Minister walks streets of Boston's troubled `Hell Zone' neighborhood

He rents an apartment, confronts troublemakers

August 07, 2005|By Elizabeth Mehren | Elizabeth Mehren,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BOSTON - At dusk, the drug dealers and prostitutes appear in Codman Square. Drunks hover outside bars and liquor stores. Night after night, young men wearing baggy shorts and T-shirts down to their knees hurl beer bottles at street lights and point guns at each other.

It is little wonder that this section of Boston's Dorchester neighborhood is known as the "Hell Zone."

"I will not go out at night," said Keisha Jones, 28. "Especially lately, it has been rough. Everybody gets aggravated when it gets hot, and then things escalate."

Jones was overjoyed when one of Boston's best-known street ministers, the Rev. Bruce Wall, moved into her building at Washington and Lyndhurst streets.

The charismatic pastor of Global Ministries Christian Church, three blocks from Jones' apartment, said he had gotten tired of children in his congregation being threatened with weapons and sick of hearing about people going out of their way not to drive down Lyndhurst.

A melee over the July Fourth weekend that ended in a fatal shooting spurred him into action.

Wall gathered a group of supporters and moved into a pair of apartments at the troubled intersection to bring attention to the dangers in what until recently was a thriving minority neighborhood.

The minister was out walking the streets last week until well after midnight, the first night of what he has called an occupation.

"This is my town," said Wall, 56, whose church displays the photographs of every young person killed in street violence in the area.

"I was born and raised here. It's not like I'm some suburban pastor coming in and telling people how to live. I've been walking these streets here in Codman Square for years. But I have not been here 24/7."

Wall is a veteran urban activist. He has served on Mayor Thomas M. Menino's Interfaith Initiative, which brings together clergy, community agencies and city officials in an effort to reduce violence.

The approach, experts say, has produced one of the country's most successful efforts to combat gang hostility.

He and the mayor are old friends who pray together at least once a month, so Wall's latest attempt to safeguard the neighborhood was no surprise to officials at City Hall.

"I think of him as an activist minister, wanting to engage residents in that community, as well as potential [crime] perpetrators," said Larry Mayes, Boston's chief of human services.

"Bruce reminds us that there are community standards," Mayes said. "A lot of times, these standards are implied. But they exist, and they have to be adhered to or they will disappear."

Wall, who usually lives with his family in another section of Boston, began his neighborhood occupation with a confrontation.

He approached one of the area's most notorious drug dealers on the sidewalk, he said, and wished her a "good evening."

In return, he said, "she gave me a look that said: `Black man, if you try to talk to me, I will hurt you.'"

Wall kept walking. "I wanted her to know that I am here," he said. "She knows that now."

Just after midnight, he and his supporters went back to the apartment building, knowing that the dealers and other troublemakers would be right back on the street.

So they went out again, too, and ran into a group of tough young men. One raised his fingers to mimic a gun, aiming straight at Wall.

The stocky, white-haired minister responded by placing his hand on the young man's chest. The man recoiled.

"I said, `If I can reach your heart, then your mind will be here, too,'" Wall said.

The minister and the group of young men soon were standing on one of Boston's most dangerous street corners, holding hands and praying together.

Wall said that when his time living in the Hell Zone is over, he plans to "bring the drama back" by walking the streets regularly with area residents.

"I work with the neighbors," he said. "That's how you do it. That's how you change things. The motivation is here. We just need to get out and do it."

Sgt. Thomas Sexton, a spokesman for the Boston Police Department, called Wall "a great partner" who has worked with law enforcement for several decades.

By moving in to the Hell Zone apartment, Sexton said, Wall was bringing attention to an area that has changed drastically in recent years.

Large Victorian homes with well-tended gardens sit at one end of Lyndhurst; the drug dealers occupy the opposite end. The Fourth of July killing on that street was the city's 33rd homicide this year. Since then, the total has grown to 41, three more than at the corresponding time last year.

"We can't do it alone," Sexton said, "and [Wall] can't do it alone. It is the partnership that works."

Last week, Wall was working his way by foot up Washington Street, urging business owners to clean up their "nasty, dirty" sidewalks. Those who balked got a smile from Wall and a promise that he would call City Hall to report them for code violations.

Outside the apartment building where Wall is staying, Jones said that "sometimes presence alone makes a difference."

She called Wall's weeklong vigil an important first step toward bringing neighborhood change.

"You have to start somewhere. You can't walk before you crawl," Jones said. "Who knows what will happen in a week? And if we don't try, we'll never know."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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