City planners hate neighborhoods like the North End. The narrow, meandering streets, the old fashioned, inefficient tenement housing and the chaotic life on the sidewalks are anathema to city planners and don’t correlate with the neat, highly structured algorithms they studied in graduate school. How much better it would be if they could raze those tired, old buildings that housed generations of immigrants and replace them with mid-rise boxes, cutesy mini parks and wide boulevards that facilitate traveling into and out of the inner city. It sure makes life easier for tourists and suburbanites but a misery for those of us who live here.
The paradox is, people love living in the North End. We love the narrow streets and hidden alleys, we love the human scale of the buildings and the jostling street life on the sidewalks. All we want is for the city to leave us alone and let us decide how we want to live. Anonymous bureaucrats in obscure government agencies are making decisions about our neighborhood that will adversely affect our quality of life. This has to end.
Here in Boston we have the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the notorious BRA that a generation ago was so quick to demolish the West End and is now apologetic, asking forgiveness for displacing thousands of working class people. Brian Golden, the head of the BRA, claims the North End is one of his favorite neighborhoods but I wonder if his actions reflect his words. Have a look at the two new “neighborhoods” the city has created that abut the North End, the Seaport and North Station. Both are characterized by rampant, chaotic development. New buildings pop up in a helter-skelter fashion. Real estate conglomerates are rushing to erect mid and high rise apartment and condominium buildings while the market is “hot” but calling an accumulation of box like buildings a “neighborhood” and giving it a catchy name like the “Wharf District” doesn’t make it a real neighborhood.
Neighborhoods are created by the people who live in them; they grow organically to meet the needs and desires of the residents and they are ever changing. When I was a child growing up in the North End we had small shops that catered to the poor Italian population. We had green grocers, butchers, more barbers than one could imagine, cobblers, doctors, lawyers, bakeries and so many more. Now we have coffee shops, boutiques, skate board stores and enough restaurants to feed an army of tourists. That’s a sign of a healthy, ever evolving neighborhood, a neighborhood where people want to live and visit, but notice what’s happening around us here in the North End.
Right now we are surrounded by mid and high rise buildings and more are on the way. From North Station to the Seaport, the Financial District and Government Center we are becoming an island of low rise tenements in a sea of skyscrapers. In a few years the North End will become like Central Park, pretty but isolated from the rest of the city by a wall of high rise gated communities. We are being strangled by these monstrous buildings that add nothing to the street life we love and will suck the life out of our neighborhood.
I’ve included a photo today of an interesting residential project that was built in Singapore called the Interlace Building. It was designed by a starchitect named Ole Scheeren who works with Rem Koolhaas, another world class architect. This building won the building of the year award from the World Architectural Association. The web site is; www.theinterlace.com. It’s worth a look.
The Interlace building has 1040 apartments spread out over several acres but look at how all the apartments meet and overlap to encourage walking, meeting neighbors and social communication. There are mini parks on several levels and the entire project is tied into the street life below. Imagine if something like this was built in the Seaport or on City Hall Plaza what a different city Boston would be. It will never happen here in straitlaced Boston but it’s interesting to see what other, more adventurous cities are doing.
My advice to Brian Golden and the BRA is to leave well enough alone. We love our quirky neighborhood just as it is. Please, allow the North End to develop naturally according to the needs and desires of the residents. We don’t want another hotel or more skyscrapers marching down Atlantic Avenue.
Please, Mr. Golden, we don’t need no stinkin “plans.”
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.