In My Backyard

The first warm days of spring had me leaping out of bed at 7 a.m., woken not by birds but by the sound of a Caterpillar machine clawing down a building across the street. The structure was built about 30 years ago, an upgrade for a locally owned supermarket in my small city. After a super-supermarket went up a block away, the building became a health club for a few years, then an empty fortress. It is to be replaced by a couple of low-rise apartment buildings.

No doubt most of my neighbors are happy that the mean-looking box and its sullen parking lot are finally being replaced. But the improvement to the neighborhood is sure to accelerate already-rising rents, as well as boost prices for houses within walking distance of a gentrifying downtown. Civic improvement always has its victims.

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In Malden, Mass., where I grew up and now live again, there are also plans to tear down the city hall, a 40-year-old building hated for its flat, Brutalist style. Forty years! Even the most humble church is designed with a far longer lifespan in mind. Indeed, the only real survivors in this downtown area, which has been constantly “redeveloped” in my lifetime, are the 19th-century brown sandstone public library and three churches (Catholic, Baptist and Congregationalist). Sacred Hearts Church—where Mass was first celebrated in 1892, in the basement because the ground floor wasn’t finished yet—still rises above its Main Street neighbors, topped by a small cross that contrasts with the unadorned roofs around it.

Sacred Hearts has seen a lot of changes in its neighborhood, some natural and some the result of urban planning fads that held sway in Boston or Washington, D.C. When the current city hall was built, tagged with the more grandiose “Government Center,” the car was king, and a new bypass road allowed residents to speed past downtown on the way to the malls. Rental housing was associated with big cities and urban decay, so single-family houses were wedged into the rocky outlying neighborhoods while the center of town grew emptier of residents—even as it filled up with parking lots and garages.

Now the center is changing. New apartments are going up, with ever-higher rents justified by nearby public transportation (now back in vogue). The independently owned clothing and furniture stores have not come back, but now there are restaurants and specialty groceries, mostly owned by Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants. Changes to federal immigration law made during the 1960s have, decades later, revitalized the downtown. The state’s 1993 educational reform law may also deserve credit, by somewhat alleviating the huge differences in spending among public school districts. School enrollment here is up after a long decline; immigrants and other families may not be as willing to spend any cost for a house in a “respectable” suburb in order to avoid sending their kids to city schools.

Many of these public policy changes are to the good. Few of us would want to go back to the consensus view that urban areas are in irreversible decline, necessitating the government to do all it can to help decent people avoid “bad neighborhoods.” The tone of American politics is not elevated when candidates can profit by appealing to suburban fears of city residents (a strategy that is often a not-even-veiled appeal to racism).

Still, what’s good for the city at large isn’t always a benefit to the individuals who were there during the toughest times. Case in point: Jewelers’ Row in Philadelphia, one of the last places in big-city America where, as the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Inga Saffron writes, “stuff gets made.” Saffron writes that this two-block district, which has been around since 1852, is at risk of extinction, its land coveted by condo developers looking to take advantage of Philly’s downtown revival. The artisans of Jewelers’ Row remind me of the businesses that were in my neighborhood long before gentrification seemed possible, including a stationery store, a portrait photographer and a typewriter repair shop.

The teardown outside my bedroom window has me excited for the future of my neighborhood. But I’ll say a prayer for any parishioners of Sacred Hearts who may find themselves priced out of the homes they kept in good shape when nobody else wanted them.

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