One of the biggest local news stories of the year nearly got buried under a pile of rubble. That story is the sudden shuttering of 454-464 Hanover Street in mid-March by Boston’s Inspectional Services after an engineer working for the department cited the deterioration of steel beams and reported the possibility of “catastrophic failure.”
The condominium building, at the busy corner of Commercial and Hanover Streets, had many residents; all were ordered to evacuate immediately with only the proverbial shirts on their backs. A couple of weeks later, the owners and tenants were allowed back in their homes for a few minutes to retrieve other possessions. They still have no assurances when they can move back and resume their lives.
Walk by the building and it looks like a construction zone sheathed in scaffolding. Look more closely and you can see metal pillars ringing the perimeter. Are these supports really holding up the wobbling structure? Reportedly, the brick work is also crumbling and bricks fell off the façade. I know nothing about construction but it sounds to this untrained luggo Lego as if the whole edifice is being rebuilt from the inside out. No wonder the condo’s management company is vague about a timetable as to when the building will be suitable for habitation. The cost to owners – on top of all the other costs – must be prohibitive.
The story spooks me for many reasons. The most glaring? What I don’t know really can kill me.
The Boston Globe has done a couple of pieces on this so far. Reporter Jeremy Fox has written the stories. Other outlets, including the broadcast stations and northendwaterfront.com, have followed. Yet, so far, there’s been no overarching compendium of information or perspective about the catastrophe at 454-464 Hanover Street, what it means for Boston and for the old brick infrastructure so characteristic of this city. The only passing glance came from the city’s chief inspector, Buddy Christopher, when he acknowledged to the Globe the obvious fact the city has many old buildings and owners are responsible for looking after the aging infrastructure.
In another time, news of this calamitous event would have had reporters crawling all over it. Indeed, Boston City Hall used to have bureaus, offices in the Hall staffed by reporters from the Globe, the Boston Herald and broadcast stations. These reporters hung out, nabbing sources as they needed them, soaking up the atmosphere and being close to the stories. Now, Mayor Marty never has to trip over a news hound on his way to work.
In those days of accountability, before budget cuts hamstrung news outlets, public relations was more than “marketing” and “event planning.” Public officials were beholden to the people who elected them. I remember the classic press conferences of Mayor Kevin White when he would shut down reporters he didn’t like and dodge those who persisted with their queries about his fundraising tactics, staffing moves or questionable urban policies. I can only imagine how the story about the condemned condo building on Hanover Street would have played, even how the investigative reporters of the Globe Spotlight team or the scrappers from the old Herald might have dug in. This story seems ripe to launch a larger examination of Boston Inspectional Services and how the department is dealing with the decaying infrastructure of a city founded in 1630.
Also, the story extends through the North End, the oldest section of the seventh oldest city in America. We live in a fragile quadrant. If any place in Boston needs more help dealing with deterioration it’s our neighborhood. Yet, the North End always seems to be begging for more garbage collections, more street cleaning, more traffic rules and more noise control.
The people who were summarily locked out of their homes on Hanover Street have not been heard from since mid-March when there was a spate of news stories about their plight. But imagine their discomfort and disassembly – tossed out without recourse, with no promises about when they could get back to their homes. At the corner of Hanover and Commercial Streets, the metal construction staging remains up, along with the yellow hazard tape. I wrote an email to Globe reporter Fox, identifying myself as a daily subscriber and a resident of the same neighborhood as the condemned building. I asked if there were more stories planned about this cataclysm. As of yet, I have not received a reply.
Monica Collins is a writer who lives on the Waterfront with husband Ben Alper and dog Dexter.