The Interlace - key image
Interlace Building in Singapore.

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.

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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.

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32 COMMENTS

  1. Exactly Nick! When neighborhoods are not allowed to transform organically we end up with characterless “areas” that bear no resemblance to a neighborhood. Seaport ,North Station and soon to follow East Boston

    • Nick just a wonderful sincere article good for you. Maybe you should look into the changing of the north end re-hab on Fulton street will no longer be long care for the elderly nursing home that was once provided for the north end residents now that mass General took it over. Is it a rumor or is it true they are not accepting anymore long care patients! I’m very concerned about this any suggestion! How about a story on north end nursing home and the intent of keeping it for the elderly. Freeway

  2. I 100% agree with you, sir. I’ve been following the changing face of the Seaport District over the last 23 years and feel the BRA should be ashamed of itself. There is no rhyme nor reason to the lack of character and the outright homeliness architects have been allowed to get away with in the huge buildings that are being thrown up willy-nilly there.There’s no continuity and, if there ever was a plan, it must have been tossed out years ago. Did anyone remind anyone about the necessity of ‘green-space?’ That idea must have been tossed out early, too. Nobody other than the workers in the high-rises, have a view of the Boston Harbor, and they’re supposed to be working.

    Here’s the deal, BRA: keep your ugliness over there and leave the Atlantic Avenue & Commercial Street beauty and character alone. Our area, including the North End, is simply beautiful, with buildings chock full of history and character… and lots of characters. It’s definitely a real ‘community’ within our big city, filled with old and young couples, some who have chosen to raise their children right here, some who have chosen to retire here and both young and old singles in between. The people here care, are very civic minded and work diligently to maintain and improve this area without having it lose its personality. Please don’t turn our slice of heaven into what you’ve done to the Seaport District.

    Rant over … Carry on …

  3. Agree and disagree to some extent here. First lets look at the Seaport and especially North Station. Do any of you remember what North Station was like before the redevelopment? I sure do. If you think the homeless and drug problem is bad now you have no idea what it was like just 20-30 years ago. Drug addicts, homeless, gangs, runaways, pimps, stabbings, shootings, prostitutes, high crime, you name it. You could not walk North Station once it got dark when I was a kid growing up. That area was a war zone, and although not perfect it is 100 times better now. Imagine if they did not redevelop North Station, our area would look like Detroit with no jobs, crime, and poverty. And the Seaport was a ghost town before redevelopment. Now it is thriving and creating jobs and money for the city.

    I was born and raised in this neighborhood and still live here today. Don’t get me wrong I wish the neighborhood was still how it was back in the day but that is not reasonable or expected. We were complaining about the “yuppies” moving into the north end 20-30 years ago, now those same “yuppies” are complaining about more development. Fact is families moved out of this neighborhood. Once they saved up money a good majority of families headed out to Medford, Saugus, and so on. They wanted better schools and more space.

  4. This began 30 years ago when the new comers started to move in. This started when NORTH ENDERS moved out of !town and rented their apartments to college students. I sit here and read these comments from NORTH ENDERS who say, “I miss the old days!” Well, where were you the last 30 years because you weren’t living in this neighborhood. You moved out to the suburbs and rented your property to tenants who treated the place like a hostel.

    The BRA and city have done nothing bad. They redeveloped the area, got rid of crime, and brought jobs to a city. That’s why Boston is desirable. Don’t forget all of these buldings in the North End were once owned by original North Enders, and where are they now? The sold out for a few extra bucks. They are the ones who ruined this neighborhood.

  5. I find it funny. The same people who are complaining about new buildings are the same type of people who used to call the cops on me and my friends for hanging in a playground past 10pm. Now you wanna complain that your ocean view is blocked, serves you right.

    • People like you don’t care about the neighborhood, I’m happy all the areas you and your delinquent friends used to hang out in are now quiet!!!!!

      • Seems like somebody is a little bitter. Maybe when you grew up you didn’t have the joy of playing wiffle ball in the park until the lights went out. We would have let you played if you had just asked. Luckily though our neighborhood has seen a pretty big increase in its youth so I do not think the tradition will end any time soon.

  6. I’m surprised & even more disappointed that some people still do not get it.The City Of Boston & the BRA DO NOT GIVE A RAT’S YOU KNOW WHAT about how the residents of the North End care ,feel or think.

  7. Are you people serious? The seaport was a ghost town 10 years and north station was crawling with hookers and junkies. The reason the north end can’t keep up is because YOU, the residents, are concerned about noise. Well guess what you you live in the city and that’s where the noise is. If you want peace, quiet, and a view move to nahant

    • Yes we the residents are concerned about noise from drunks having parties on roofdecks and screaming and throwing things off the roof. yes we the residents are concerned about the noise from drunken girls screaming at the top of their lungs like they are being raped at three in the morning. Yes we the residents are concerned about noise from drunks coming back to the neighborhood and stopping to buy their snacks at Bovas at 3 AM and then screaming their way home and turning over planters and puking wherever. Yes we know that the city is noisy but we also expect our neighbors to show some respect for those of us who outgrew the drunken stupids and want to get a peaceful nights sleep. You are either one of the drunken fools or maybe you are the Hanover Street restaurant owner who made a similar comment on TV and then could not understand why the neighbors were pissed at him.

      • rukiddinme, [great name] The clueless union hack who replaced Menino solution is to issue more liquor licenses, allow customers to bring their own alcohol & wine to restaurants, extend hours ,continue the idiotic night owl service on the T that loses $ to operate & shuttles the drunks from one bar to another.It seems that the Mayor is trying to turn Boston into Bourbon St. North.

      • That’s what happens in the city. You live in the most densely populated area in New England!!! I do not own any restaurants and have lived here my whole life. If you want quiet at night this probably is not the best place for you to live. Maybe you should move along and complain on websites in Newton

  8. “City planners hate neighborhoods like the North End.”

    City Planners study “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” AKA the book about how great the North End is, like it’s the Bible. Sounds like you’ve got some misplaced anger.

  9. I find that some people are commenting on a subject that they know very little or nothing about.I’m speaking of the myth that every former resident of the “old” NE owned a building ,sold it, made a fortune and moved to Melrose.Did some people do that? absolutely, but some dwellings had up to 30 families living in the building & many were out-priced by & basically forced out by outrageous rent increases.People understand & accept progress but what their gripe is enough is enough. How many restaurants do we need here? How many liquor licenses have to be issued?

  10. Mr. Dello Russo – I sincerely respect your opinion and you contribute so much to this site. But I have to respectfully disagree.

    Everyone loves the North End, but not everyone agrees with the sentiment of this article. Many see all of this development as a good thing, as do I, even though I’ve been in the North End for 20 years. Nostalgia is great but not when it gets in the way of progress. The TD Garden development will contribute greatly to cleaning up that area. It should be known that numerous North End lifers were present at the BRA meeting in Dec 2013 in support of the project, in large part because of the supermarket that will be part of the development. That is a fact. The Seaport District was a wasteland of parking lots (and by the way, the Seaport District does not abut the North End as this article claims).

    These developments will not bring misery to the North End. One byproduct will (and has been) an increase in property values. I would venture to say that the some of the people who complain about such developments are the same ones who will directly profit from the rise in property values – the North End building owners. Rents have increased substantially, as have the prices of condos and buildings in NE. Many people complain about the developments while quietly reaping the monetary benefits of owning these “tenements”. This is a point of view that I find many are not willing to acknowledge.

    Thank You.

  11. God Bless you Nick, you couldn’t have put it any better. The City can’t do enough to disrupt our
    lives, and it seems NON STOP. I believe we do have to repair our bridges and streets, but
    these buildings surrounding us are overwhelming. When is enough, enough, never when you are
    greedy. This is only the beginning. You see the Eliot School on Commercial St., we may never see
    it, but I would venture to say, that will eventually be a High Rise with a Marina in back. The City
    knew what they were doing when they purchased this property, they will make a killing on it when
    the right developer comes along and makes them an offer they won’t be able to refuse.

  12. Another nice article, Nick, but I think you meant to say “former tenements”.

    Indeed, our neighborhood has evolved considerably since our grandparents arrived in America at the turn of the last century. Our generation–that is to say–those of us who have chosen to remain North End residents/”city kids” have participated and continue to play a significantly positive role in our ever changing neighborhood.

  13. Joseph, I don’t know what it is with you & others that you don’t get it. Those that sold out did go to much better
    living conditions. The North End was considered a SLUM, and living conditions were deplorable.
    Bathrooms outside in hallways, no sinks in bathrooms, no heat, no showers or tubs & not to mention most of these
    buildings were RAT INFESTED.. People bought 4 story buildings for under $5,000 over 60 years ago, and I want to add
    that they were in disgusting conditions. If a man was handy it was a good investment, but if you had
    to pay contractors, you better have had plenty of money. People bought buildings on Fulton &
    Commercial Sts. for $3,000 and you had to spend a minimum of $60,000 to renovate. Today
    $60,000 is a joke to renovate, but over 40 or more years ago, people borrowed to fix these buildings.
    Those people that sold out didn’t expect the No. End to be what it is today. All these new buildings
    surrounding the No. End, are not making it easier for those who own property in the Neighborhood
    to rent. The competition is great. These new buildings offer pools, gyms, elevators, parking spaces,
    function rooms, central air conditioning, (not window units),
    washer and dryers in all the units, (not shared). I think this makes it much harder for North End
    Landlords to rent, with others offering these amenities, and hopefully the City takes this into consideration when
    Real Estate Taxes are due. There are people living on Salem St. in a 400 sq. ft. Studio paying
    $2,400 a month, no washer & dryer, (Laundromat on Salem St.) but Central A/C. If you want to live in the Heart of the North End than you have to settle for less. Most Landlords don’t have the space to
    provide all these amenities. Joseph, I hope I made things a little clearer as to why those people
    sold out. The suburbs looked like Heaven after dealing these conditions.

  14. Joan of Arc. When I moved to Western Ma. I would tell people how we had no tubs, showers, and bathrooms in the hallways. We went to the bath house in the dead of winter to take a shower with our towels in a bag with soap. Needless to say they were shocked. Believe it or not it wasn’t easy for me but it sure was a great memory.

    • Joyce, We have a lot of fond memories, but I never thought is was a great thing to go to the
      Bath House, when there were others that had tubs&showers in their homes. I am just trying to say
      those that left the No. End years ago, did go to much better living conditions.

  15. Joan of Arc, it’s simply not true that North End owners have a hard time renting their spaces. It’s quite the contrary. Boston can’t build apartments fast enough to keep up with demand, which of course is what leads to astronomical rents in the NE. I’m not criticizing NE lifers or building owners at all. I’m great friends with many of them. But these articles and subsequent comments seem to want to ignore that NE lifers and building owners are sitting on millions of dollars and rake in the cash in rent every month. It’s hard for me to fathom sometimes why some of these people continue to bite the hand that feeds.

    • Francesco, You have to be talking about Absentee Landlords. Building owners are sitting on
      Millions of Dollars, but none the less, they will never be able to compete against these new
      buildings going up.

  16. I wish the people who are posting these comments would go back and read the article I wrote not the one they think I wrote.
    This bickering between old and new North Enders is silly and counter productive. We’re all North Enders and we all have a stake in the character of our neighborhood. We won’t always agree on individual issues but we can respectfully listen to other opinions.
    My objective in writing this article was to get people thinking about what’s happening to our city and what passes for urban planning here in Boston. Right now big developers are dictating what gets built. I think the residents, the ordinary working people of Boston, should have a seat at the table as well. It’s our city and our neighborhood.

  17. Francesco, my question to you is what is the city of Boston doing to provide[truly] affordable housing for people?. I think that I already know the answer.

  18. I’m not versed in the subject of affordable housing but that’s not what we were talking about on this thread. Nick, I agree, we are all north enders and I applaud that sentiment. As long as we have a common thread of respect for the neighborhood, I think that’s all that should really matter.
    I don’t blame the developers – they are just capitalizing on an environment that allows them to do so. The developers don’t dictate what gets built, the City does. However, I for one am for the most part in favor of all the recent development. Residents do have a say, and many neighborhood groups have been very vocal in many of these projects. For example, the residents at Harbor Towers have very successfully shot down Chiofaro’s tower on a number of occasions.

    but I do think a lot of this gets blown out of proportion. Is it really that bad that a great development is coming to TD Garden? or that the very ugly govt center garage will finally be torn down for a new, beautiful tower? why is all of this so bad? nobody is talking about tearing down the historic north end.

    I can’t wait til someone gets wise enough to tear down city hall and the plaza, and build a real building.

  19. Wonderful, and passionate. Inner city means the area outside of the main neighborhoods, ironic as that may sound, and also implies lower socio-economic status. The North End is not an “inner city neighborhood.” In Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a compare and contrast of the west End and the North End prove you right. While developers felt crime would go down and health would improve, they found here (in the North End) and elsewhere that nothing beats a tight–and tight knit–communities on both topics, and on many more topics. One by one, I watched unique venues like The Different Drummer, shops like the thrift store and iconic businesses like Dairy Fresh go. Character is being sucked out of even our very best cities. I commend you for speaking up. And I also think the best barber shop in the world is on Salem. True stewards of the neighborhood will happily open and/or support businesses like this. People say they don’t want 7-11 or Pinkberry at a meeting. Then you see them there. Not even kidding. Hard to watch. While I have left Boston, I do check in on Matt’s blog. That said, I hope you and your family are doing well. I’d rather pay more in rent to live in a place that’s real than a stoic building. And I’d rather pay more for a pound of coffee at a mom-and-pop than support a chain to save a few bucks. Money talks is all. And then there is social power. Shun those who do harm to the hood. Be good.

  20. BRIAN BRANDT, God Bless You, Beautifully said. NICK DELLO RUSSO, Your article was Great, and if people went off on
    other tangents, I just think it might be Frustrations that have built up over the years, and they felt they had to vent. I think you
    are absolutely right about Residents coming to the table with these Developers, but unfortunately, the No End & Waterfront
    Residents do NOT stick together like they do on Beacon Hill, and this is the results of it. Years ago when the Developer
    wanted to take over the Roche Bobois Building (now the Eliot School) and go up 85 Feet, women from the No. End protested outside of City Hall and that Developer backed off, and Menino wanted the protesters removed from the premises. My opinion, there has to be more action like that, with News Media involved.
    Keep up the writing NICK, we all enjoy it.

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