

Maria Mulkeen, 43, JPNDC project manager, is confident the condos will sell when they go on the market in 17 months, even with the recent downturns in the housing market. “We did market studies this summer that showed the JP market is much healthier than most Boston neighborhoods,” Mulkeen says. “Analysts felt comfortable that (these units) will sell.”

Ruiz is concerned that these new housing units may make Jamaica Plain may lose its Latin flavor. “They kind of want to turn J.P. into a snooty place,” Ruiz says. “J.P.’s always been a Latin community. Now they’re kicking Latin people out.”

Roth said the new housing units will only strengthen the community. “The overall outcome was to have the project reflect the demographics of the neighborhood,” Roth says. “We wanted to project the neighborhood’s demographics.”

Brian Frud, 34, a Los Angeles transplant living in Jamaica Plain, says the new housing units may help to connect the neighborhood. “You walk a couple blocks that way and there are some incredible homes,” Frud says, pointing toward the center of Jamaica Plain. “It would be nice to get some nicer housing in some of the poorer parts.”

The affordable co-ops and condominiums are part of the first phase of construction on the property, which will also include retail space below the co-op housing. Phase 2 will include condominiums built inside the preserved church building (about one-third affordable and two-thirds market price), a parking garage, and green space. The partners hope to begin Phase 2 next year.

Jamaica Plain Shop Owners Have Variety of Bus Concerns

By Abe Scherzer

On warm days, Leo Putumayo likes to prop open the door of the Jamaica Plain Books & Gifts shop where he works. The only problem: the echoing howl throughout the store when all the city buses stop and start in front of the store.

“They need to fix the break pads,” Putumayo, 23, says as he looks out at the bus stop only feet away from the store’s open door. “There’s a loud screeching whenever the bus stops and when it starts again.”

The 38, 39 and 48 buses all run through Centre Street. The 39 stops about every 10 minutes on weekdays, the 38 about every 20 minutes, and the 48 about every 40 minutes.

Ron Autrey, 52, works at Oncentre Gift Shop, another quiet store on Centre Street. “When a bus goes by, you can hear the breaks, you can hear them screeching,” Autrey says. “It’s like . . .” Autrey searches for the words to describe the sound, but eventually just lowers his head and shakes it dejectedly.

Autrey said a friend who lived on South Huntington Avenue used a sound machine to drown out the noise of the buses.

Mike Bryant, 36, owner of Serene Vibes gift shop on Centre Street, also props open his door so people on the street can hear the soothing, meditative music he plays. Once inside, though, he doesn’t want customers’ experiences ruined by the bus noise. “Sometimes the buses kill the ‘serene vibes’ in here,” Bryant says with a chuckle.

Mark Paringo, 48, an employee at AAA Appliances, does not like that the bus stop take up parking space outside his store.

Putumayo also complains about the exhaust the buses emit. “They need to switch to environmentally friendly fuel,” Putumayo says. “Whenever you’re behind them, there’s just waste in your face.”

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority public affairs department did not return phone calls to comment.

Theo Roussi, 23, a shift manager at Boing! JP’s Toy Shop, says there has been improvements in the public transport on Centre Street. “There was more traffic when the T was here,” Roussi says. A T line running through Centre Street was recently shut down, and the tracks have been removed.

Still, many Centre Street shop workers are demanding change in the way the buses operate. “The thing that bothers me the most about the buses,” Autrey says, “is that they don’t pull all the way over to the side of the street. That backs up traffic, almost as bad as when the T was here.”