Neighbors make change, one street at a time

As Laquisa Burke walked through her neighborhood, she couldn’t get very far without having people wave to her from their cars or greet her from their porches.

Burke is one of the founders of the West of Washington Coalition, a group of community members whose goal is to improve the lives of residents in their neighborhood — a cluster of streets west of Washington Street in the Dorchester area.

“Our little block was getting left out. We were not being represented,” Burke said.

Many pedestrians had been killed in recent years by speeding cars and reckless drivers and neighbors did not feel officials were doing anything about it, Burke said. A few years ago, a child on a bicycle was struck and killed at Norwell Street and Talbot Avenue after a driver ran a red light. The community had enough.

With her neighbor and co-founder, Kareem Lindsey, Burke began handing out fliers in August 2016 for residents to meet. They dubbed the group the WOW Coalition and began meeting at neighbor Andrew Haile’s back yard.

“People saw we just wanted to make things better,” Burke said. When winter came, a local business owner donated a space for the coalition’s weekly meetings.

The coalition’s meetings typically draw 15 to 20 people, Burke said, with upticks on high-profile issues and lulls during winter and holiday months.

“We try to make it so everyone feels included in what we do. Our group is pretty ‘voicey,’” Burke said with a laugh, and noted many families have been in the neighborhood for generations and have strong opinions.

Since they began, the coalition has fought for traffic calming measures, joined the City of Boston’s Slow Streets Program, pushed for a community green-space, collaborated with a developer on plans for his multifamily housing project, tidied up neglected lots, and is now working toward establishing its nonprofit status.

“Even I don’t realize how much we’ve done sometimes,” Burke said, and added that the group’s effectiveness has been thanks in part to supportive staff members at the city and the state. “We just said, ‘hey, we want to live better.’”

In the short time since she handed out fliers for neighbors to meet, Burke said she has seen shifts in the community’s cohesion and sense of empowerment that they can make their neighborhood better. Whatever the WOW Coalition priority is at any particular moment — calming traffic at a chaotic intersection or keeping an eye on illicit activities — the group's goal is to bring the community together.

The WOW Coalition is an example of how community members can rally around and address issues to improve the lives of young and old in the neighborhood. The Great Neighborhoods campaign works toward emulating aspects of the WOW Coalition’s approach. In addition to building support for the Great Neighborhoods bill, the campaign aims to connect and support community members in their efforts to improve their neighborhoods.

Great Neighborhoods events are held regularly in different communities to allow residents to meet neighbors who are also interested in transit, development, and other smart growth topics. There have been “Transit Oriented Drinks” in Malden, Boston’s Jamaica Plain, and Quincy for instance, with participants continuing the conversation and organizing grassroots efforts to address local issues. An upcoming “Placemaking Happy Hour” in the Merrimack Valley region will connect residents using arts, culture, and public space to enliven Lawrence, Haverhill, Lowell, and other communities.

“We try to work together,” Burke said. “People are starting to know each other. We’re listening to people’s stories.”

Feeling inspired? Here are some ways to take action:

Join a growing movement of people calling for Great Neighborhoods by signing our petition.

Stay up-to-date through our events page. Want to host a networking event and plug in with your neighbors? Here’s how.

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