POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

by David Trumbull

July 27, 2007

I’m somewhere between the denial and anger stages of grief as I make my weekly sojourn to Filene’s Basement in search of bargains (stage three according Kubler-Ross who predicts depression and acceptance to follow). It’s not just the closing of Filene’s Basement. What is happening to downtown?

Gone is the Christmas rivalry between Filene’s and Jordan Marsh, each trying to out-do the other’s display in their opposing windows on Summer Street. Gone too is Woolworth’s where we all purchased so many things for our homes. Gone are the New England-based department stores that catered to local tastes.

I have needs and wants and the money to spend on them, but I can’t spend it in my own neighborhood. Increasingly I do my shopping online and have things mailed to me. It’s not that there aren’t shops downtown. It’s just that they don’t sell anything that I—or anyone I know—would want.

For clothing pretty much all that is left are the shops—several of them—selling putana and drug-dealer clothes that they euphemistically call “hip-hop fashions.” Every block has at least one shop selling over-priced and exceedingly foul-tasting coffee. Did you ever notice the more expensive and hyped the coffee, the worse the taste?

Gone is the Café Marliave where for under $12 one could lunch as in Italy on pasta with sausages and a glass of wine. Gone is Matthew Sheehen’s Religious Goods in Chauncy Street. I spent hours there poking through old and out-of-print books. I still use the leather-bond and beautifully illustrated vest-pocket Fr. Stedman’s My Sunday Missal with the Latin and English on facing pages that I found in Sheehan’s cellar.

We still have the Jewelers’ Building, a true ornament to our downtown shopping district. But that’s for special occasions, not everyday shopping, at least not for us who work for an honest living. And with the element that the other shops in the area attracts, I’m just a bit nervous around that part of Washington Street. Am I the only one who crosses the street or turns a corner to avoid being near an armored truck when it stops? Why risk being the innocent bystander that gets wounded?

The latest blow is the news that the pushcarts on Washington Street are being pushed out. They’re for the tourist, of course, but I’ve bought a few things off them. Minus the pushcarts Downtown Crossing will be just a bit less of a destination even for locals, and the streets will be that much barer. They must make way for the new luxury apartments and shops planned for the area.

Will the new development save Downtown Crossing? I doubt it. I fear it will go the way of Harvard Square. When was the last time you shopped in Harvard Square? I haven’t in years. Not since all the shops and restaurants that I liked—the local businesses with an offbeat Cambridge character—were replaced with chain stores in every detail identical to those found in every suburban strip-mall in America.

With the impeding loss of Lambert’s fruit market I guess I’ll be trekking down to Chinatown for fresh produce more than I do now. Now there’s a shopping district that’s still interesting. But for how long? The current city administration seems bent on wiping out the small local Chinatown businesses in favor of luxury development which will leave room for only an ersatz Chinatown theme-park. And don’t get me going on what is happening to the North End.