The South End Is So Over
Overrun with velvet ropes, $8 tomatoes, and a Washington-Street-by-way-of-Route-9 crowd, the South End has some once proud residents wondering just what the hell happened to the former hippest neighborhood in town.
Depending on what day of the week you visit the Beehive, the six-month-old Tremont Street hot spot, you will have to negotiate your entrance with either a former courtroom guard named Tyrone or a quartet of giggling women wearing matching headsets. The constant, unless you arrive unfashionably early, is the long line outside, which on the busiest evenings can force a wait of more than an hour and a half. Inside the two-level bar/lounge/eatery/jazz club, the drinks are strong and the décor gorgeously atmospheric, but the food is by all measures just okay. Yet the crowds, by some freak of restaurant fortune, aren’t letting up.
Considering the Beehive is run by the owners of nearby hipster-endorsed stalwarts Bob’s Southern Bistro and Pho Republique, you might expect the subterranean space beneath the Cyclorama to draw patrons resembling the ones spotted at those joints: the black and white jazz lovers of the former, the tattooed artists, off-work musicians, and stylish gays of the latter. Instead, the scene is distinctly white, straight, suburban (or buying there soon), and likelier to be sporting khakis, golf shirts, and sweater sets than skinny jeans, indie rock tees, and body art. These are people who do well enough to pay $11 for a cocktail without blinking, and would not look out of place at Back Bay hangouts like Clerys or Abe & Louie’s. They are also the faces of the new (but not necessarily improved) South End.
You wouldn’t know it from the thriving businesses or the still-hot real estate market, but there is a growing chorus of Bostonians who believe this has been the year the South End as they knew and loved it died, became hopelessly passé, jumped the shark. These critics—disaffected current or former residents, mostly—contend that the neighborhood has rapidly declined from an über-hip, multicultural melting pot into rich, white-bread uniformity, a shift that proves our city deserves its reputation as an unstylish, provincial burg irredeemably stratified by race and class. This scathing perspective is perhaps best expressed on The South End Is Over (thesouthendisover.blogspot.com), a year-old blog penned by a gay longtime South End resident under the tagline “If you lived here, you’d be pretentious by now” (and from which the title of this article is, with apologies, borrowed). If the South End was Boston’s last great chance to put a star on the national coolness map, the argument goes, then we blew it, quickly overdeveloping everything wonderful about it into oblivion.
And that’s because those prosperous, conventional-looking types lining up to get into the Beehive aren’t just visiting the neighborhood in ever greater numbers. They’re moving in—and, by God, they’re taking over.
Ten-year South End habitué Elle Hoxie is a marketing manager at a local software company who after work dons casual hipster threads that reveal her tattoos. “This neighborhood has totally lost its authenticity,” she says. “We had such high hopes for the Beehive when it opened, but we don’t go anymore. The only cool people are the bartenders—half the guys who drink there have whales on their pants!”
That may be because the neighborhood itself “is not what it was 10 years ago,” says Beehive co-owner Jack Bardy, who has lived in the South End for 15 years. “It’s families with children, empty-nesters. There are more restaurants now, and not enough neighborhood folks to support them all.” The early rush, he says, was largely people coming to see what the fuss was about. “I wouldn’t judge us based on our first few months, but rather what we’re evolving into.”
As a seven-year South End resident (and freelance food writer), I’ve followed the transformation of the neighborhood’s acclaimed dining scene, tracking how new restaurants have served as bellwethers for the leading edge of gentrification. The southward trend began nearly 30 years ago, when Icarus opened in its original location on Tremont Street, then gradually proceeded to Washington Street, finally extending this year to Harrison Avenue, where spots like Rocca and Gaslight have made locals feel safer on stretches of sidewalk that only recently seemed seedy. The past 12 months have also seen the debuts of Oishii Boston, one of the city’s priciest restaurants, and Myers + Chang, a pan-Asian joint in the headquarters of homeless-services agency Project Place. Down the block on Washington, the long-vacant Penny Savings Bank is about to welcome Banq, serving French-Asian fusion; not far away is Plum Produce, the most audacious addition to Barbara Lynch’s Waltham Street mini-mall for deep-pocketed foodies, where tomatoes go for $8 a pound and arugula, $12. Meanwhile, on Columbus, beloved dive Tim’s Tavern has been replaced by Coda, which swapped Tim’s giant burgers with fancy cocktails, fine wines, and upscale comfort food.
Rocca and Gaslight continue a movement initiated two years ago by suburbanite-safe havens like Sibling Rivalry and Stella: They’re high-end and scene-y, and offer fairly unchallenging menus. They’re also easy to drive to, thanks to their valet service or, in the case of Rocca and Gaslight, their heavily promoted free parking in nearby lots. Many patrons arrive in their luxury SUVs, dine, and drive away again. They don’t look like the kind of crowd that first drew transplants like my wife and me to the South End. One summer evening, as we strolled past the patio scrum at Stella, she said aloud what I was thinking:
“Who the hell are these people, and what are they doing in our neighborhood?”
“I see women here putting on twin sets and pearls and three-carat diamond studs to walk their dogs,” says Karen Bommart, a financial services marketing executive who’s lived in the South End for 18 years. “I remember this local hair salon years ago that did a hilarious serialized diorama in its display window using edgily dressed Ken and Barbie dolls—that would never fly now.” Indeed, like their dining counterparts, the neighborhood’s new retail ventures are pandering to a more status-conscious clientele. Lekker, a purveyor of midrange to high-end furnishings, seemed lonely and daring when it opened at the corner of Washington and Waltham in 2003; the nearby blocks have since become a magnet for posh home goods and fashion boutiques. There’s Looc, an austere women’s clothing shop that debuted on Union Park in August; Diseño, which sells costly furniture and textiles imported from South America from its space on Harrison Avenue; and, a few doors down from Diseño, design man-about-town Dennis Duffy’s new retail outlet, set to open this month. Not far away, 22-year-old gallery owner Colin Rhys deals in installation pieces with prices in the tens of thousands. It is now possible, within a three-block radius,
to spend $800 on an outfit for a night at the Beehive; $60 on an alpaca scarf you can say you brought back from Bolivia; $12,000 on a disassembled motorcycle; and 10 bucks on a dime bag in Peters Park.
As he walks his pretty, perpetually worried-looking vizsla, Sophie, near Harrison Avenue’s cluster of loft-style condos, Gibson Sotheby’s realtor Moshe Elmekias notes that despite a scary U.S. housing slump, South End real estate values have hardly sagged. Shoebox Waltham Street apartments that might have sold for $285,000 in 2003 now command $415,000. At the Gateway Terrace complex, just yards from the Pine Street Inn, two-bedroom condos are listed for as much as $805,000. “Buildings like these attract a new kind of buyer, people who prefer modern lofts to rehabbed brownstones,” he says. While acknowledging that many gay homeowners are moving out to the edgier environs of Dorchester and Fort Hill, he’s quick to present examples of enduring diversity: “We still have strong Latino, Asian, and African-American communities; we have luxury condos, halfway houses, and low-income projects all sitting side by side.” As if to underscore Elmekias’s point, a derelict with oversize dentures on a nearby bench cheerfully endures Sophie’s nosy attentions, gives us a wave, and burbles, “Party party party!” before rolling and lighting a joint.
While new mixed-use developments like ArtBlock and its 23 live/work studios still attract artists, rising real estate costs have made the South End far less welcoming to the creative types who first helped make the neighborhood vibrant. “My art collective [Project SF] can’t afford workspace in the South End anymore,” says Dana Woulfe, who paints street-scale installations when he’s not designing footwear for Converse. “We’re looking in Eastie now. These days, the South End is more about selling art than creating it.”
Other South End veterans see things more philosophically. “Without knocking my fellow artists, I must point out that they, too, displaced poorer neighbors, the crackheads and drag queens, just as they are being displaced now,” says Lydia Ruby, director of Rhys Gallery. “You don’t need a South End address to make art, but some of us have opted to pay the premium to live here anyway so we can support other artists and businesses. We’re working to preserve the old neighborhood’s personality.”
As he contemplates the prospect of leaving the South End behind, Woulfe isn’t sure there’s anything left to preserve. “It’s lost all the things that made it Boston’s coolest place to live,” he says. “Now it’s where rich people go to buy the experience of being hip, without actually being hip.”
On his blog, the anonymous author of The South End Is Over hurls barbs at certain odious behaviors he ascribes to the newcomers, including rudeness, contempt for less fortunate neighbors, and efforts to steamroll idiosyncrasy off the block by lobbying for pricey dog runs instead of social services for human beings (true story), and whining when a local school converts a vacant lot to a kids’ soccer field and thereby eliminates some free parking spaces (also true). “These people actually fought the opening of a 7-Eleven here, saying it would attract a ‘bad element,’ meaning people without nannies, I guess, or folks who buy lottery tickets,” the blogger told me.
My wife and I hold pedestrian day jobs, but our artistic avocations enabled us to flatter ourselves that we fit the South End’s bohemian profile when we bought our condo in 2002. We already had a large group of friends here: multiracial, gay and straight, well-off and not-so. Yet I imagine that some longtime residents might have sized us up with the kind of snarky appraisals lobbed on The South End Is Over. Certainly, the tensions the neighborhood is now experiencing have happened before, just as they’ve also happened in places like Fort Point Channel and Roslindale. What’s different about this new wave of gentrification is that it’s pushing out or marginalizing not just the people who made the South End a unique and attractive place to live, but also regular, straight white folks who are frankly more interesting—and interested in diversity—than the pumps-and-pearls set.
Consider the response of some South End arrivistes to a local agency that runs addiction recovery programs. Hope House wants to sell three Upton Street brownstones it has operated as halfway houses for 52 years to the Pine Street Inn, which would use them as apartments for people transitioning from homelessness. Some nearby residents, led by one who moved to the street three years ago, are trying to use zoning laws to block the sale, claiming such facilities no longer represent the “character of the neighborhood.” The controversy follows another that played out in September, when the city demolished a Peters Park wall on which a local youth organization, the African-American Latino Alliance (ALA), had painted murals for the past 20 years. In one cringe-inducing encounter, a five-year South End resident out walking her poodle approached a group of ALA youths as they stood near the pulverized remains of their artwork and the blank wall that had taken its place. She admonished them thus, as quoted in the Herald: “I hope you’re not planning on painting stuff that is offensive and racy. Children play in this park.” Previous ALA works had included a mural of Malcolm X and a tribute to Katrina victims.
“I’d like to see folks who are concerned about teen violence not just calling the police, but supporting programs to engage youths in community-building activities,” says Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, CEO of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, the social services arm of West Dedham Street housing development Villa Victoria. “I sense more of a colonial attitude in some of our new neighbors, a desire not to fit into the South End, but to conquer it, to remake it in the image of wherever they came from.”
What remains to be seen is how many disaffected South Enders will cash in their appreciated condos and seek refuge elsewhere. Unlike those pressured by earlier influxes of wealth, many of us can afford to stay. But will we want to? Choosing to live here used to be an expression of taste, of commitment to a certain kind of lifestyle. And even though a few badly behaved, and badly dressed, party crashers have made it harder to feel good about having a South End address, many residents still believe the positives outweigh the negatives. So we rationalize things—the poorly parked SUVs, the dogs wearing sweaters—in exchange for at least a few more years.
Cindy Morton, a marketing exec with a place near Worcester Square, has lived in the South End since 1999. “I love the architecture, the parks, my community garden plot,” she says. “I don’t much care for that Lilly Pulitzer crowd, but I see them more on the Back Bay side of the neighborhood than on my block. I’m sorry to see some of my gay neighbors move away, but I’m relieved the area has gotten safer”—and it has, with reports of rape, burglary, vehicle theft, vandalism, and prostitution dropping dramatically since she moved to the neighborhood.
Morton’s sentiments are echoed by Margaret Anderson, who moved to the South End in 1993. “I realize you can’t stop progress, and that I’ve benefited from the rise in property values. I think about leaving, but I love the South End, and I will stay here—as long as I can afford to.” Morgan Jones, a venture capitalist who exchanged his Back Bay condo for a single-family home on Union Park in 2006, says he thinks he’ll stay, too. “We had some concerns about crime before we moved here,” he says, &
ldquo;but those seem exaggerated now. Especially since our friend got carjacked in the Back Bay.”
MC Slim JB is the pen name of a South End–based food writer. His work can be found at bostonmagazine.com and on the Boston page at chowhound.com.