The ’revitalization’ of Washington Street

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The ’revitalization’ of Washington Street
by Alison Barnet Contributor
Monday Jan 11, 2010

Everyone praises the emperor’s new clothes. No one would dare to admit that he saw nothing.-Hans Christian Andersen

They say Washington Street has been revitalized. But wasn’t there much more life before?

Under the elevated train that used to run down Washington Street, there were many more stores, stores that sold things we needed and could afford. We didn’t have to leave the neighborhood to find reasonable prices; we didn’t have to have a car. There were a lot of small markets, fruit stands and variety stores (later "convenience" replaced "variety"). We had Folsom’s Market at Northampton Station, a shopping hub for people all over the city, First National, and A&P. We had a choice of several independent drug stores, Siegel’s Hardware, Brown’s Bakery-Brown’s was the place to go if you had a sweet tooth, says an Old South Ender: "I loved the spice cake"-and the Lebanese bakery, where you could watch big puffs of hot pita bread roll to the end of a belt in front of you. We had the Puritan Theatre where two movies were 49 cents, barber shops and a barber school, furniture and clothing stores, Olympia Florist and Morse’s Fish (both still there), a meat market, Skippy White’s records and a Dairy Queen. The post office was on Washington Street, and banks dared to do business there. Dr. Wolfe, Dr. Rosemowicz, an optometrist, and the Drs. Grover, dentists, had offices. There were pawnbrokers, a couple of undertakers, Baby Tiger’s School of Boxing, and Harry The Greek’s. A bounty of riches! Life busting out all over.

And restaurants? Just mention the Premier or the original Red Fez to the old crowd and they’ll tell you without a second’s hesitation the name of their favorite dish, no matter that they last ate it decades ago: the Premier’s Hungarian goulash, the tongue and Swiss sandwich; the Fez’s stuffed peppers and the Stringbeans with Lamb-not to mention the Oriental salad with feta cheese, a favorite, I’m told, of Boston City Hospital staff, who sometimes ordered sixty baskets.

Admittedly, there was extensive nightlife, especially around Dover and Northampton stations-numerous cafés (ladies invited) and taverns (ladies not invited), liquor stores and poolrooms. As seedy, dark, and dangerous as many of these spots were, some of us went in and had a good time.

In the late 1980s, with the demise of the El and the closing of stores, Washington Street began to look like a wasteland, a wasteland with-surprise!-real estate potential. Before this, "urban pioneers" had been warned never to go "south" of Tremont Street. Washington Street, that much further from civilization, was completely off limits.

Strange weavers appear in town, claiming their cloth is of marvelous beauty but has magical properties: it is invisible . . . Everyone who "sees" it judges it beautiful.

"Rebirth" somehow entailed the decrease of diversity and a steep escalation in price. Precious needlessness, silk and golden thread, took over: a "pawtique for sophisticated pets," a chocolatier, a boutique wine shop, and a "unique" furniture store whose motto, "Your home is your sanctuary," greets guests on their way to the Pine Street Inn. "Doesn’t it look magnificent!""What elegance!" Expensive restaurants and stores with silly names multiply; heat lamps at sidewalk cafés keep customers toasty until late in the season, while valet parking attendants freeze. The weavers pocket the money, silk, and golden thread.

I recently came across a good quote. "It makes a big difference whether you see the world from inside or outside. It affects how you see history; how you see time ... how you see people."

A child’s puzzled voice-mine!-was heard: "He’s got nothing on." The emperor himself began to think that he could be right. But then he thought, ’If I stop, I will spoil the procession. And that would never do.’

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