(An illegal deck, installed a few feet above the statues and flowers of the Peace Garden at Saint Leonard Church on Hanover Street, has eradicated the serenity of a sanctuary cherished by North Enders and visitors from around the world.)
If asked to identify a special place in the neighborhood where one can momentarily escape the noise and throngs of Hanover Street, most North Enders would immediately cite the Peace Garden at Saint Leonard Church where an open iron gate beckons passersby to pause for a moment of reflection. One does not have to be a Roman Catholic or Christian to appreciate the uniqueness of this sacred space where all are welcome regardless of religious belief.
In the late fall of 2016 a makeshift deck and railing were unlawfully installed on a fire escape atop the rear extension of a ground-level restaurant at 326-328 Hanover Street. Sole access to this illegal deck is gained by crawling through the exterior window of the second-floor apartment within a five-story building whose upper residential floors tower over the garden.
According to public records, the owner of the building is a real estate trust controlled by a fiduciary residing in Newton. When first apprised of the absentee landlord’s intention to install an illegal deck, a civil and neighborly effort was made by parishioners to reach out to this former North Ender who last lived in the building in the 1950s. The response was dismissive and marked by indifference.
Since late spring as the first signs of warm and sunny weather appeared, the second floor tenants have made regular appearances. At first they casually leaned over the railing, often tugging on a beer bottle and engaged in loud conversation. After lugging lawn furniture through an exterior window, their sunbathing commenced in earnest. Bare chested and boisterous young men, splayed on plastic chairs, have mocked and taunted parishioners and visitors to the garden with vulgar language and sometimes obscene shouts to pedestrians along the sidewalk beyond.
Such behavior has spoiled and defiled this cherished sanctuary lovingly created by an elderly Franciscan friar during the Vietnam War era. One might think that it would be a no-brainer to enlist the enforcement arm of the Boston Inspectional Services Department to halt the use of this unlawful structure which violates a municipal ordinance. But, the ISD inspector — let’s just call him ‘Brian Moxley’ (because that’s the fellow’s name) — assigned to the North End neighborhood has refused to lift a finger despite repeated requests for his intervention. This gentleman was given assurances that he would have the full cooperation of eye witnesses to appear in court with photographic evidence if necessary. He mockingly asserted that it would be embarrassment for him to appear in court on a complaint and that he would then be expected to take similar action “every time there is a pillow cushion or tomato plant blocking a fire escape in the North End … I have responsibility for downtown high-rise buildings, not just the North End. This isn’t in my pay grade.” (Yes, those were his exact words.)
One might recall that the man works for the same city agency that tried to shut down a 45-year old sidewalk produce stand at the corner of Salem and Cooper Streets last summer. (Check out: https://northendwaterfront.com/2016/09/north-end-moment-code-enforcement-overkill/ ) This is the same department which forced a North End business to expend several thousand dollars in repainting a storefront because the building inspector determined that the shade of the color (not the color itself) did not comport with his interpretation of the building permit. These are the same folks that yanked a food license from a local business when they discovered that the beloved proprietor kept a pet cat on the premises.
North Enders are increasingly unable to find affordable housing in their neighborhood; they are being priced out of local parking garages because the city has waived set-aside spaces for the buyers of luxury flats at North Station with deeper pockets; they are being awoken in the middle of the night by the screams and shouts of the inebriated patrons of bar-restaurants that have scored extended closing hours; they are expected to casually surrender their enjoyment of the place they call home and that foreign investors describe as an ‘economic engine’.
When it comes to selective enforcement of municipal codes, you can be certain that ISD has written the text book. It looks the other way whenever the mood strikes it. And, it has been looking the other way while a group of boorish young men scratch their bellies and quaff brews from white plastic lawn chairs overlooking statues of Saint Anthony and the Risen Christ. How bad have things gotten in the North End when even a churchyard shrine is not out-of-bounds for an absentee landlord’s profit margin? Or, when ISD by sheer bureaucratic apathy has allowed an exploitative landowner to literally stack the deck in the despoilment of a place of worship?
If anyone finds this one-more-nail-in-the-North-End-coffin unsettling, at least you can be a good neighbor and call the City of Boston’s hotline (311 or online) to report the presence of an unlawful deck at 326-328 Hanover Street adjacent to the Peace Garden at St. Leonard Church. While you are at it, you might inquire why Inspectional Services has not responded to this violation of a municipal ordinance. Each call gets logged and documented with an online confirmation if requested. Who knows? We might stand a chance. We might have a prayer that someone at City Hall is appalled. But, in the meantime, we might need to look for somewhere else to pray.
From Boston’s North End, Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about neighborhood life and city living.
Correction: The first iteration of this post had the wrong building address (226-228 Hanover Street). This has been corrected to 326-328 Hanover Street.