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Thank you, all very much! I appreciate everyone's feedback. To address your question about Arlington, redpanda, you're right: I don't know it well. But the few times i've been there I've felt like I could be in any suburb in any city--there's no way to know you're near Boston. Plus, though I'm far from a bar fly, it would drive me crazy to not be able to go out for a beer with friends then walk home. I love Boston proper and spend a lot of time in the city (having rented here for 6 years but I cannot afford to buy where I live and I need to move). I love walking around the city and yes, goguy, I'm a runner. Your description of Savin Hill was great--I often wondered if I could just run over to Castle Island and run around there then back. I run along the harbor walk every morning. I love the city itself. So that's part of why I was curious about Dot--it's still in Boston and just a very short t-ride. Arlington feels far and very suburban; the 5 or 6 times I've driven from there to Harvard Square (on a Saturday afternoon, not during rush hour) it took 20-25 minutes because of all of the lights. I anticipate it's only worse during rush hour. I really appreciate the info on Savin Hill as I've been really curious about it but deterred by coworkers who grew up there and say it's declined a lot and now when they visit relatives they don't feel safe at all. I observed areas in Winter Hill at various times this weekend, too, and honestly, maybe I am naive but it didn't seem bad at all. Busy? Sure. Workers congregating? yes. But that doesn't bother me. And as two of you said: I saw no evidence of gangs and think I'd be comfortable walking from the bus stop at night. I intend to stay wherever I buy for anywhere from 5-10 years; I'm not looking for an area that gentrified now; I just want to feel safe. I'm also not trying to predict future gentrification--I just want to feel safe where I buy now (and the whole time I live there). It sounds like either Savin Hill or Winter Hill will work out. Thank you all so much for sharing your experience and thoughts!
Dorchester as a whole is divided into seventeen (count 'em) separate neighborhoods, within which there can often be profound distinctions, and the old way of separating communities by parish has far from disappeared. It all makes for confusion when trying to find out where "good" is there. The closing/merging of some Catholic churches has also meant that parishes can now be known by one name or another; when St Margaret's (serving the neighborhood surrounding the focal Columbia Rd/Dot. Ave intersection) merged with St William's (serving the Savin Hill community immediately to the south), Blessed Mother Teresa parish was created. After thirty years in this city I'm finally starting to get the hang of all that!
All of which is to say, Savin Hill definitely is a sum of parts. The bucolic hilltop area east of I-93 is known as "Savin Hill OTB (Over the Bridge.)" Here's where the neighborhood has changed the least over time and would be the least risky in terms of investment purposes to buy in. Between 93 and Dot Ave, the community remains more of a mixed bag. There are some brand new condo/townhouse developments, house/three-decka renovations, and factory/warehouse makeovers that all represent a rebound from when that area took a turn for the worse during the busing-fueled exodus of the '70s. Only small pockets (i.e. along Sagamore St near Savin Hill Ave) stayed relatively unaffected through the changes and are still nice. For all the improvements, there are still some streets which I traverse quickly when I'm in the neighborhood. A fair number of dwellings on some blocks are still raggedy-looking. Though the racial ugliness which tore Boston apart 25-35 years ago has almost entirely vanished, there's still some tension in the air as the enclave becomes more and more "integrated." AA kids beat up Asian kids at the Red Line station, and Irish-American old-timers still look askance at any face that looks different from theirs (including that of any "outsider.") Many folks' collective memory still contains the 1982 episode when a Black guy in his 20's - walking to the T after watching a Celtics game on TV at a White co-worker's apartment - was chased into the station and killed by an incoming train. Anybody who says Savin Hill has "changed for the worse" probably was raised in that section. It'd fall squarely into the category of fringe-area-ripe-for-gentrification, real changes and all the cool Dot Ave businesses notwithstanding.
In a similarly could-go-either-way state is the portion west of Dot Ave leading uphill to and encompassing Pleasant St. Just about every other residence has been spiffed up by yuppie or guppie owners, including the big Filene Mansion. Just past there, after crossing Bakersfield St or walking along East Cottage St, you run into the infamously redevelopment-resistant Uphams Corner section. The makeover of the Strand Theater has been largely successful, but around there the "ghetto" feel still prevails. While it's not hard-core nasty the way Four Corners and Franklin Field are, no one lingers there after dark if they can help it or spends much time there during the day.
Having submitted that more microscopic analysis, lol, I still say Savin Hill (at least the "OTB" part) and Winter Hill rank #1 and #2 given the criteria.
Wow, you have been the most useful source of information. I'm so grateful! I completely understand if you don't have time to respond to this and I am so grateful for your responses so far; but if I could trespass on your time with another question or two: first, if the tendency to distinguish communities by parishes not streets, how would a prospective buyer figure out which parish a street she were interested in was affiliated with? What about Rosemont and Whitten (they look to be inan okay area, on a map, at least) how could I find out more about them? I know to call the police station to ask for crime stats, but I've learned that's not always all that helpful. Again, whether or not you can respond to this, I'm so grateful for your help so far.
Rosemont and Whitten St's are a perfect example of why it's good that Dorchester still goes by parish as well as neighborhood. They're situated between Fields Corner and Ashmont and are best pinpointed by "St Mark's Parish." Around there is also how you'll find a perfect example of why this part of town has to be considered block by block.
West of Dot Ave, the parish has seen better (and also worse) days. There was considerable "White flight" during the busing ugliness of the '70s. The must-read book "Common Ground" had the Twymons as one of its three examined families. A sister of the principal family's matriarch purchased a house on Centre St from "an eager White seller" and was put through no end of aggravation for years. More recently, there've been gang-related problems - despite which the population has more or less stabilized and stayed diverse to some extent.
East of Dot Ave, a White resident named Paul Mullen saw during the '90s that the "color line" (continuously shifting eastward in Dorchester) had been breached. The mere sight of an AA couple looking at an available property brought about several "for sale" signs on the same block within a week. He'd grown up during the unrest two decades before and wasn't about to have it play out again in his community. So he founded a neighborhood association to help convince residents to stay put and keep things peaceful. The results have been positive in that the area east of Dot Ave has held steady in terms of demographics (~70% Caucasian, after a drop from 100%.) Crime is a minor issue, if not a non-issue, and the homes stay well-kept. More recently I've heard that the neighborhood association has become "a place for lonely little old ladies to get together on a weeknight." What that tells me is that it's done its job. Those ladies wouldn't be venturing out - probably on foot - after dark otherwise.
So then, the question would be whether you'd feel 100% at ease knowing that the nearest subway stop (Shawmut) would require walking west of Dot Ave. Any major food shopping would entail a drive, albeit short, to Morrissey Blvd at the closest. There's also a playground not far from Rosemont St which might or not be OK to go past on foot, especially at night.
With all that said, I yellow-light those streets and would rank them behind Savin Hill and Winter Hill.
Thanks for the plethora of information, Goyguy. You've been invaluable. Winter Hill is falling off of my list altogether now. Being a voracious reader and an historian, I'll definitely pick up Common Ground--thanks for the suggestion. So, Rosemont and Whitten east of Dot Ave sound okay which is good because the place I was interested in in Winter Hill ended up having commercial property attached to it and the seller hadn't disclosed that. Savin Hill sound fabulous but at least for now I haven't found anything in my price range. But who knows. Thanks so much for all of your good advice!
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