Cleaning up Blue Hill Ave., block by block

Sandra Larson | 8/8/2012, 9:59 a.m.
Darryl Smith (L) and the Blue Hill Avenue Neighborhood Response Team in front of Blue Hill...
Darryl Smith (L) and the Blue Hill Avenue Neighborhood Response Team in front of Blue Hill Liquors. The store has been sold to new owners and is now being renovated. Sandra Larson

On a May afternoon, Darryl Smith, assistant commissioner of the city of Boston’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD), led a group in a zigzag path along the side streets off Blue Hill Avenue. He paused to examine a large vacant lot on Woodville Street.

The weed-choked lot wasn’t much to look at, but Smith explained it was actually much improved since last year. “It was a drug den,” he said. It used to be connected to the yard of a house around the corner on Blue Hill Avenue. The stretch of hidden, neglected land running behind the house and an adjacent liquor store encouraged loitering, drinking and drug dealing. The area had generated more than 100 police calls, Smith said.

Now a fence separates the lots, the house has new tenants and no more trouble, the liquor store has a new owner who has agreed to renovate the unsightly storefront and to stop selling “nips,” tiny bottles of liquor that are easy to buy and easy to consume on the spot.

These changes are just a few in a long list of improvements chalked up in the past year by the Mayor’s Blue Hill Avenue Neighborhood Response Team (NRT). The program was launched in July of 2011 in response to a spate of drug, alcohol and prostitution-related activities along the Blue Hill Corridor from Dudley Street to Warren Street.

Smith chairs the NRT team, which is comprised of the ISD, the police department, other city agencies including the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND), the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and the Boston Transportation Department (BTD), nonprofit community organizations and local elected officials.

Mayor Thomas Menino describes the NRT as “a vehicle to bring attention to problems in the community and then work to solve the problems.” He is pleased with the NRT’s work in the Blue Hill Avenue area so far.

“I needed results, and this gave us results, in a grassroots way,” Menino told the Banner recently. “The neighborhood walks are effective.”

Every two weeks, Smith, city officials, a few police officers (often including Area B-2 Capt. John Davin) and a handful of community residents roam the Avenue and adjoining side streets to get an on-the-ground look at problems. Issues range from abandoned furniture and appliances to broken stop signs, liquor stores and houses that have generated neighbor complaints and police calls.

According to the ISD, the NRT has taken more than 100 actions in its first year. Dozens of violations have been written to expedite the closing of problem houses and businesses, a sting operation of 14 stores netted more than 2,200 crack pipes and other drug paraphernalia, and a bench near 6 Woodcliff St. used by prostitutes and drug dealers was removed. The owner received assistance in cleaning up the property and starting construction on three new houses on the site.

Michael Kozu, community coordinator at Grove Hall’s Project RIGHT, collects and compiles resident concerns. His list helps determine which streets are addressed during the walk-throughs. Kozu sends biweekly reminders of the walks to an e-mail list of some 1,400 people, and has participated in nearly all of the 20 or so walks in the NRT’s first year.