When I was a sophomore at Boston University, I went to a Halloween party dressed as the Citgo sign, complete with a blinking flashlight worn around the neck. For a teenager away from home for the first time, the garish beacon was a powerful symbol of independence. I met a semi-serious boyfriend at that long-ago party, and he gave me a silver ring with the Citgo logo welded onto it. So I admit I may be more than typically sentimental about the kitschy icon in Kenmore Square.
But it’s not just me: 16,000 people signed a petition to save the sign when it became threatened by a new landlord’s rent demands, and the whole city will benefit from the deal brokered by Mayor Martin Walsh to keep the quirky landmark where it is. “People come to Boston because it’s interesting,” said Greg Galer, director of the Boston Preservation Alliance. “They want a place with character.”
The Citgo sign is safe for now. But it is only the most famous Boston location threatened by development, gentrification, or neglect. Before we get too pleased with ourselves, let’s consider some other imperiled places worth saving:
• The Ladder District. This six-block area between Washington and Tremont streets near Downtown Crossing is listed as one of the state’s “most endangered historic resources.” So named for the way the district’s cross streets form the rungs of a ladder, the area has clearly declined as small specialty shops have given way to chains. But it has a certain gritty charm, and a proposal to demolish four low-rise buildings and construct a 700-foot condominium tower at the corner of Bromfield and Washington streets – plus another condo tower next to the Opera House further down the street – could obliterate its distinctive character. “Sure, the area needs rejuvenation,” said Galer. “But why do we have to tear it apart?” The big sculpted tower proposed on Bromfield Street, he says, “looks like something out of Dubai.”
• Public open space. Like much of the country, Boston is disinvesting in its public realm and relying on public-private partnerships to maintain its parks. Sometimes it works great, as with the jewel-like Post Office Square park supported by its underground garage. But often the financial imperatives tilt more private than public. The wildly popular Lawn on D next to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center lost its subsidy under new management, and now visitors can find it closed while private parties rent the space. The Rose Kennedy Greenway is similarly vulnerable, given the state’s plan to eliminate its $2 million budget on July 1. Abutting businesses may help close the gap, but weary Big Dig taxpayers were promised this urban respite. Will the Greenway now start charging admission to children who splash in its fountains in its drive to be “self-sufficient”?
• Chinatown. As a unified neighborhood with a distinct ethnic identity, Chinatown has for years been squeezed by institutional expansion, highway projects, and demographic change. Allston-Brighton already has a bigger Asian population. Now Chinatown is facing renewed pressure from development, with three new hotels totaling nearly 500 rooms proposed for the tight corners near Essex, Oxford, and Beach streets, all just a few blocks apart. With the Financial District looming nearby, Chinatown risks being hollowed out — a once-thriving ethnic neighborhood that could become little more than a stage set for tourists.
The city of Seattle, like Boston enduring a serious case of development whiplash, recently launched an elegiac mapping project called Ghosts of Seattle Past, which commemorates beloved venues lost to development. Boston already has its share of ghost landmarks; don’t even get me started on Cambridge. We save what we value, and learning to recognize the diverse heritage in the city’s built environment — including its awkward, irregular, unlovely precincts — will help prevent the generic “Phoenix on the Harbor” look of the new Seaport district from taking over. A changing Boston can stand to lose its clannishness, its arrogance, and perhaps its architectural fetish with brick. But there are some things Boston can’t afford to lose.Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.