Fall Preview: Buildings are not more important than people

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Fall Preview: Buildings are not more important than people
by Alison Barnet
MySouthEnd.com Contributor
Wednesday Sep 15, 2010

I have a friend who calls it "coming in in the middle of the movie." If you’re new to a place, shouldn’t you attempt to learn something about it before making decisions affecting other people’s lives?

What bothers Old South Enders most about many newcomers is arrogance-deciding arbitrarily to change or get rid of things that have been here for years, failing to consider others before taking over.

Buildings are not more important than people. Neither is parking.

Emphasis on money upsets us, the pressing need to know if someone rents or owns and how much money they’re making off the South End.

"Years ago," said a woman who used to live here, "there was a lot less difference between people with money and people with no money. Newcomers are able to pour money into these houses."

Before you exclaim, "How marvelous!" that ’people’ are buying single-family homes these days, think what it means to those who used to live there.

Newcomers, especially developers, sometimes think they’re God’s gift to the South End. They’ve bought property, invested a lot of money, and improved the neighborhood. Why then does the neighborhood sometimes turn against them?

The South End has a long and interesting history, much more complex than the story of sedate Victorian origins that many newcomers quickly embrace, delighted to think that the South End has come full circle-’back’ to upper class, wealthy, single-family, and white. Unfortunately, they hold more recent history in contempt: the waves of immigrants, ’each leaving a pocket behind them;’ the settlement house movement; black clubs at Mass. and Columbus; the Mid-Town Journal; the New York Streets; Castle Square; Tent City. Aren’t they even curious why the South End was so embattled over the city’s Urban Renewal Plan and, in many ways, still is?

Old South Enders may laugh when New South Enders gush over how ’diverse’ the South End is. The South End used to be not only much more diverse but much more mixed. Although 40% of today’s South End’s housing may be subsidized, the majority of it is projects or other conspicuous structures-we don’t share the same houses or blocks anymore. Said one Old South Ender: "Some people wanted to move here because of its diversity, because it was interesting and because of its vibrancy...They wanted the character of the neighborhood and then they displaced the things they wanted."

From experience, Old South Enders worry that, as you sit at trendy outdoor cafés, you look across the street and think, "Wouldn’t it be nice to get rid of that ugly yellow project?" or "Isn’t the crowd around that Two Dollar a Bag grocery truck unsightly?" On the other hand, maybe "the poor" are invisible to you. "It’s like a Guard-All shield," said another former South Ender, "the lack of recognition that other people exist." We hope you don’t make the mistake of thinking there are two groups of people: your type and those who don’t count.

When you hear an Old South Ender wax poetic about what used to be here, don’t be so fast to label it nostalgia. It wasn’t that long ago that we had a variety of food markets, useful stores, drugstores, and better public transportation. We had Brown’s Bakery, the Lebanese Bakery, and restaurants we loved and could afford. There was more here, not less.

We are often amazed at how naïve some newcomers are. Why are they so eager to embrace City of Boston, particularly BRA, initiatives?-there’s a long history there too. One thing about Boston, if you want to understand current politics, you need to have a good memory for long-past events, players and their interactions. "Follow the money," suggested a friend of mine. We also marvel at the lack of common sense (well, it used to be common). If you leave a bag in your car, it will attract attention. Waltz around at 3 a.m. wearing expensive clothes and jewelry-ditto.

The do-gooder instinct can be a killer too. Serving Thanksgiving dinner at the Pine Street Inn isn’t that helpful if you’ve just voted to replace park benches with uncomfortable single chairs in an effort to discourage the homeless from sleeping there.

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