By Ellen Hume
We are asking North Enders to sign our petition at www.savethenazzaro.org to stop the possible sale and demolition of the Nazzaro Community Center building at 30 N. Bennet St. Do we really need more luxury condos, taking away our public space in the heart of the neighborhood? We will present our campaign at the North End / Waterfront Residents’ Association meeting on December 13, which starts at 7 p.m. at the Nazzaro Center. Please come!
Everyone knows the iconic Nazzaro Center, which has been the center of community life here for generations. Opened in 1910 as the elegant North End Bath House and Gymnasium, it is heavily used as a gym, school playground, and senior center. This is the staging place for the bands at our feasts, our official community meeting and voting location, and a beloved cultural landmark. It is featured in architecture books and on Boston’s commercial walking tours, as a beautiful example of what still makes this Boston’s “Little Italy.”
Now some city officials want to sell this unique North End cultural asset for private condo development. The only way to get the expanded community facilities that the North End needs, they say, is to abandon the centrally-located Nazzaro building, by selling it, or by tearing it down. They are offering to demolish the current building and build a modern community center over Polcari Park, losing our playground, and it would still be too small. Even the city planners didn’t like this option!
A lot of North Enders are saying No Deal.
“We shouldn’t have to sell what we already have, to get new facilities for our children,” a North End parent said on election day Nov. 7, as she signed our Landmarks petition outside the Nazzaro Center. On that first day, over 700 registered voters signed to protect the building, despite the pouring rain. We have a big stack of signature pages, reflecting opposition from every corner, age group and background in the North End. Since the Landmarks Commission staff said that they can’t process this many official signatures, we are asking new supporters to sign a separate petition at https://www.change.org/p/boston-mayor-marty-walsh-save-the-nazzaro-center-and-polcari-playground that we plan to present directly to Mayor Walsh.
We believe there is a reasonable compromise. We are asking the city to preserve the beauty of this historic building and the open space of its popular playground between Prince and North Bennet Streets, while also ensuring that they are fixed up for continued public use. They should also build a new indoor basketball court and other facilities in a second location. It’s only a matter of money. Are our city leaders willing to invest in the North End, or just sell our precious assets to pay for what our community needs?
Ironically, the Nazzaro building bears the name of a local hero many people will remember, who saved the North End from being destroyed by the Boston Redevelopment Authority decades ago. State Sen. Michael Nazzaro Jr., seeing what had just happened to the nearby West End, successfully lobbied to preserve North End’s historic buildings from demolition by the city.
Originally sponsored by President John F. Kennedy’s grandfather, Mayor “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, the building was designed after the Villa Medici in Rome, by a famous Boston architect, John Maginnis. Opened in 1910 as the North End Bath House and Gymnasium, the Nazzaro Center tells the other history of the North End, which is as important as the famous Revolutionary period: the time when millions of working-class immigrants poured in from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century, building the America we know today. The Bath House was converted into a community center in 1984 and Mayor Menino renovated the building 20 years later, for $1 million, including a new floor on the basketball court.
Now the Nazzaro Community Center is too small and it needs repairs. The Nazzaro’s new director Stephen Siciliano said in a comment on this site that the current location doesn’t work because there is only so much space and there is no way they will be able to accommodate the real needs of our community and not one specific group. For seniors, if the new location would be the Mirabella, he suggests shuttle service to/from the Nazzaro. John Romano, another one of the Mayor’s 10 official advisors on the project, says the Nazzaro is just a “pile of bricks” that should be torn down.
We strongly disagree! As North End tax payers, we deserve more from our government. Our youth population is indeed growing, and there is a waiting list for Nazzaro programs. But the North End’s historic culture is essential to the economics of this neighborhood. We shouldn’t have to sell our crown jewels to get the expanded facilities we deserve. We shouldn’t have to move all our community programs away from the heart of the neighborhood to a much less desirable location, because someone sees a way to make money with this choice parcel.
Other Boston neighborhoods like Charlestown and Beacon Hill have community programs in multiple locations, and are also protected as official historic districts. The North End, which contributes significant revenue to the city as a celebrated tourist magnet and restaurant district, is famous for our “Little Italy” culture. But even though we are Boston’s oldest neighborhood, the North End is not designated as a protected historic district. The Mayor can sell off our public assets with impunity.
“We need to keep our community center here, in the heart of neighborhood,” said Marie Simboli of Prince Street, a life-long North Ender who is helping to lead the Save the Nazzaro effort. “The North End shouldn’t have to lose its culture and public space to build more condos and pay for a new basketball court on the waterfront. Seniors and little kids won’t be able to cross Causeway Street. And think of the flooding there!”
Simboli and her neighbors believe the city should redesign the inside of the Nazzaro building on N. Bennet St., protecting its unique architecture and public use, while adding new facilities in a second location, such as the city’s Fulton Street parking lot. This was the most popular view on October 17 among the standing-room-only crowd of concerned parents and citizens, when the city finally briefed us on their plans. The city planners had once considered the Fulton Street option, but for some unexplained reason, took it off the table. Was it because the city-owned parcel there is considered too tempting for some luxury condo developer?
The city’s consultants, working on a $3 million design and site selection contract, acknowledged that they have obtained a commercial real estate assessment on the Nazzaro building, for $8 million. They said that they haven’t even considered the logical solution of expanding the programs into two locations.
We need to tell the Mayor that there are limits to how much luxury housing Boston needs, especially at the cost of our North End legacy and quality of life. Please come to our presentation to the North End / Waterfront Residents Association at 7 p.m. on Dec. 13 at the Nazzaro Center, and sign our petition at www.savethenazzaro.org.
[Ed note: This post was updated on December 13, 2018 to clarify statements by the Nazzaro Director. Please also view the City’s response in Mayor’s Column, Setting the Record Straight About the Nazzaro Center.]
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