by Jennifer Chase


- South End youth fight to break stereotypes, improve neighborhood relations

- Couple new to the South End delighted by teens' efforts

South End youth fight to break stereotypes, improve neighborhood relations

The façade of the South End's historic row houses has changed little since they were built over a century ago. Courtesy of www.southend.org

There is another South End.

Many of the neighborhood's youth live in a section of three-family homes, and aren't welcome even as window shoppers at the stores within view of their bedrooms.

They'll tell you that the pizza place on lower Tremont Street used to charge 99 cents a slice, but since it moved a few doors down and added a fancy new brass railing, it upped the price to $1.63.

That's now too steep for most people they know.

They'll tell you they're tired of new restaurants they cannot afford and tired of neighborhood fixtures like hardware stores that are being replaced with such things as real estate offices that have nothing to do with their lives.

The culprit, or savior, is gentrification.

The process of transforming an unprosperous neighborhood of buildings needing repair into a more prosperous one, for example, through investment in remodeling buildings or houses.

These youth are smart enough to know that in many respects it's what helped the South End bounce back in the '70s from decades of urban renewal that destroyed one quarter of the original Victorian neighborhood. The seeds of gentrification are what helped the city create a "Landmark District" in 1983 in hopes of prodding property owners to rehab South End buildings. And what revitalized the area in the 1990s when young professionals started buying in.

South End youth say they understand the benefits of gentrification. But they also see the down side every day. What really eats at them is not being addressed by passersby in their own neighborhood, and not feeling comfortable enough to extend a hello themselves.

But instead of striking back, a group of South End teens has chosen instead to engage. In a unique and highly organized attempt to open the lines of communication with fellow South Enders, Teen Empowerment, a local youth outreach group has helped neighborhood youth share their concerns about being disenfranchised in the hope that their neighbors will listen.

So far, the youth are happy. More than 20 people attended the first of three youth/resident forums, and even after the first meeting they started feeling more at home, at home.

"The teens wanted people to know where they were coming from," said Shataura Driver, 16, who was one of the youth organizers in charge of the forum.

She said that after the first meeting,"as soon as residents started saying hi to us [when they saw us in public] it was like a polish."

Seeds of change root through teen empowerment

South End youth have not always been civic minded.

In 1992, many youth were involved with gangs that filled the neighborhood. That summer, a youth counselor named Jorge "Domestik" Ramos was murdered in a playground at Tremont and Aguadilla streets near Villa Victoria, which at the time was a low-income, predominantly Puerto Rican community.

Children, adults and dogs now jam-pack the playground on sunny days, but plaques and a life-sized mural of his face are year-long reminders of Domestik's shocking death.

Teen Empowerment's headquarters, located at 48 Rutland St. Courtesy of www.teenempowerment.org

The following month, a local activist named Stanley Pollack, with the help of several South End and Boston organizations, founded Teen Empowerment.The organization would be supervised by adult coordinators but run by youth organizers who could help affect positive change among teens on the streets of the South End.

In 11 years, the TE Model has not changed, nor has its focus.

"We consider ourselves a social youth organization," said Jennifer Banister, one of three South End TE program coordinators that oversee the youth. "We are constantly working on ourselves."

Each year a fresh batch of youth organizers ages 14-20 is hired to identify issues critical to neighborhood youth. Those who are hired exhibit intrinsic leadership qualities, and perhaps have a little influence, too. After all, the hope is that they will take what they learn back to the streets - to their friends, as well as their enemies.

"One of the most important pieces [in terms of hiring] is diversity: social, academic, athletic ... if they're really influential on the street, on 'the scene,'" Banister said in an interview at TE's Rutland Street office.

"They learned our concerns and how we feel, and that we're people, too"
Rey Lopes, youth organizer

Through brainstorming, this year's group concluded it had issues with the South End and how young people were being treated in their own neighborhood.

"I think it started with ... well, a lot of the streets around here are really rich streets, and we're not really living on those streets," said 16-year-old Shataura Driver, one of TE's youth organizers. "We're living in Villa Victoria and Lenox," two low-income sections within the South End.

Calvin Feliciano, 18, said that part of their frustration stemmed from having neighborhood-friendly businesses replaced with stores that cannot help young people like him.

"At Tremont Street and West Newton there used to be a hardware store," he said. "Everyone from Union Park to Worcester Street used to go there. And it was doing good business. But now it's a real estate agency - and it's not even for our neighborhood."

Feliciano wondered why the agency wasn't located someplace closer to the high-end property it was listing. No one in his neighborhood, he said, could buy those kinds of homes.

TE's brainstorming session concluded with a decision that gentrification in the South End would be the group's focus for the year. The youth were tired of being prisoners in their own town, tired of being watched with suspicious eyes while standing on the sidewalk. They just wanted people to see that they weren't so bad.

The group decided to host several forums - the first of their kind -- in hopes of uniting all South End residents and starting to break down the barriers between them.

Forum prep work

Banister did lots of legwork to get residents to the forums. She attended most of the South End's neighborhood association meetings to stir interest, and in the end about 20 people attended the first forum on Wednesday, March 12.

But in spite of the good turnout, her message was not always met warmly.

"We did some fliering on Tremont Street and we were met with some real arrogance," Banister said. As she sat on the floor of TE's conference room with legs outstretched, she recalled an incident between one of her many likeable volunteers and a slightly less-likeable man on the street.

"Elsa, who is this amazing woman, said to one guy: 'Oh, we're having a meeting to discuss the community and gentrification in the South End,'" said Bannister, "and he looked at her and said, 'Not with me you're not!'

Banister said Elsa, who is strong by nature, was stunned and angry, saying that "this is my street, and people are not going to make me feel like that."

That arrogance, and the feeling that the lower-income South End youth are invisible to many outside the confines of their housing development, reaffirmed the need for forums. Fast.

"If we want a kid to grow up in a diverse community we can't just have one upper class," said Feliciano.

Day of reckoning

Wednesday, March 12 was the first forum. Turnout was good. After introductions and icebreakers, all run by TE youth organizers, the group split into smaller, conversation-inducing packs. And that's when participants say the honesty began.

The youth said no one acknowledges them on the street; the residents said they are sometimes intimidated by large groups of kids gathering on sidewalks. The youth said they are sometimes hounded by the police for fear of what they might do, not what they have done; the residents want the youth to vote.

Feliciano, who dons neatly plaited French braids in his brown hair, pointed out that he always tells his friends to vote.

"I tell 'em straight up, every vote counts!" he said.

"A lot of good work got started that evening. A lot of stereotypes evaporated."
Taweesak Sripan, one of the worshippers of the temple.

Banister was there to oversee the forum and said that at times there was an obvious juxtaposition between youth and resident concerns.

"This is a generalization," she said, "but some of the youth were talking about housing and being pushed out of their neighborhood, and the residents would talk about trash on the ground and the lack of parking.

"That's what we expected, and it was definitely there," she said, "but [the discussion] broke down some things, and showed that people did care, and had a lot of concern for the community."

Laurel Acker, president of the Rutland Street Neighborhood Association, agreed. "I do think the meeting was helpful as a jumping off point to ... bringing the many groups of people who live together in the city," she said in a statement about the forum.

"After attending the meeting, I felt more lighthearted, hopeful and so very pleased that I live in the south End where this type of dialogue can occur."

Even non-South End residents echoed the positive vibes at the forum. Victor Puglisi commutes daily from Medford to his job as branch manager at the Fleet Community Bank on Tremont Street.

Puglisi said in a telephone interview that he wanted to participate in the forum because he does business in the South End.

"For me, it was important to go to see the adults of tomorrow, and to hopefully instill in them something that would make them better citizens, people, customers" Puglisi said.

"I've seen a few people from the meeting on the street and they've said 'hello,'" Puglisi added. "I think it's nice that people are truly trying to change.

It's those newly found hellos that are most pleasing to the youth, making them feel more at home around their home.

"After the forum we saw some people [from the meeting] on the street, and if you're recognized, they say hi," said 18-year-old Rey Lopes, one of the participating youth organizers.

"They learned our concerns and how we feel, and that we're people, too," he said.

The future

Youth and residents agree that although communication has begun among a small population of the South End, it's going to have to grow before a true change in mindset can take place.

"I believe in young people who are reaching out and trying to make their world better," said Fern Beschler, who was a participant at the forum.

Beschler can't make it to TE's follow up meeting but was so impressed by the forum she did attend that she sent a donation to help cover the cost of food for those who can.

"Finding our common humanity helps us all ... [and] a lot of good work got started that evening. A lot of stereotypes evaporated."

Feliciano agreed. "I feel like it opened up the community," he said, but a community has to be one, the whole South End, and not just a part of it.

Teen Empowerment will continue the dialogue begun at the first forum on May 30. The plan is to address a list of action points culled from the break-out sessions at the forum, and to build on the foundation they've created.

"The whole meeting was so we could squash [the misconceptions]," Feliciano said. "Just because I'm young doesn't mean I'm not aware."




- South End's historic row houses


- Teen Empowerment

- Fleet Community Bank

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