I believe you can tell how strong and healthy a neighborhood is by looking at its stores, shops, and restaurants, and what I’m seeing in downtown Boston right now is giving me cause for alarm. Whether because of the bad economy or something worse (did someone say, “Degentrification?"), it seems something is happening in our neighborhoods, something we haven’t seen in quite awhile.
Much fuss was made over the recent proposal by a developer to open a Dunkin’ Donuts on Tremont Street, in the South End. While South Enders were arguing over the merits of a donut shop, Beacon Hill residents were saying no to a bank, no to an upscale market, and no to a burrito joint.
Par for the course in our downtown neighborhoods, right? But, then I heard about the North End, where they’re saying yes to a cigar bar and yes to a tattoo parlor. Meanwhile, we have rat traps - sorry, food trucks - idling at street corners throughout the city. And there’s a discussion on whether to allow a restaurant to stay open until 4:30am in the Combat Zone - sorry, Downtown Crossing.
Are our neighborhoods undergoing a change? For the worse?
We may still be far from the tipping point, but, admit it, people are talking about how our schools are barely improving and property taxes are going up, and the perception is that crime is out of control.
Is our city returning to the way it once was - the time when George Apley’s grandfather “sensed the approach of change; [where] a man in his shirt sleeves [was a sign] that the days of the South End were numbered”?
I think we can look to what’s happening on a retail level to give us an idea of where our neighborhoods are heading. Obviously, empty storefronts are indicative of a neighborhood suffering bad times (Hello, Main Street, Buffalo!), and there are plenty of those right now on Charles, Beacon, and Tremont streets.
Recognizing a neighborhood on the way up is easy - new stores open up, buildings are renovated and you see a lot of late-model cars parked on the street.
Sensing when a neighborhood is on the decline is much harder. Little things happen that are barely noticeable at first - more trash on the street, guys loitering in front of the liquor store, beggars holding the door for you at Dunkin’ Donuts. What’s to stop this from leading to purse snatchings, assaults, and open-air drug deals? (Nothing, apparently, if what I thought I saw happening in Copley Square was actually happening.)
Right now, we’re seeing those “little things”.
Some people see no difference between a Dunkin’ Donuts and a Starbucks. Of course, these are are the same people who see no difference between adding housing to a neighborhood and putting up a professional league stadium … or, a casino.
But, guess what? There are differences.
And that difference is what makes people decide to live in a neighborhood - and to continue living there.
You open a Dunkin' Donuts, you’re not going to continue to attract the types of people who live in the South End, Back Bay, and Beacon Hill right now. A lot of my neighbors have lived here for over a decade, many for two or three. They were here when there was nothing but package stores selling nips, dive bars serving drunks, and sketchy shops offering used records and second-hand clothing for a nickel and dime.
Where you see a bunch of NIMBYs who don’t want a donut shop because it doesn’t serve “five-dollar lattes”, I see residents who have taken a strong interest in improving their neighborhood - or, in these times, defending themselves against an encroaching enemy.
Everyone thinks he/she is an expert urban planner who has the right recipe for what makes a neighborhood successful, one that’s thriving and growing. Some believe there’s just one perfect mix - that there should be a single coffee shop, two restaurants, a dry cleaner, a pharmacy and a bank. (Like in a Richard Scarry book.) But, truth is, no one really knows why some neighborhoods get overrun by chain stores while others don’t.
In a lot of ways, it’s like SimCity. You only know how it's going to turn out if you try a couple different things. There’s no book of instructions when it comes to growing a city. Add in too many of the wrong type of shops, or too many (or too few) people, or not enough parks and suddenly chaos rules, stores are abandoned, houses are emptied, and suddenly it’s 1972, all over again.
Or am I being too dramatic?
About this column: John A Keith is a freelance writer and real estate agent who lives and works in the South End.