Boston is best known for sports colonial history, and a laidback vibe – but spend some time here, and it become clear that this is also a city that loves fine art, green spaces, and neighborliness. But even though Boston is known as a beautiful city, it is sadly a place where you can forget you’re on the water. If you don’t happen to be seeking out Boston Harbor, you’d be lucky to even glimpse the waterfront from most parts of downtown. But Mayor Mumbles, our reigning boy wonder (19 years as mayor and counting-and actually named Tom Menino), has taken it upon himself to change this, and it’s working. The waterfront is attached to the rest of Boston with a few short, pedestrian-friendly bridges, and yet you’d be forgiven for thinking it was miles out of the way.
Previously, the strip down by the World Trade Center or the Convention Center was, well, dead. But with the birth of the Silver Line in 2002, extending public transit across the bridges (and confusing the hell out of everyone in the process-is it a bus? A train? It has its own lanes and runs underground! But it’s so clearly a bus!), this area has had a chance to grow into its own.
The Institute of Contemporary Art moved to Fan Pier on the waterfront at the end of 2006, and it was one of the biggest indicators that this neighborhood was on the rise. The ICA has brought in a rich program of both visual artists and performers. It has hosted everything from outdoor concerts on their dock to a diving competition in their watery front yard, and is currently hosting Os Gemeos, a Brazilian street art duo, in their first U.S. showing. More proof that the ICA is bringing a fun art culture to Boston? Os Gemeos has been putting murals up all over town, from painting an alleged Occupier on the Kennedy Greenway to a self-portrait on the side of the new Revere Hotel.
The waterfront is also a long-time artists’ neighborhood for other reasons. The old warehouses that populate this neighborhood-mainly holdovers from the days of the ship-based wool trade-have been largely turned into artists’ lofts and studios. A lively culture has surrounded the art walks and open studio events hosted in the neighborhood, and for artists and art-lovers the waterfront (and its neighboring micro-community of Fort Point) is the place to be seen.
Like the rest of America, Boston has seen food culture boom in the last fifteen or so years. While a visitor looking for classic New England fare will be spoiled for choice anywhere in the city, there are new restaurants popping up all the time, and the waterfront district has been the locus for larger spaces and vintage architecture, lending the scene down here a character of its own.
In 2011, Legal Seafoods-a Boston institution for fresh seafood-opened Legal’s Harborside, a multistory behemoth of a restaurant, right on the water near the World Trade Center. Near it is Del Frisco’s, home of the 32-ounce Wagyu steak (and Patriots players hungry enough for it), and a host of lounge spaces and eateries. There are also the old standby joints, like the mom-and-pop J. Pace and Sons, and plenty of booze at the Whiskey Priest, with a gorgeous patio hovering on stilts above the water.
Walk back a few blocks into Fort Point, and you’ll see the handiwork of Barbara Lynch, who has no fewer than three eateries on one block of Congress Street, all of them exuding style and providing amazing food-from the small plates and craft cocktails at Drink (where there’s no menu, just REALLY knowledgeable bartenders), to the glossy sheen of Sportello and the fine dining of Menton, Lynch has put her seal of approval on the district.
And after all that, if you still want chowda, head to the Barking Crab, the little run-down clam shack on Northern Avenue that is staunchly refusing to become anything classier than fried food and loud music.
Okay, it has a silly acronym-but the Boston Redevelopment Authority has been pouring its efforts into this neighborhood for years now, and though I am usually skeptical of large-scale development efforts (a post for another time”¦), I have to give credit to everyone at the BRA.
As early as 1999, they had targeted this area for some lovin’. Noting that it lacked public transit connections to the rest of the city, and was one of the last remaining spots with undeveloped waterfront real estate, the BRA set about turning all of this underused space into a usable public space. At this moment, there are still too many parking lots and too few green spaces, but there are at least five more years of intense development efforts ahead.
Businesses new and old are coming to the area, with the opening of a new multistory Asian fusion lounge called Empire, and the re-siting of Louis Boston, a luxury retailer, from over in the shopping mecca of Newbury Street in Back Bay. And there have been plenty of government-driven incentives for entrepreneurs to look here, in the form of tax relief and infrastructure financing.
And a central tenet of the redevelopment project has been to bring jobs into this area, which is especially important as it is closely connected with some of Boston’s less-affluent areas (yes, Ben Affleck, SOUTHIE!). The next step is to encourage people to move here, which is no easy task as the area still lacks basic amenities like pharmacies, supermarkets, or banks. But don’t worry, Mumbles is on the case, making sure that the area is rezoned for mixed commercial and residential use, in keeping with New England’s very neighborhood-friendly culture.
The proof is in the now-lively community spirit in this end of the city. In August, Fan Pier hosted Boston’s first ever Dîner en Blanc, which yours truly attended with Untapped arts editor. There have been wine tastings at the Seaport Hotel, diving competitions off the front of the ICA, and a revived concert schedule at the Bank of America Pavilion. Keeping green space, walkability, and independent business owners at the forefront of the waterfront development has all of us Bostonians hopeful that this district can reconnect us with the water and spur a new neighborhood of fun, artistic hangouts.