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A new Mission Hill to bow on world stage

Neighborhood takes pride in its diversity, dynamism

Mario Flores cleaned a barbershop window reflecting Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where Senator Kennedy’s funeral will be said tomorrow. Mario Flores cleaned a barbershop window reflecting Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where Senator Kennedy’s funeral will be said tomorrow. (John Blanding/Globe Staff)
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / August 28, 2009

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At the Flann O’Brien’s Irish pub, paint-splattered workers down pints beside medical interns in scrubs. Across Tremont Street, a hectic swirl of humanity that cuts through the heart of Mission Hill, a Subway sandwich shop stands beside Punjab Mini Mart, which touts “Indian, Pakistani, Middle Eastern, Asian, Spanish, and American Groceries.’’

Tremont Street, a heavily trafficked corridor that runs between Roxbury Crossing and Brigham Circle, encompasses the neighborhood’s striking diversity and rapid transformation.

Now the gritty, urban enclave, an area that even some longtime Bostonians struggle to categorize, has been thrust into the international spotlight, improbably chosen to host one of the most anticipated funerals in recent memory.

Mission Hill has long been perceived as dangerous, branded in local consciousness as the place where Charles Stuart fatally shot his pregnant wife in 1989, then inflamed racial strife when he blamed the crime on a black man. But tomorrow, the neighborhood will welcome the nation’s first black president and countless other dignitaries to its centerpiece church for the funeral of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who sought comfort and guidance at the storied basilica in past years.

Lifelong residents and recent arrivals alike expressed genuine pride yesterday over their neighborhood’s moment in the sun.

To be chosen over more prestigious locations, many said, showed how far Mission Hill has come.

“It will highlight the transformation of the neighborhood,’’ said Harold Raymond, a 45-year-old who owns an apartment building across the street from Our Lady of Perpetual Help, known as the Mission Church. “Ten years ago, this was mostly Section 8 housing. Now it’s mostly young professionals. This is like a mini-South End.’’

Officially part of Roxbury, Mission Hill is generally thought of as a distinct neighborhood, although one wedged between sharply different worlds. Drawing on its proximity to the wealth of hospitals, universities, and museums in the Longwood area, it has attracted an influx of immigrants, students, and young families to create a vibrant, if not entirely cohesive, urban community.

Irish, Nigerians, Haitians, and Hispanics trudge up the hill in the afternoon to Mission Church for novenas, while Northeastern University law students pedal toward campus. Hospital workers lunch on tapas at a bistro near Brigham Circle, while locals go for pastrami sandwiches at Wan Convenience Store.

Everyone, seemingly, heads to Mike’s Donuts.

“Everybody knows everybody there,’’ said Lucas Moraes, 24. Moraes, a recent college graduate who manages a rental-car supplier, represents Mission Hill’s youthful surge, which he said is slowly chipping away at the neighborhood’s sketchy reputation.

“Nobody knows about what’s happened here,’’ he said from his apartment across the street from the church. “When you tell people you live here, they say, ‘Oh no, isn’t it dangerous there?’ But things have changed.’’

At Mike’s, Mary Allendorf-Burns, 60, who has lived in Mission Hill for 35 years, said she belongs to the old guard, descendants of Irish immigrants who once held sway but whose ranks have steadily dwindled as outsiders move in. She still loves the neighborhood and could never leave. But with all the changes, she said, something has been lost.

“Some of the old Irish families are still around, but there are a lot of newcomers,’’ she said, sipping her coffee over a newspaper. “It’s like the old days are kind of gone. It’s kind of sad.’’

Down the street, Terrell Ceton, a 22-year-old who grew up in the neighborhood on Parker Street, agreed the neighborhood has come a long way since he was a boy.

Back then, parks stayed empty and few people ventured out at night.

Now grassy spots are filled with picnickers, and mothers don’t hesitate to walk their children out for after-dinner ice cream.

“There used to be crackheads, gunshots, crazy stuff like that all the time,’’ Ceton said. “Now this is a good area. The whole vibe is positive.’’

Ceton, who was waiting to get his hair cut at a Tremont Street barbershop, said he was awestruck that President Obama and the other political leaders were coming to his small part of the world.

“I think he’ll like it,’’ he said. “A nice area, a beautiful church.’’

Distributing menus door-to-door, Artemio Hernandez, 38, said Mission Hill had changed markedly in his 25 years there. There are a lot more students, he said, and more young families. It is safer, but still has character.

“A lot of changes,’’ he said. “But good changes. You can be out at night. But it’s got some spark to it.’’

Hernandez, like many of his neighbors, said he was honored that the Kennedy family would choose the community for his funeral. It was a modest choice, many said, that revealed Kennedy’s dedication to ordinary people.

“It’s something you really feel in your heart,’’ he said. “He’s a great man, and this means a lot to us.’’

Smoking a cigarette outside the American Legion, where he tends bar, Peter Flynn said that through all the changes, Mission Hill is still a place that some people never leave. Flynn, 31, lives above his parents and below his childhood friend in one of the three-deckers that hasn’t been converted to townhouses, and says he’s here to stay.

“Back in the ’80s, we had our troubles, and a lot of people moved out,’’ he said. “The projects were rough. But there’s still enough of the old.’’

Steve Nutter, a board member of Community Alliance of Mission Hill, said the neighborhood is an “overlooked oasis’’ that despite its proximity to downtown remains just off the beaten path.

Now the whole country will get a glimpse of what he thinks more Bostonians should experience.

“It’s a gift the Kennedys have given to the neighborhood,’’ he said.