20 July 2007

Sure Don't Feel Like Kenmore Square

So Mr. Butch died last week, in a motor scooter accident. This might be news to some of my friends who read this blog from outside the Boston area. It's not my intention to pay tribute, mainly because a lot of other people have already written about it, but also because I didn't have any kind of personal relationship with him. But reading about his death did give me cause to think about how much has changed in the city since I came up from Rhode Island to start college in the fall of 1981.

In the 80's and a good bit of the 90's, anyone who went to BU, or hung out at the Rat, or even just went to Red Sox games during that time, is likely to have encountered Mr. Butch at some point. He was, in his own unique way, as recognizable a part of the fabric of Kenmore Square as the Citgo sign. The Square was, well, scuzzy would be a nice way to put it, I guess. Parents delivering their college-bound kids to school for the first time would come through the "gateway to BU" and raise their eyebrows in apprehension: this is where you're going to school?

I remember going to orientation after arriving at BU and hearing someone say, "the city is your campus," as though apologizing for the school not having rolling hills and a nice big quad. But for those of us who were looking for the opportunities only an urban college experience could provide, Kenmore Square was our quad, and we were okay with that. The grime was part of its charm and allure. It was real, authentic, earned.

Sure, things got a little iffy sometimes. There were frequently fights on weekend nights, particularly outside Pizza Pad, where the bridge-and-tunnel club kids would clash with the in-town rockers, or something like that. A friend was menaced by a crazy old lady with a knife in Charile's Cafeteria. And once when I was walking home alone after a late movie, a guy tried to "make friends" with me. But I never really felt unsafe, because there was always so much going on and so many people around.

But about a decade ago, the rumblings of gentrification started to hit the Kenmore area. BU had long wanted the area cleaned up, and as owner of a significant amount of property, eventually the school was able to exert some influence. They had managed to get rid of the nightclub Narcissus; it became a Gap and eventually a Bertucci's restaurant. Pizza Pad got turned into a McDonald's.

It's my understanding that around this time, Mr. Butch was told by the BU Police that he was no longer welcome in Kenmore Square. I suspect he knew what was to come and probably didn't want to stick around there anyway, so he headed up Comm. Ave. to Harvard Ave. in Allston, which did (and thankfully still does) manage to maintain its funky rough edge, and where he was welcomed by the community.

It was touching to read that a memorial service for Mr. Butch has been organized for this Sunday, including a New Orleans-style jazz funeral procession along Harvard Ave., and that his family will be in attendance. It's clear that he was loved by many, which is really all any of us can hope for in our time here.

A while back the BU alumni magazine Bostonia did a back-page piece on the changes in Kenmore Square, the most dramatic of which was the demolition of almost an entire block and its replacement with the Hotel Commonwealth. I don't get over to Kenmore much these days, but I was there the other night to go to a baseball game, and looking across the square at that hotel, it just doesn't look right.

Sure, Eastern Standard is a nice restaurant, but I look at it and think, that's where the Rat should be. It was never my favorite club, but who I was seeing was more important than where I was seeing them, and I have so many great memories from seeing bands there over the years; its significance in the local music scene cannot be denied, and young kids just starting bands will never experience the rite of passage of playing there.

Instead of Kenmore Army-Navy, there's now Jean Therapy, selling high-end designer denim. Instead of the IHOP that replaced Charile's, there's a boutique chocolate shop. There was an old-school Dunkin' Donuts with sit-down counter service (anybody remember that?), and Deli Haus, and Planet Records, and the India Quality restaurant--now all gone. The hotel has tried to reference the Square's past by designing its street-level retail space with some stores one flight above the street and some one flight below, but it seems like an empty gesture. Maybe the Square is nicer these days, but it feels a lot less vital, and somehow less real.

On the other hand, the Kenmore T station is finally getting a long-overdue fixing-up; it even has an elevator now, and they're building a snazzy new glass-canopy bus shelter that's going to look pretty cool when it's finished. So some progress is good, but some isn't; progress is inevitable, but we don't have to like it.


Anonymous said...

India Quality is still there. It may have moved (I've only been here 3 years), but it's the next block down from the Hotel.

Some Assembly Required said...

Thanks for pointing that out. Like I said, I don't get over there much anymore.

Charles Cox said...

I worked at Pizza Pad in the early 80's and I remember constant rumble on the weekends. We sold plenty of pitchers of beer. It was my first introduction to big city life ( I'm Canadian) . When I went back years later I was so saddened to see that such a eclectic pizza place had been replaced by McDonald's. I remember the pizza pad owners ( woody and Alan) trying to compete with the new dominos pizza! It might be prettier but now it's just another gap Harbour. Nothing different there.