Outside one of the red brick buildings of the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments in Jamaica Plain on a recent weekday evening, a housing authority worker tended to about 100 hot dogs on a mobile charcoal grill, while a dozen or so residents congregated near a table with plates and fixings. A woman handed out raffle tickets for small prizes. Police officers and social workers mingled.
The turnout for this community gathering was sparse for a complex that houses nearly 2,000 people. So Wendy Polanco, who helped organize the event, knocked on doors and called people on their cellphones, pleading with her neighbors to come outside.
But the fear was still palpable after the May 4 double shooting during a graduation celebration at the complex that left two people dead. This gathering was meant to bring residents together after the shooting, but instead, many who live in the complex weren’t ready to venture back outside.
The shooting was the latest setback for the development, where tenants have worked with police and city officials over the years to successfully reduce crime, create new health and day-care centers, and improve the feeling of community.
The development formerly known as Bromley-Heath was once a symbol of neglect — a complex with an estimated 4,000 broken windows and high rates of violent crime. But residents say that life in the complex had largely improved — until the shooting of Christopher Joyce, 23, who was just about to graduate from Salem State University with an accounting degree, and Clayborn Blair, a 58-year-old father of three. Officials said they were innocent victims and the shooting was gang related.
“It’s demoralizing,” said Bill McGonagle, the head of the Boston Housing Authority, who, over nearly 40 years, has gotten to know many of the residents well. He has seen their efforts to build a sense of community, only to have the recent shooting tear at what they’d built.
As Polanco, the recently named head of a newly formed tenant association, put it: “There was some fear before, but not like this. And it’s not something we can just talk out.” Residents will need to “feel OK before we can start to figure things out again, together. It’s going to take some time,” she said.
Overall, according to Boston Housing Authority data, crime has been falling in the complex, from 82 property crimes in 2011 to 49 in 2017; violent crimes dropped from 123 in 2011 to 86 in 2017. The housing authority also recently spent $1.2 million to install 120 cameras across the Mildred Hailey development, which helped lead to an arrest in the May 4 shooting.
Despite the improvements, some residents said that every few years, it seems, after they see success in erasing the stigma of crime that has hovered over the complex since it was created more than 65 years ago, another tragedy sets them back. Close to two years ago, the community was heartbroken by the killing in the complex of 42-year-old Nigel Louis Hailey, one of Mildred Hailey’s grandchildren. Last Halloween, a popular 16-year-old at the complex, Gerrod Brown, was killed, another innocent bystander in a gang-related incident, according to police. And on May 4, there was the shooting of Joyce and Blair.
City Councilor Matt O’Malley, who has represented the community for nearly eight years and grew up in Jamaica Plain, said he has seen the heartbreak in the complex over the years, but also progress.
“It’s clearly a place that’s been beset by issues and troubles in the past, but the upside is that you’ve seen a young, diverse community try to make a safe, thriving home,” said O’Malley.
He said he was disheartened when a Mildred Hailey resident told him recently that she was dreading the arrival of warm weather, because of the increase in violence that often comes with it.
“I think you’ve seen some real forward progress, but obviously when there’s any crime committed . . . it’s heartbreaking, it’s heartbreaking for the neighbors, for victims and their families,” he said.
The efforts to improve the complex began in 1968, when residents, led by the late Mildred Hailey, a tenant association leader, united to form a tenant-run management company that took over management of the complex from the Boston Housing Authority.
It remained under the tenant management company control — except for a brief period in 1998 after a series of federal drug raids there — until 2012, when Hailey retired and the Boston Housing Authority retook control.
During the years under the tenant management company, the complex was largely self-governed and self-policed. Residents gathered in The Cave, a community center within the complex, for recreational activities, and had control over matters ranging from public safety to landscaping. The group governance instilled a deep sense of community.
“Whatever [residents] needed, this community provided,” said Lisa Martin, 39, the granddaughter of the late Hailey, who grew up in the housing complex when it was known as Bromley-Heath and still has family there.
“They knew what to do to get things done, and to keep it safe,” she said.
But the sense of unity that led to the formation of the tenant management corporation — a practice no longer used by public housing authorities — has faded, and the complex has seen a changeover of residents.
Three decades ago, the community was primarily black, but by 2003, the percentage of Hispanic residents in the 840-apartment complex had grown to about 43 percent.
As newer residents move in and older residents cling to the memory of the days the complex was run by established tenant leaders such as Hailey, the sense of community among residents has been harder to achieve.
“They need someone to bring them [all] together. And a lot of the people who used to do it don’t want to do it anymore,” said Laura Reyes, pastor of the nearby United Baptist Church, who has worked with residents over the last decade.
The responsibility to organize the residents of the housing complex has fallen to a new generation of residents, such as Polanco, a working single mother of two who moved here from New York three years ago.
Days after the May 4 shooting, Polanco and more than 100 tenants gathered at an emergency meeting with housing and police officials to discuss ongoing public safety concerns in the complex: a lack of a consistent police presence, a mistrust of police officers. Boston police said they increased patrols in the neighborhood since the shooting, and say a new community officer has been assigned to the complex, though that did little to allay residents’ fears.
“It was a very emotional meeting, because people were shaken up and they wanted answers, real answers,” Polanco said, “and I hope that we can come together to figure something out.”
At the emergency meeting, the residents and public officials also discussed the need for a greater sense of unity, between residents and police but also among the residents themselves. That spurred the idea of the hot dog night, and the need to have more of them.
“We can work together and help each other in any situation that comes through, and I deeply care about my community,” Polanco said. “The community is family.”