Chelsea Morning

Long the butt of jokes by people from places like Revere, the hard-luck city underneath the Tobin Bridge is finally shaking off its disastrous past — and struggling to build a future.

A wall of black smoke was four blocks away and barreling right toward her when Chelsea resident Esther Savoy looked out the window of Tirck's Pharmacy, where she was working on the afternoon of October 14, 1973. Like everybody else in town, she dropped everything and ran. By the time she reached her house a block away, sparks and burning pieces of wood were raining from the sky. Neighbors were running from their houses, carrying photo albums, TVs, and 8-track tape players in a race against the flames.

“The sparks were shooting everywhere,” Savoy later told the Boston Globe. “The burning embers were coming down like a shower but somehow kept missing us. It was terrifying.”

Observers from as far as 50 miles away could see a roiling conflagration that, blown forward by fierce autumn winds, jumped quickly from building to building. By the time Savoy and hundreds of other newly homeless took refuge at the Chelsea National Guard Armory, the fire had leveled a fifth of the city. It was the third worst fire in Greater Boston history, taking 2,000 firefighters from as far away as Manchester, New Hampshire, almost a week to extinguish completely.

It was also déjà vu for a city prone to disaster. The second-worst fire also occurred in Chelsea, in 1908. That one killed 19 people and destroyed nearly 3,000 buildings. Forty years later, in 1950, the man-made disaster of the Tobin Bridge slashed through its center like a knife wound. The middle class fled en masse, leaving a poor populace besieged by drugs, gambling, and corruption. The wheels for permits and land sales were greased by fresh C-notes, while the fire department paid unlimited sick leave to officers who hadn't worked for years. At the center of it all was bookmaker Sammy Berkowitz, who sat on his perch at the Grub 'n' Pub, where he smoked Pall Malls and played endless games of gin rummy while bookies and friendly vice cops paid their respects.

“The 20th century was not easy on Chelsea,” deadpans current city manager Jay Ash.

That century ended with a whimper when, bankrupt and penitent, Chelsea finally appealed to the state for help. “I beg of you, don't open the gates of heaven and let us in,” Mayor John “Butchie” Brennan told the state in 1991, “but for God's sake, please open the gates of hell and let us out.” For the first time since the Great Depression, a Massachusetts city surrendered home rule and allowed a state-appointed receiver to control all aspects of city government. City Hall was eviscerated, the police and fire departments reorganized, management of the public schools given to Boston University, and indictments handed down. Brennan and two other mayors were found guilty of federal crimes.

“I refer to it as a radical cure for cancer,” says Ash, a Chelsea native. “Radiation times 10. Not something you wish on anyone, but having lived through it, we're better for it.”

He's not kidding. Nearly 30 years after the 1973 fire, Chelsea, once the butt of jokes by people from places like Revere, is finally showing signs of shaking off its troubled past. Driving around town in his black Ford Explorer, Ash points out the diamonds in the rough: a new luxury hotel where once there were lots full of junked cars; a gleaming new courthouse built on the site of a bar seized for illegal practices; row houses on the waterfront renovated into artists' lofts. As other cities around Boston have taken advantage of the real estate boom, it only stands to reason that Chelsea, five minutes away by car, would reap some of the benefits.

But Ash wants more: the oil farms uprooted, to be replaced with a gleaming waterfront of condos and office buildings, all while professionals pour in from Boston to fix up downtown Victorians and brownstones. It's with unrelenting optimism that he and other Chelsea residents and merchants tout the city as the next (fill in the blank) South End, Charlestown, Fort Point Channel. . . . Or, as Ash puts it: “Now all of Chelsea is figuratively on fire as opposed to literally on fire.”

Chelsea's literal rise from the ashes will be an amazing civic success story — if it turns out to be true. But Chelsea has a long hill to climb before it becomes Charlestown. Traditionally a city of immigrants, it still has the third-lowest median family income in Greater Boston at $38,651. Violent crime is the fourth highest, at 10.2 incidents per 1,000 people. Only Lawrence has worse SAT scores. And just as things are looking up, some city councilors say insider politics is again rearing its head.

Among the dim statistics, two bright spots stand out, however. One is the $12 million Chelsea has in the bank, even while neighboring towns are in the red. The other: Median home prices have risen 21 percent in the past year to $197,900, putting Chelsea among the top 10 Massachusetts communities in housing price increases, even in the midst of the recession. That might spell trouble for the poor who currently live there, but it bolsters the argument that the middle class — even the affluent — are returning across the Tobin, drawn by Chelsea's proximity to Boston, beautiful housing stock, and a city hall that finally gets it.

“In the last two recessions, you had corruption, incompetence, a city on the verge of bankruptcy, and no direction from city government,” says an exuberant Ash, who is a one-man booster club. “Fast forward to 2000, and you have a stable government, a reputation for success, everything on the up-and-up, and, by the way, for the last five years you've been putting money into a savings account. We've positioned Chelsea so that in the good times we're going to take the best of Boston and Cambridge. And in the bad times, when people are looking for cheaper hotel rooms or more affordable housing, Chelsea has positioned itself as a viable alternative.”

That alternative is what attracted Bill Gleason, a CAT scan/MRI technician who spent a year and a half looking for a condominium in Boston before finding one in the Prattville School, an 1897 schoolhouse recently converted to 21 loft units, some with the original blackboards still in place. He picked up his apartment for $170,000, a third of the cost of a similar place he saw in the North End. “I felt like I was in Filene's Basement on the first day of the Louis sale,” he says. His friends and family, however, needed more convincing when he told them he was moving to Chelsea. “I remember the dead expressions,” Gleason says. “People said, 'What happened, did you get laid off?' But they aren't looking, they aren't in touch. I get a different reaction from people in the know.”

Downstairs, Nancy and Steffan Koury live in an immaculate, design-conscious pad combining IKEA furnishings and friends' artwork on the walls. They compare their neighborhood to the one they left in Newton Corner. “As a young woman, I'll admit there are times I'm afraid to ride the bus,” says Nancy. “But I walk all over the city, and not for a moment do I feel like it's a bad idea.” Statistics bear this out. Police Chief Frank Garvin says that while gang and domestic violence are still high, especially in the poorer neighborhoods, random assaults and home invasions have dramatically declined.

The city is working with a developer to renovate another old schoolhouse, and another condo building is going up downtown. Developers say it's a hands-on approach that's key to closing these deals. State Financial Services' Tina Brzezenski says the city even assumed some of her company's risk of developing the Prattville School property, waiting for part of its share of the payments until the apartments had been sold. It's a marked difference from the experience of Brzezenski's father, who owned an apartment building in the 1970s and worried about getting mugged every time he went to collect rents. “The personal assurance made all the difference,” she says.

The city has applied that same aggressive strategy to commercial development, offering tax breaks and other incentives to developers to build office parks along the Everett Avenue Urban Renewal District, the area left blighted after the 1973 fire. From the beginning, a new hotel was seen as the lynchpin to development, but the city despaired of finding any developer in the area who would take the chance. So just as Boston had done three decades earlier with Faneuil Hall, the city went out of state, finding developer Wedge Hotels of Texas, which took one look at how close the area is to Logan Airport and signed on the dotted line. The city bought up 10 acres under the threat of eminent domain, cleared out junkyards of rusting cars, and put the whole building up in less than two years.

Across town, the city has proclaimed Chelsea Square as a new cultural district, buoyed by the reincarnation of the old Elks Club into an experimental theater space. Bordered by the poorer neighborhoods downtown, the waterfront district is a bit more rough-and-tumble than Prattville, but signs of revitalization are visible in new streetlights and pocket parks bordering the façades of renovated row houses.

“This is not Mayberry, but I don't think I could handle Mayberry,” says Dave Rudolph, a lighting technician for commercials and rock videos, who bought a loft building for $33,000 just eight years ago. (It's worth double that now.) Inside, the house features a sunken kitchen, with five floors of plants, salvaged art, and thrift-store furniture. “I like the community vibrancy,” Rudolph says. “I like walking down the street and buying a tamale or a mufongo [stuffed plantain]. There's definitely some gentrification, but not a lot.”

At the rate the neighborhood is going, however, gentrification may not be that far away. Two coffee shops have opened in the last few years, one Hispanic-owned across from TheatreZone, and a funky café/art gallery in Cary Square. “When I was growing up in Chelsea, in our wildest dreams we hoped gentrification would happen,” says Jay Ash, who isn't worried that displacement could yet become a serious issue.

Others, including Guillermo Quinteros, disagree. “Who can afford to buy a house in Chelsea?” he asks. Director of the Chelsea Commission of Hispanic Affairs, Quinteros worries that the city is building high-priced condos for artists and yuppies at the expense of affordable housing for those already living in the city. “Latinos,” he says, “are the first people to be affected.”

The thermometer on the broad-way National Bank reads 97 degrees, and the clock in the center of Bellingham Square is an hour and a half late. Hispanic kids in long shorts and beaters flirt with girls in tight jeans and upward-reaching hairstyles. A broad-shouldered cop lounges against a “No Left Turn” sign, chatting with a shirtless man who has pulled over in his cherry red VW for a bull session. Smartly dressed Somalian immigrants wait outside the Dunkin' Donuts for the bus. Women with walkers and canes amble across the street clutching white plastic bags without labels. And more than a few bums, panhandlers, and drunks loiter on the sidewalks.

To walk down Broadway is to enter a Latin American country, with a tumble of signs on the storefronts announcing in Spanish and English international couriers, taquerias, discount stores, and a temporary job center. Despite the pockets of development that have touched Prattville and the waterfront, the middle of Chelsea still looks like this — poor, chaotic, and heavily Hispanic. In fact, Chelsea has the second-highest percentage of Hispanics of any city in the state, at 48.4 percent of the population. It is one of only three cities and towns that has a nonwhite majority, with 61.7 percent. But unlike their counterparts in Boston and Lawrence, nonwhites are well represented on the city council, with three black and two Hispanic councilors on the 11-member body.

“Part of the reason the city has changed is pressure from the communities of color,” says Guillermo Quinteros. He points to a police education campaign that has led to more community policing (and a subsequent drop in crime) as one example. “Things don't happen just because people saw the light. There was pressure every step,” Quinteros says. Even so, he says, he worries about the ability of Hispanics to have input on the issues that concern them most. “We don't have a single Latino represented in the school,” Quinteros says, blaming an at-large election system that keeps the Hispanic neighborhoods locked out. His organization has also joined a lawsuit to redraw the legislative district that dilutes the impact of Chelsea's minority vote by lumping the city together with neighboring Charlestown. Quinteros and others advocate a legislative district coupling Chelsea with heavily Hispanic East Boston.

It's not only Hispanics who feel left out of the vision for a new Chelsea. Dennis McGurk found his company, Industrial Wiper, relocated under the cloud of eminent domain to make room for the renewal district. And even though he was paid more than a million dollars for it, he says he lost money on the move and was forced to sell. The result: Two years later, the empty lot is still vacant. “I was a model business citizen until they came and wanted my property,” he says. “From that point, it absolutely consumed me and took all the fun out of my business and my life.” McGurk sees evidence of favoritism in the sale, pointing out that local partners in the deal were politically connected developers Mark Robinson, chairman of the board at Massport, and former state Democratic Party director Mark White, son of former Boston Mayor Kevin White.

Nor is he the only one to criticize Ash's handling of the renewal district, which remains mostly unoccupied despite promises by City Hall. “I don't see anyone banging doors to come and develop in the city of Chelsea,” grouses city councilor Arthur Richards. “We have a lot of problems here.” Richards and city councilor Mike MeKonnen have repeatedly taken the city to task during council meetings for its failure to crack down on blighted industrial companies engaged in permit violations, even while it ousts rule-abiding operations like McGurk's. They've also seen evidence of mismanagement — or worse, cronyism — in the 20-odd city-owned vehicles that leave nightly for the homes of officials and police officers outside the city, at taxpayer expense. While the city claims that this is not out of line with other municipalities, two nearby police departments — Melrose and Revere — do not allow officers to take cars out of their respective cities. Adding insult to injury, Ash himself lives in Danvers, with no plans to move.

In any other city, bickering by council members would be typical city hall infighting. But for Chelsea, any criticism of government carries a darker tinge. Since taking office, Ash has failed to quell a small but vocal group of Chelsea residents who hint at special treatment with every street repair and zoning variance. Such criticism might be expected after the rancorous city council vote that put Ash into office two years ago by a narrow margin over the opposing candidate, five-time Springfield Mayor Robert Markel. At the time of Ash's selection, some city councilors questioned his ties to former state Representative Richard Voke, who was investigated by the feds. Ash, who was Voke's chief aide, was never implicated, and Voke was pronounced clean. But two of Voke's business partners testified in court to delivering bribes to two of the corrupt mayors.

“Sour grapes,” responds Joshua Resnek, editor of the Chelsea Record. “Jay Ash is impeccable. There's no scam of any kind, no taint real or imagined that we know about. The whole infrastructure of the city hums. You deposit a check there in the morning, and it's done by the afternoon. The city today serves as the model of the way a municipality should be run. All the politics have been taken out of City Hall, all the corruption we've been so well known for.”

Ash admits that when it comes to Chelsea, perception is everything. “The city is like a recovering alcoholic,” he says, “who can never be caught in a bar, never mind be caught drinking again.” But he defends his administration, starting with his own choice to live outside the city. “The case I've made is that I am Chelsea — I'm from here, my mother lives here, I'm here every weekend playing ball. I just happen to sleep somewhere else.” He insists that the city is scrupulous about avoiding even the appearance of favoritism. As an example, he points to the recent hiring of a new police chief. After a nationwide call for applications, aspirants went through a process that included several rounds of review by community leaders and law enforcement. “It's not Jay Ash making the decision,” Ash says. “It's the community making the decision.” But some raise eyebrows over the fact that the eventual winner, Garvin, is a 27-year Chelsea Police Department veteran.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy knows about comebacks. The senior senator from Massachusetts has weathered disgrace and defeat to become one of the most influential Democrats in national politics. So it was a walk in the park for him to secure $500,000 in federal money toward Chelsea's new $11 million Boys & Girls Clubs building.

Kennedy's presence at the dedication is not only symbolic — Chelsea's rebirth was contemporaneous with his own — but also signals the end of the days when politicians would use any excuse to avoid crossing the Mystic River. As he tours the facility, Kennedy admires the competition-sized pool and the gym with climbing wall and mini-golf course, and dodges a veritable United Nations of children in blinding yellow T-shirts enthusiastically signing up for summer courses.

Upstairs, dignitaries gather for the dedication ceremony in an eggshell-blue auditorium decked out with balloons. Ash is here, as is event emcee Richie Voke, Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley, and developers Mark White and Mark Robinson, whom Ash thanks as the biggest boosters from the business community. Also on hand is the club's director, Josh Kraft, and his father, Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who donated $2 million and who sends a shudder through Patriots Nation when he says: “Our accomplishment here is bigger than anything we have done as a family.”

As funders, staffers, architects, and officials each stand to accept their ovations, the jokes about Chelsea are out in full force, too. At one point, Voke kids that of the money raised, “every check except mine has cleared.” But no one is laughing when Boston Boys & Girls Clubs head Linda Whitlock refers to the real distance Chelsea has traveled since the facility was first proposed 11 years ago. After all, the clubhouse is a stone's throw away from the enormous salt pile that supplies Boston and surrounding towns with rock salt for the winter — located smack in the middle of an Hispanic residential neighborhood, sending the message to its children that they are unimportant.

“[We're] proud to be a participant in the remarkable rebirth of this glorious city,” Whitlock says, waxing on about the importance of youth services. “A better future for our children in Chelsea requires that they have the same opportunities that children in Concord take for granted.”

Of course, even with those opportunities, Chelsea will never be Concord. The city might have to wait another generation until it becomes even the next Charlestown — a destination full of thriving commercial districts, spicy Latin restaurants, and funky art galleries. But if Chelsea still has a long way to go before it becomes the next big thing, it's also come a long way from being counted out.

Or, as resident Bill Gleason predicts: “We're never going to be the next South End. But the next Somerville? Absolutely.”