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Vanishing Boston

A field guide to Boston's 'lasting' treasures — to be enjoyed before they're razed in favor of chain stores


Cities change — it's always the way. Buildings rise and fall. Establishments open and close. Neighborhoods thrive, go to seed, and are transformed once more by influxes of new money. Ensconced ethnic groups lose their long-time hold on city blocks and are supplanted by new arrivals.

Weeks ago, when we first drew up our list of endangered vestiges of things that distinguish Boston from all other cities, Somerville's Abbey Lounge took pride of place near the top. Our premise — that even unique, beloved, iconic institutions are, unfortunately, vulnerable to the inexorable creep of gentrification and soul-killing urban sameness that infects 21st-century America — proved all too true. A few days later, as if on cue, that beloved 75-year-old dive, where old men drank cheap beer by day and garage rock shook the floorboards by night, announced it was closing for good on November 28. Scuttlebutt on the Web is that it may be replaced by "either an Irish pub or a fancy restaurant." Because certainly, if there's one thing this city needs, it's another of either of those.

Another bulletin from the changing cityscape arrived just this past week, when the Boston Globe reported, to much consternation, the imminent closure of Out of Town News, the venerable kiosk that's long epitomized Cambridge cosmopolitanism.

For more Vanishing Boston photos view our slideshow. 
Fifty years ago, the wrecking balls of urban renewal leveled the poor but neighborly West End. Scollay Square — a grown-up's pleasure palace of tattoo parlors, penny vaudeville, and prostitutes — was steamrolled by the concrete brutalism of City Hall Plaza.

Of course, some change is good: consider the Institute of Contemporary Art's striking new waterfront digs. But the implications of urban change are different from what they used to be. In years past, there was at least a chance that unique new establishments might replace unique old ones. Today, flux tends to homogenize: hence, the Kenmore Square of the Rat and Mr. Butch (RIP) and Super Socks having given way, in less than a decade, to the Kenmore Square of Bertucci's and Kinko's and Qdoba. This dynamic is pernicious enough if you live in Houston or Phoenix. But it's especially galling here in Boston, where the streets carry the accumulated history of (almost) four centuries.

Once you've recognized this reality, there are basically two ways to go. You can accept it passively, dispassionately, maturely, and get on with your business. Or, you can recognize the slow death of urban uniqueness as the tragedy that it is — and then commit yourself to savoring every last exception to this rule while they still exist.

A couple years back, this paper interviewed Allston antiques dealer Don McBride as he packed up for good. Eventually, talk turned to his nights, back in the '50s, playing drums in the jazz haunts of the old Combat Zone.

As McBride reminisced, he seemed to step back in time, walking vanished sidewalks of the mind: "The clubs that they had back then! On Essex Street, they had Izzy Orts, the Golden Nugget, then you'd go down further, there was the Essex Deli, take a left, there was the Palace, which was the Silver Dollar Bar . . . "

The Boston we live in today will be gone someday, too. But there's still time to get to know it in all its uniqueness. (Maybe a bit more time than expected, actually, thanks to Wall Street's meltdown and the attendant drying-up of development capital.) So, before things change for good, here are a dozen and one spots to treasure.

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