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The Boston Globe

New In Town Once Predominantly White, Charlestown Has Become A More Worldly Neighborhood

By Brian MacQuarrie

August 13, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Boston Globe. All rights reserved.

Stark and striking, the difference of a quarter-century in Charlestown can be seen on Bunker Hill Street near Boston's largest housing development. For here, in the shadow of institutional apartments where hundreds of Irish families once reared generations of Townies, small Hispanic shops do business quietly, steadily, and with little notice.

Only 27 years ago, these few blocks were ablaze with the burning effigy of a black man, shouts of racial epithets, and pitched battles between neighbors and police over the introduction of court- ordered busing.

But today, a growing wave of Hispanic immigration has transformed the adjacent Bunker Hill housing development from a bastion of white entitlement into a place where minorities not only are an overwhelming majority, but generally feel accepted and safe.

"Sometimes, human beings are nervous when some sort of change is going to happen in their lives," said Jose Reyes, an outreach worker for the John F. Kennedy Family Service Center in Charlestown. "But the people here have had an open mind and are willing to share. It's good to know that."

For a neighborhood long regarded as insular and unwelcoming, such a step - even if incremental - helps support the thinking that a city long regarded as bitterly tribal is experiencing a steadily increasing tolerance for diversity.

"I don't care who the new people are," said Peter Looney, chairman of Charlestown Against Drugs. "If they come into the town and want to be part of it, we luck out because we want it to be a better town."

So far, the Hispanic influx into Charlestown has had its biggest impact on the housing development, where 46 percent of the 2,626 residents are Latino, according to Boston Housing Authority figures. In 1993, the percentage was 17 percent; in 1990, it was 4 percent.

Outside the development, Hispanics have yet to exert their growing influence on the core neighborhood, although several hundred Latinos have registered to vote in recent months and small businesses such as the Liriano Brothers variety store and an adjacent restaurant serve an ethnically diverse clientele on BunkerHill Street.

That pool of potential clout is being mined by state Representative Jarret Barrios of Cambridge, a state Senate candidate in the district who said he was unaware before the campaign of the number of Hispanics in Charlestown.

"I was surprised by how fast the Latino community is growing, and how important it is for them to become politically organized," Barrios said. "In our current economic climate, it can't be soon enough. But the work is still before them."

Reyes said he realizes that assimilation and economic success might be years away for a fledgling community where jobs often are limited to low-paying maintenance and service-sector employment.

"We're just starting to walk in this community," said Reyes, who grew up in Puerto Rico and has lived in the development for five years. "It is something that will take time; it's a day-to-day thing."

That journey, however, is becoming increasingly visible in a neighborhood that was 95 percent non-Hispanic white and only 2 percent Hispanic in 1990, according to the Census. In 2000, those numbers had changed to 79 percent non-Hispanic white and 12 percent Hispanic.

Despite the changing demographics, the big concerns in Charlestown do not involve race, said City Councilor Paul Scapicchio, who represents the neighborhood.

"Maybe two or three years ago, I would have heard something, but now - never," Scapicchio said. "If you hear anything, it's that people can't [afford to] live in the neighborhood where they grew up in anymore."

Acceptance can be found in the whites, blacks, and Hispanics who work side by side at the neighborhood doughnut shop, at the strip mall, or at Johnny's Foodmaster, Looney said. "We knew all along we could coexist with anybody," he said.

When Hispanics began moving to the development in large numbers, such a statement would have seemed suspect. In the summer of 1998, police and city officials hastily convened emergency meetings after a series of racially motivated incidents rocked the housing project.

At the time, the allegations of epithets, assaults, and tauntings seemed to buttress a sense of intractable racial trouble. In 1999, the Boston Housing Authority had to pay $1.5 million to settle claims by black and Hispanic residents of Bunker Hill and other developments for failing to stop or prevent racial harassment from 1990 through 1996.

But since then, housing officials said, the Bunker Hill development has been relatively calm despite its swiftly changing ethnic mix.

Gerard Doherty, a lawyer and longtime Democratic activist, said he senses no significant concerns as Charlestown becomes more diverse. "There have been some minor disputes," he said, "But it's just a superficial thing; it's not a big thing."

Likewise, the Rev. Robert Bowers, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Charlestown, says that housing - not race - is paramount on his social agenda. But although Bowers recognizes that families from the development will face Everest-like challenges to make the transition to private housing in Charlestown, the priest is working day by day to smooth the integration of his Hispanic parishioners into the neighborhood.

The church, which abuts the development, features a Spanish- language Mass at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday that has become a popular, an important part of the week for Latinos. In addition, Bowers plans to open a youth center behind the church this fall.

"Diversity is Charlestown's strength right now," Bowers said.

Besides the church, that diversity is visible in the youth activities and sports that play a cohesive role throughout the community. Many of the young athletes in the neighborhood's Pop Warner football league are Hispanic, as well as an estimated 30 percent of the 1,200 members of the Charlestown Boys and Girls Club.

"This is one of the things we do really well as an organization," said Jerry Steimel, the club's vice president of operations. "We create an environment where everyone feels welcome."

That sense of comfort also is tangible at the Dominican restaurant owned by Jose Liriano on Bunker Hill Street. There, among the rice, beans, peas, chicken, and steak, a flow of white, black, and Hispanic customers steps inside for a hot meal with Caribbean flair.

Restaurant employee Juan Garcia, fresh from a delivery, surveys the lunchtime scene. His explanation for its popularity could also be a metaphor for 21st-century Charlestown: "When you serve good food," Garcia said, "everybody eats it."

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