Anthony Flint

"Branding" revamped neighborhoods for a barely past history can feel like a backhanded homage.

The Boston Herald was enemy territory back when I was a reporter at The Boston Globe. But I had friends there, and occasionally enjoyed a Guiness at J. J. Foley’s on East Berkeley Street, steps from the newsroom. The tabloid would literally be hot off the presses while the yellow delivery trucks mustered in the parking lot. The smell of fresh bread from Quinzani’s Bakery mingled with the smoke of cigarettes—those things people used to light on fire, indoors and out.
The printing presses are gone now, the Herald's and others that distinguished the eastern edge of Boston’s South End, alongside an elevated portion of the Southeast Expressway. Herald reporters and editors—what’s left of them—decamped for the Seaport. And the newspaper itself, in a spasm of journalistic dissonance, is printed at the Globe, about a mile away in Dorchester. Where the Herald once stood, now rising is the Ink Block, a giant, up-market, mixed-use complex.

Aptly named, I always thought, and a nod to the history and heritage of a changing city. Yet there’s such a fine line, in terms of being a little too cute. The condos, sold for up to $2 million, are being marketed, wistfully, as Sepia at the Ink Block, a reference to the brownish ink and photographic presentation that evokes an old-fashioned, turn-of-the-century feel. In a life-size picture just down from J.J. Foley's, a young professional is happily riding his bike, a freeze frame in this new urban paradise.

I’ve noted along with many others how, in conventional suburban development, streets and housing tracts have so often been named for the flora and fauna they've destroyed—The Homes at Fox Run, Birch Grove Way, and so on. Now, it seems, urban developers are doing the very same thing: naming projects after the manufacturing or other functions that used to go on there—the machines that used to whir, the paychecks that were once issued. This is happening even as the ashes are still smoldering. The steel for Ink Block was in the ground only a few days after the wrecking ball laid waste to the Herald. Instant nostalgia.

This is no standard lament of gentrification. The South End is Boston’s version of Greenwich Village, very much in the mature stages of what Jane Jacobs called “oversuccess.” Hammersly’s Bistro, one of those eateries that had the audacity to open when Tremont Street was still considered dangerous, is actually closing after a 27-year run. The kids patronize the Tasty Burger in Harvard Square with no knowledge of The Tasty that came before. Things change. Rents rise.

The entire area of the Ink Block is an archeological dig of urban evolution. The tenements of the New York Streets area were razed in Boston’s enthusiastic engagement in urban renewal, replaced by superblocks and arterials. The Ink Block in some ways is a return to better, traditional urbanism.

My misgivings have more to do with the relentless packaging that’s going on in cities, as aging boomers and affluent young professionals shop for the perfect neighborhood. I’m told that developers contemplate three major categories when naming a project: something that refers to the history of the site (Ink Block), or refers to the geography of the site—something like “Harborside Lofts”—or an alternative choice that is more abstract, like “The Atelier.”

Restaurants are legendary for getting into this act, too. Visiting South Boston the other day, where I once lived, I noticed a gleaming new bistro called Local 149, billed as "a neighborhood joint in the Citypoint section … a location with historic roots, distinctive character, and heart and soul." The number refers to the street address, but it’s clearly also a play on the dominant union presence in this part of town. The Ironworkers Local 7 headquarters is a few blocks away. I’m just not sure anybody in a hardhat is coming in to order the flash-seared yellowtail Hamachi.

The changing urban environment has to do with "a search for authenticity," says Cristina Garmendia, co-founder of OpportunitySpace, which helps cities repurpose fallow real estate assets. Fair enough—I love the fact that some real-estate developers are providing really cool picture books about the history of a given building or site. But the history is just that—history. There’s no carrying on of any traditions. The most preening branding co-opts and appropriates, like the "swagger jacking" of African-American history that has gone on in Washington, D.C. Given the price points of new development, there’s something almost obscenely patronizing in the references to the activity of the city of years past.

I also question whether cities need to name things, in general, quite so much. And not just the now-familiar SoHo-style labeling, though Sepia's neighborhood has been dubbed "SoWa," for south of Washington Street. I’m all for "innovation districts," especially in second-tier, post-industrial cities. There’s certainly a tradition for this sort of thing, beginning with, in so many cities, the theatre district. Boston recently decided to name the area around the Boston Common the first-in-the-nation Literary District, due to the critical mass of libraries and other cultural amenities within the radius of a few blocks. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ll always just think of it as the part of town where you find the Boston Athenaeum and other vaunted institutions. It’s on Beacon Street. On Beacon Hill. The place doesn’t need to be located by way of a new title.

Years ago, I lived in a brownstone at 31 Union Park. It wasn’t called the “Lofts at Bohemian Way.” It was just an address. I think I might find it almost embarrassing to live in some of these places. Life in the city isn’t about being tidied up, as if in a picture frame.

J.J. Foley’s still opens its doors every night, just two doors down from the Sepia building. The bar is a bit sticky no matter how much it’s been wiped down. A utilitarian Mobil station is just up the block. And so is another longstanding institution—the Pine Street Inn, a homeless shelter. In business since 1969, it’s sitting on increasingly prime real estate. Should the site be redeveloped, we may see the most craven naming opportunity yet.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    The Automotive Liberation of Paris

    The city has waged a remarkably successful effort to get cars off its streets and reclaim walkable space. But it didn’t happen overnight.

  2. 1970s apartment complex in downtown Buffalo

    The Last Man Standing in a Doomed Buffalo Housing Complex

    After a long fight between tenants and management, John Schmidt is waiting for U.S. Marshals to drag him out of Shoreline apartments, a Brutalist project designed by Paul Rudolph.

  3. An aisle in a grocery store

    It's Not the Food Deserts: It's the Inequality

    A new study suggests that America’s great nutritional divide goes deeper than the problem of food access within cities.

  4. A tow truck operator hooks up a damaged bus in 2011 in New York.

    Should Transit Agencies Panic?

    Many predict that new technology will doom public transportation. They’re wrong.  

  5. Transportation

    How Toronto Turned an Airport Rail Failure Into a Commuter Asset

    The Union Pearson Express launched with expensive rides and low ridership. Now, with fares slashed in half and a light rail connection in the works, it’s a legitimate transit alternative for workers.