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Whittier tenants look to future plans with hope, concern

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Whittier tenants look to future plans with hope, concern
Residents celebrated their community at Family Day and set off purple balloons in a tribute to Prince.

The Whittier Street housing residents and friends gathered at a cookout on Saturday to celebrate their community. Young attendees visited a petting zoo and could take pony rides while several residents released purple balloons in a tribute to Prince.

The Family Day event could be one of the last before big changes come to the community.

“People are saying this is going to be our last Family Day and this and that,” Stephanie Thomas, Whittier Street President, noted before the event, though she added that is far from certain.

Plans from the Boston Housing Authority, Preservation of Affordable Housing Inc. and Madison Park Development Corporation call for razing the old Whittier housing buildings and rebuilding the units while maintaining current affordability levels, as well as developing further housing and commercial space in the neighborhood. Fully realizing this project could hinge on the development team’s application for a federal grant.

Residents of the 200 Whittier units will be relocated during construction and given the opportunity to move back in once the rebuild is finished, Charlie Dirac, a project manager at POAH, said.

Community members’ opinions of the changes were mixed. Some who attended Family Day said that redevelopment was long needed, while others worried that it would result in a breakup of the community. Some also expressed uncertainty about when the project will occur, including doubts that it would take place at all.

Overdue for change?

Whittier’s buildings date back to 1951, POAH’s Dirac told the Banner, and the unit interiors are “in pretty rough conditions.” Plans call for improving air quality, using long-lasting building materials and increasing units’ sizes. While currently all apartments offered are one- to four-bedrooms, a studio option will be introduced, Dirac said.

Dolly Battle, who has lived at Whittier for the past 46 years, said “it’s about time” to rebuild. Battle told the Banner she wanted to be sure that construction used high-quality, lasting materials and were designed to ensure safety in case of fire or hurricanes. Resident Alice Gimchrist recommended the housing offer more modern technology.

As Battle considered the commercial space planned for the surrounding area, she said residents would benefit from a grocery store that provided quality food at a reasonable price. Battle also suggested a few — but only a few— restaurants, as she was concerned that, given Dudley Square’s restaurant offerings, it would be easy to over-saturate the market.

Resident Ada Jimenez said changes were in order, especially to provide better safety. In the past few years, her car was stolen and she was assaulted, she said, showing a long cut on her arm.

“I hope it’s cleaned up and everything changes violence-wise,” she told the Banner. Jimenez said violence and drug use is prominent on the premises, and that enforcement efforts are lacking. In her experience, the BHA police are not effective enough and the BPD do not arrive quickly or investigate well when called.

Other elements outlined in the development team’s Neighborhood Choice plan include public safety improvements, such as more lighting around Dudley Square, and offering educational programming.

Happy with the present

Some community members said they were satisfied with the way things were, and were concerned about the unpredictability of the changes.

Although residents are mostly positive about the plans, Stephanie Thomas said, uprooting can be a difficult experience. Thomas herself has lived in Whittier since 1954.

“It’s kind of rough for some people, because this was their home for a long time,” she told the Banner in a phone interview. “It’s not easy, especially when you’ve been here all your life.”

Bernice Woodley, a member of the Whittier task force and longtime resident, lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her son. She said she likes her place and would like to be able to keep it as is.

“I just would like to stay in my small building,” Woodley told the Banner. “When they said ‘tear down’ it gets shaky.”

She is unsure what will happen with the changes, although she said the BHA told her she would be able to return to her unit. In past redevelopment efforts, no one has been kept from returning.

“I like [Whittier] as it is,” said Teddy Corclius, who is not a Whittier resident, but has been a community fixture since he was a janitor there in the 1950s. Some of those who grew up at Whittier credited him with setting them on the right path.

Community’s future

Others voiced a fear that the redevelopment could mean a permanent change to the community.

Once residents have moved out, it is unlikely that they will be given a chance to return, Corclius said.

“They [those in charge] figure that by that time [that redevelopment is complete], you have a place to live,” Corclius said.

The sentiment was echoed by Odell “Birdy” Maddox, who at 52 is a fourth-generation Whittier resident.

Under the development team’s plans, residents will be given the option to return to their units, move to other public housing units or use a housing voucher to go elsewhere.

While some said they wanted to move back for the community and neighborhood, the view was not unanimous.

One resident, who has lived at Whittier for 18 years, says she does not plan to return after moving out to allow for tear-down and reconstruction. Instead, the resident, who is now 74 and asked not to be named, said she intends to relocate permanently to a senior center.

She has intended to make this switch for a while, she said, so it allows her to avoid the exhausting work of moving out of Whittier and then moving back in again.

“If I move, I’ll stay wherever I go,” she told the Banner. “It takes a lot out of you to move and set up, move and set up.”

The improvements at Whittier are not for her, but for the next generation, she added, saying she may not be around by the time they are complete.

Maddox, Whittier Street’s treasurer, said he doubted that the redevelopment project would move. While he said Whittier is overdue for changes, so far it has been overlooked, with funding prioritized for larger projects like Franklin Hill and Orchard Gardens.

“We can plan, show pictures, have big ideas, but I’m not going to believe it until it’s done,” Maddox said.