For the first time since we closed on the house, my husband and I had an actual date night. We went to our favorite restaurant and enjoyed the comedic stylings of Ralphie May. Before and after the show, my husband and I meandered around the downtown area. I pointed out where my old orthodontist worked (a building now owned by Suffolk University). We wandered the streets and looked up at the buildings and -- to be very honest -- felt a low and lingering sadness.
The downtown area has a huge place in my heart. It was the only place I knew well when I was a kid. I knew Filene's and the Common and Tremont St. as well as neighborhoods in my own hometown. When I grew older, I discovered Brattle Books -- particularly their outside library of $1 books -- and fell in love with the store so much that it became the base for the bookstore in my first manuscript. My husband designed and purchased my engagement ring at a jeweler in the downtown area. Save for the neighborhoods that surround Northeastern, I'm hard pressed to think of an area in Boston I adore more.
But, somewhere along the line, downtown Boston started slipping. Businesses moved or went out of business and large storefronts were abandoned. And, instead of lowering prices and accepting new companies, buildings remained completely vacant, as no one could afford the absurdly high rent. The old Filene's building was torn down for a mega-complex...a mega-complex that ran out of funding immediately after demolition. A giant hole gated off by a chainlink fence has accented Downtown Crossing for the last 5 years.
There are still signs of life. Suffolk has purchased buildings left and right and, while I hate that the buildings lose their individual flavor as they become yet another hall at a university, I'm happy that they are being used and maintained. Emerson purchased the Paramount -- a gorgeous theatre that had fallen into disuse over the last couple of decades -- and the neon lights shine once again. But still: you toss a stone from the Paramount and hit 3 buildings that don't have a single office or store operating in them.
I can't help but worry that this could turn the downtown area back into the Combat Zone. Somewhat like Times Square before Giuliani, the downtown area was once filled with sex shops and peepshows. Drug deals and prostitution ran rampant. Then, in a move is dwarfed only by Times Square's overhaul, the downtown area changed. Strip clubs were zoned out. Real estate developers swooped in. Residents in Chinatown went toe-to-toe with street crime and, with the help of increased police force, helped curb the crime rate. Universities and colleges started buying buildings. The RMV moved in. A movie theatre was built. And suddenly the downtown area was where college kids went for 19+ clubs and tourists went for shopping (and to visit Ben Franklin's grave).
Now, do not get me wrong: I have a pretty libertarian view on the sex business. If you prostitute yourself (or care to seek out prostitutes), then that's your prerogative. It's going to happen no matter what, and the only sensible thing to do is legalize it and regulate and keep the women safe in licensed brothels instead of on the streets with pimps. I'm the same way about drugs. Best way to stop organized crime is the legalize what people are trying to buy anyway. But, obviously, neither of those things are going to be happening anytime soon in America, so drugs and prostitution and crime are going to continue to go hand-in-hand, and I hate the idea of a neighborhood I know and love going into such disrepair that even the college students vacate out and drug dealers come back in.
I have faith that the downtown area won't go down that route, but it's still sad to see what the area has become. I just hope that, when I have kids and are showing them around the city, they won't be seeing vacated buildings and a hole in the ground, but a proper, thriving, Downtown Crossing.