Developers' loss at Boston's Fort Point Channel district is residents' gain

On a beautiful day, families flock to the picnic area outside of the Children's Museum at Boston's Fort Point Channel district.
On a beautiful day, families flock to the picnic area outside of the Children's Museum at Boston's Fort Point Channel district. (Nancy Trejos/The Washington Post)
By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 2010

The cutout letters pasted to the window of a red brick building seemed highly ironic: Urban Renewal, they spelled.

I spotted the words as I was strolling through South Boston's Fort Point Channel -- once an industrial center near Boston Harbor, now a budding residential and commercial neighborhood that's wary of too much change coming too soon. Five years ago, as Boston began developing the 47-mile HarborWalk, a public walkway along the shoreline, the city was touting the Fort Point Channel segment as the "next great place." Then the recession hit, and developers scuttled plans for luxury condos and offices. And many longtime residents are just fine with that.

I can see why. So unique are the area's late 19th- and early 20th-century lofts and warehouses, that it would have been a shame to redevelop them hastily and haphazardly. Some of the buildings, originally designed as storage spaces for wool and other fabrics, house artists and their studios, giving the neighborhood a bohemian vibe.

That vibe was particularly strong at the Channel Cafe in the Artist Building on Summer Street, where I dined on my first night in town one recent weekend. With its high ceilings, mismatched furniture and wacky art, it felt more New York than Boston. After my meal, I toured an exhibit called "Exquisite What?," a collection of small, delicate metal sculptures enclosed in containers, by local artists Ian Henderson and Clint Fulkerson. Openings on each side of the containers beckoned visitors to touch the sculptures (plastic gloves are available). I couldn't figure out what the objects represented, so I let my imagination run wild. Was it a snail? A dragon? "This one looks like a crab or a lobster," I overheard a woman say to her friend.

The next day, I took in some more art at the volunteer-run Fort Point Arts Community Store, where you can buy local artists' works -- paintings, photos, furniture, jewelry and more. Each piece of Don Eyles's "Supersymmetries" consisted of four panels that could be combined in 512 different configurations. Who knew that art could be so much fun?

"I think we're really stabilizing as a community," said Lisa Greenfield, acting president of FPAC. "The store has really brought us together."

Art isn't the only attraction at Fort Point. The neighborhood is family-friendly, thanks to the Children's Museum, which underwent a multi-million-dollar renovation a few years ago. Outside the museum are tables and benches and a new park where you can eat while admiring the channel. I did just that, grabbing a box lunch consisting of a mozzarella and tomato sandwich from Sportello, renowned chef Barbara Lynch's year-old contribution to the neighborhood. It was 70 degrees and sunny, and joggers, families and couples were out in force, bringing an energy with them that I couldn't help absorbing.

As I gazed out at the water and at the relatively new Intercontinental Hotel, I wondered what the view had been like before the Big Dig, the years-long construction project that removed the old elevated Central Artery and replaced it with an underground highway.

"It's idyllic. It really is," Boston resident Rebecca Miller, who was sipping Dunkin' Donuts coffee at one of the tables, said of the Big Dig's results. "I love the tranquillity of it."

Like Miller, I found it hard to pull myself from my perch by the water, but I had more exploring to do.

I stumbled upon the Boston Fire Museum, where Dan O'Neill, chairman of the Boston Fire Museum Committee, was more than happy to describe to me -- and to all the kiddies running around -- the evolution of firetrucks, some of which were parked in the former firehouse (including a 1792 Thayer hand tub.) O'Neill was obviously pleased to have such a large audience. "Ten years ago on a Saturday afternoon, there was hardly anyone down here," he said.

Continuing my tour, I spied a group of young girls standing in front of a warehouse. Curious, I walked over and went inside to find jewelry and clothing designers selling their creations at a discount while customers drank blue cocktails out of champagne flutes.

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