Coincidentally, Wesley and I have similar post themes this morning, though we’re chronicling the demise of different histories.Â While he says “Good Riddance” to lingering, crappy television, I watch with mixed emotions as my neighborhood changes around me.
I refrain thus far from using the word “gentrify,” as it appears the future of Brighton Center could go either way.Â
I think to think of Allston-Brighton as the goiter on Boston’s neck.Â
Originally part of Cambridge, and bounded on two sides by the posh towns of Brookline and Newton, Allston-Brighton joined the city of Boston in the early 19th century.Â It was originally pastoral land – a vacation area for the wealthy of Back Bay – and stockyards.Â It is one of the larger, denserÂ neighborhoods of Boston with about 70,000 residents and rows and rows of fine, old apartment buildings (versus the triple-deckers that dominate most of Boston’s neighborhoods), and has many institutional residents, including the bookends of BU and BC, the ever encroaching Harvard, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a couple Catholic seminaries, an international language institute, and two public housing projects.Â It’s home to a diverse mix of people, including studentsÂ and the elderly; Russian, Brazilian and IrishÂ immigrants; Orthodox Jews; a large Korean population; a smaller Hispanic population, and an even smaller African-African population.Â With a 23% poverty rate (versus 19% in Boston, and 13% nationwide), the elderly and students crowding in beside the long-time families, I often joke that Brighton is a fixed-income community.
Where I live, I have three centers within walking distance of my house: Oak Square, Brighton Center, and Cleveland Circle.Â Cleveland Circle is certainly on the developer’s chopping block given the high-end condos going up beside it (and no, you won’t live in Chestnut Hill, no matter what the realtors tell you), and I can’t say that’s a bad thing.Â When your closest neighborhood center is dominated by collegiate watering holes and a Dunkin’ Donuts, you secretly hope these Lexus-driving, latte-drinking future neighbors might demand at least a bistro and a Starbucks to soften the blow that they basically live in BC’s backyard.
But I’m more conflicted about the changes underway in Brighton Center.Â The main Washington Street thoroughfare is home to a whole bunch of independent stores – two cafes, a local produce shop, a bakery, an ice cream shop, a florist, a store full of kitsch, European (a.k.a. Russian and Greek) food stores, two diners, a smattering of bars and restaurants, a dentist and an eye doctor, a Knights of Columbus and an Elks Lodge, a dance studio, a new age shop, the Brighton Main Streets office, and countless others I’m forgetting.Â Check out these storefronts:
What decade is it here??Â The place is great, and not without your expected conveniences of banks, dry cleaners, post office, etc.Â Saturday morning coffee and eggs at Mandy and Joe’s reminded the M.A.S. of a local spot in Minneapolis where he used to hang out.Â The home cut fries in the authentic Irish Porterbelly’s were one of my favorite snacks.
And yet, slowly but surely, the place is disappearing.
First the thrift shop Boomerang’s that supported AIDS organizations closed.Â Then an Exxon, and shortly after that, another storefront a few blocks down from the gas station.Â The local chain Boca Grande opened up.Â Now the new age shop is going out of business. Porterbelly’s got rid of its fresh-cooked pub food of overstuffed sandwiches and killer fries for a straight martinis-and-burgers menu fiasco.Â And now the Korean restaurant across the street has shut down, to be replaced by the nasty chain Smokey Joe’s BBQ.Â I can count at least three vacant store fronts interspersed among all this commerce, and I imagine Boca Grande and Smokey Joe’s are the sign of things to come.Â
As mentioned, I have mixed feelings.Â My gut tells me this turnover is not for the better.Â I admit, I’d love some newer, better, independentÂ restaurants – though I’d wish that on this entire city, and not just my ‘hood.Â And despite the gentrification of other former moderate- to lower-income neighborhoods – I’m thinking of Centre Street in JP in particularÂ – I just don’t see Brighton soon having the income or the housing stock to support such an “upgrade.” (I use quotes because I love Centre Street now even as I realize I can’t really afford the “new” JP.)Â We have too many students/institutional tenants; too many big, older buildings that would need some serious upgrading for condo conversion (versus the more easily converted triple-deckers); too many religious, lower-income Orthodox families that need walking access to the synagogues of Brighton and Brookline; and too many senior citizens and their institutional housing.Â The median condo pricesÂ out here for first-time buyers are on par with Dorchester and certain regions ofÂ JP (at that neighborhood’s nether-region suburban borders or those that abut Roxbury), not Cambridge, Boston or even Somerville.Â I moved to Brighton because I liked its density,Â accessibility (three T lines and numerous buses), location,Â diversity and green space.Â But I moved here mostly because it had one-bedroom apartments that I could afford.Â (Ones that reminded me of NYC, with their pre-war design and elderly Jewish grandmas for neighbors.)Â
As a Neiman neo-Marxist, I am torn between my desire to see some degree of upscaling of the bars and restaurants in this neighborhood (would it kill Massachusetts restauranteurs to embrace the green, leafy salad and cool it on the subs and calzones?), with my stronger desire to keep the neighborhood authentic, diverse and accessible.Â There is a vibrant street life here; in our walks the M.A.S. and I will pass older Russian couples arguing, Irish rugby players headed into the Green Briar pub or Porterbelly’s, Orthodox children playing in their yards, and BC fashionistas out for a run.Â It’s cool here.Â I like it. And I know from direct experience that this affordable urban moment in time could certainly come to pass given the forces of private development we don’t easily resist in our lives.Â But for Christ’s sake, I don’t want a Smokey Joe’s.Â I can drive to the strip mall in Stoughton should I really have a hankering for mass-marketed ribs.Â