The Beginning of the End

Coincidentally, Wesley and I have similar post themes this morning, though we’re chronicling the demise of different histories.  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. 

I think to think of Allston-Brighton as the goiter on Boston’s neck. 


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.  It was originally pastoral land – a vacation area for the wealthy of Back Bay – and stockyards.  It is one of the larger, denser 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.  It’s home to a diverse mix of people, including students  and the elderly; Russian, Brazilian and Irish immigrants; Orthodox Jews; a large Korean population; a smaller Hispanic population, and an even smaller African-African population.  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.  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.  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.  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.  Check out these storefronts:

What decade is it here??  The place is great, and not without your expected conveniences of banks, dry cleaners, post office, etc.  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.  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.  Then an Exxon, and shortly after that, another storefront a few blocks down from the gas station.  The local chain Boca Grande opened up.  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.  And now the Korean restaurant across the street has shut down, to be replaced by the nasty chain Smokey Joe’s BBQ.  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. 

As mentioned, I have mixed feelings.  My gut tells me this turnover is not for the better.  I admit, I’d love some newer, better, independent restaurants – though I’d wish that on this entire city, and not just my ‘hood.  And despite the gentrification of other former moderate- to lower-income neighborhoods – I’m thinking of Centre Street in JP in particular – 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.)  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.  The median condo prices out here for first-time buyers are on par with Dorchester and certain regions of JP (at that neighborhood’s nether-region suburban borders or those that abut Roxbury), not Cambridge, Boston or even Somerville.  I moved to Brighton because I liked its density, accessibility (three T lines and numerous buses), location, diversity and green space.  But I moved here mostly because it had one-bedroom apartments that I could afford.  (Ones that reminded me of NYC, with their pre-war design and elderly Jewish grandmas for neighbors.) 

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.  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.  It’s cool here.  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.  But for Christ’s sake, I don’t want a Smokey Joe’s.  I can drive to the strip mall in Stoughton should I really have a hankering for mass-marketed ribs. 


9 Responses to “The Beginning of the End”

  1. 1 Eve
    May 18, 2007 at 9:18 am

    I too live in Brighton (the other end of Washington St – Aberdeen) but something interesting I noticed when we were buying a home is that Brighton is in fact MUCH, MUCH cheaper than the rest of Boston. You can get a 2 BR condo in Brighton for under 300K, whereas the median price in Boston is 400K. I am guessing the revolving undergrad population keeps the price down, but it may also just not be “discovered” yet.

    I am still very bummed about the loss of Boomerang’s, but Brighton Center has not lost its local feel yet, and for all the reasons you point out, it may never become completely gentrified. It’s got too many reasons to remain working class, not the least of which is the many families living in Oak Square, including the Fanueil projects.

    On the other hand, I actually welcomed Boca Grande, because as a south Texan transplant it’s one of the best Tex-Mex options I’ve found, and it is still very local, even if it’s a chain. And I adore Cafenation, which appears to be doing really well.

    I was happy to see Daniel’s Bakery come back. I consider that the “centerpiece” of Brighton center. It’s been around forever, and it’s such a local landmark and institution…plus they have good cakes.

  2. May 18, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    I concede Boca Grande is pretty good (though I’m more of a loyalist to Ana’s Taqueria, in part because there’s one here on my campus). I have lived in Brighton for 2 years and like it more and more as I get to know it. There was something drawing me to it when I was initially looking at condos (in the “outer boroughs” of Boston – Brighton, JP, and Dorchester) and I definitely think I made the right choice. Thanks for the post! I hope you’ll keep visiting!

  3. May 19, 2007 at 11:16 am

    Something just struck me – one thing that I think doesn’t bolster your argument against gentrification in Brighton are those very Orthodox folks you mention who need walking access to Brookline. If New York/New Jersey is any indication, this drives prices up, not down. I had a couple of fairly Orthodox friends doing house hunting in the NYC region (people who would pick suburbs when a real Manhattanite wouldn’t), and they both reported that prices went up the closer you get to a synagogue, because the Orthodox know what the value of the location is. And as Eve says, when Brighton is priced so mcuh lower than the rest of town, it’s likely that gentrification is just starting. The buildings you mention can be rehabbed (it’s not impossible)… they can also be torn down, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that started to come to pass (though I think Boston generally is more resistant to that kind of tear-down mentality than, say, New York or a Chicago… or the south and west cities that started out with notions of reinvention that Boston doesn’t share). I think you can see that Dorchester is also starting to feel the pressures, too.

    The population that makes me most curious are those students and recent grads just starting their professional lives – all of this gentrification is killing them, and in this college-based town, does anyone know what effect that will have? I think not, and that’s the thing about these social changes that are reactive to gentrification – we’re don’t know what we’re breaking until its broken.

    And as for food, that’s the worst part, isn’t it? You know I’d kill for decent Asian in this town. And apparently, that’s what it may take – killing the culture and character and life of this town to get a more cosmopolitan, richer feel. Oops. 🙂 More Kung-Pao chicken, anyone? Chardonnay?

  4. May 19, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    The Brighton Orthodox are not likely to “gentrify” the neighborhood. Orthodox communities often have many families living close to the poverty line, because of the average family size, the likelihood that the mother doesn’t work, and if the father is a scholar. You can see this in Crown Heights and in some of the Nyack/Rockland County suburbs and elsewhere. It’s just that it’s such a tight-knit community where families take care of one another that this income distribution is missed.

  5. June 14, 2007 at 10:13 pm

    Any publicity is good publicity. Smoken’ Joe’s Barbeque is not a chain as some may think. It’s not related to Smokey Joe’s the nasty chain as you implied it was. This is a family owned and operated business. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many nice folks who stopped by and gave us possitive feed back. I just wanted to set the record straight and to assure you that I dislike chains as well. We are a Mom and Pop restaurant.

    Thanks for your time,

    Joe aka “Smoken Joe” not to be confused with Smokey Joe

  6. June 15, 2007 at 8:49 am

    Well now I will have to come and try the food! Thanks for the clarification!

  7. 7 Margaret Ann
    July 2, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    Let me just tell you, if Smoken’ Joe and his wife Wendy are your Mom and Pop…. you have one GROOOOOOVY family. As an older-tyme Brighton Center resident (like 1980) I can tell you with confidence that Smoken’ Joe’s is just the right sort of thing for the Center… and the best damn Q you ever laid lip to.

  8. 8 Mikus
    December 28, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    Your post was actually quite influential in my decision to buy a house in Brighton recently…I just wish there were more “daily” grocery stores around commercial ave/lake st…or even oak square. For now, the Hen pantry and Daniel’s bakery (their ciabatta bread is excellent) is sufficient, I just wish Daniel’s was open longer so that I could completely loose my car dependence.

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