Debunking the ’Full Circle’ myth

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Debunking the ’Full Circle’ myth
by Alison Barnet Contributor
Monday Nov 16, 2009

South End history has come full circle, or so they say. It seems that some of our new neighbors believe that the South End was originally settled by the upper class, who built and lived graciously in mansions with marble fireplaces, mahogany doors, and elaborate plaster detail, servants on the top floor, deliveries in the rear. Those were genteel times-just like now. After an unfortunate hundred-year hiatus, during which the poor lived in the decaying mansions (doing, thankfully, little structural damage), an affluent new wave has come to the rescue, restoring the mansions-and the neighborhood-to their former grandeur. According to this theory, the South End is coming "back" to what it was originally intended to be: upper class, white, and wealthy.

But whose history is it?

I didn’t understand at first because I thought it was well known by now that the people who built homes on the newly laid-out Neck Lands in the mid-19th century were not aristocracy or Boston Brahmins but, rather, "men of substantial means." The earliest house owners, according to historian Margaret Supplee Smith, were "grocers who owned large establishments; merchants who traded in woolens, cottons, liquor, and corn; entrepreneurs who manufactured pianos and organs in the numerous factories in the South End; or traders who dealt in the Massachusetts boots and leather industry." Although rich and successful in business, they could not be considered members of Boston Society, that small, exclusive group based not on money but on breeding and family name.

The most helpful key to understanding the full circle theory is, according to recent studies, that a large percentage of 21st century Americans think of themselves as upper class or soon-to-be upper class. This is a foreign concept to many of us old Sixties types who didn’t grow up with an emphasis on the pursuit of money, luxury, and image.

"HISTORY with attitude," say the real estate ads. "HISTORY LUXURY. AND THE CHANCE TO EXPRESS YOURSELF" . . . "Have it all . . . contemporary, high-end finishes & a private, direct address garage parking space!"

"The full circle theory is about their [perceived] right to those houses," says a longtime South Ender. Another was blunter, "They think they’re better than others." Yet another quips that if you paid $1 million for a condo you’d have to believe that the South End had come full circle! "Otherwise, you’re a fool," adds another.

Ironically, our new "upper class," while priding itself on rescuing historic mansions, gets right to work modernizing everything. Among the Full Circle crowd, "contemporary" is the rage. They gut interiors, dig underground garages, and put in elevators and swimming pools. If we didn’t have Landmarks protection, they would undoubtedly modernize the exteriors too. Imagine facades of glass and lead along our side streets.

"At what point does an old building become not an old building?" asks a friend.

The first time I went into a "mansion"-read condo-in which part of the back wall had been removed and sliding glass doors installed, I wondered, "Where am I?" It was un-South End-like, un-Victorian, suburban, and it made me anxious. I could easily picture someone jumping over the garden fence, pressing his nose to the sliding glass, casing the joint, and breaking in.

If the economy takes a bigger dive, will South End history revert, not to 1850, but to more recent and less affluent times? Consider alternate full circles:

• Full circle to the Panic of 1873. Banks close, the rich desert the South End for the Back Bay, condos revert to rooming houses, and fine dining is found in basement cafeterias. • 1910 returns in 2010. Large immigrant families crowd into the same rooms young stockbrokers once used as wine cellars; settlement houses set up sewing circles and municipal bathhouses return. • Full circle to Skid Row. Drunks with MBAs stagger along Dover Street (once East Berkeley Street, Dover once again), reeling into taverns and cafés-Ladies Invited, Dancing Nightly-mortified to pay so little for a drink. Dunning labels return: the South End is a "bum’s jungle," "a socially decadent part of town," and, as an 1899 novel, Her Boston Experiences, had it, "The South End is like a young man who, starting out in life with brilliant prospects and making an utter failure of himself, gradually and reluctantly falls below the point of respectability." Yikes! • SoWa becomes PoWa-Poor Off Washington Street. Artists live in rundown luxury lofts without benefit of Open Studios, posh restaurants, or mobile security vans. Their creativity blooms. • Then whap! full circle to the Sixties and early Seventies. Arthritic radicals rise in protest, reminding us that what the neighborhood was really intended to be was not an upper-class enclave, the fancy plaything of the rich, but a People’s South End, a neighborhood with a social conscience. Tents are pitched, and squatters take over the mansions. Whee! Here we go again!

Coming soon in this space, more views from the stoop and the bus stop-From the Old South End.

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