Artists get the shaft

By TED SIEFER  |  February 2, 2009

In other words, these days, the claim on the official Fort Point sign seems dubious, as artists have left in droves for more hospitable and affordable communities, such as Providence and Lowell, where at least 600 artists are now estimated to live. The sign does, however, serve one useful function: so many storefront galleries and arts-related business have closed in recent years — Studio Soto, Mobius, the Revolving Museum — thus so significantly changing the landscape and vibe of "New England's Largest and Oldest Artist Community," that someone stumbling into Fort Point might never otherwise know artists even still live and work there.

THE SIGN’S FINE: But despite Mayor Menino’s pledges of support, many artists in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood are feeling less than welcome these days.

Indulged and ignored
Starting in the 1970s, artists began settling on the vacant floors of the old textile warehouses of Fort Point, many of them owned since the 1800s by the Boston Wharf Company. The city came to embrace the artists, even tweaking the zoning code to allow them to live and work in areas that, like Fort Point, were zoned for manufacturing.

Former mayor Ray Flynn, Menino's predecessor, recalls that his administration helped bring the Children's Museum into the neighborhood. Reflecting on the current tensions, Flynn, a South Boston native who worked on the docks near Fort Point back in the day, says, "I believe nobody has a better interest in a community than the people who live there and who are invested there. When it comes to making decisions about neighborhood use, it has to be a round table."

Critics of the planning process for Fort Point during the past decade might argue that artists haven't had a seat at a round table at all, alongside developers and city officials, but have rather been relegated to the kiddie table, where they are indulged but not taken seriously.

By the turn of this century, billions of dollars had been pumped into the South Boston waterfront area — the Central Artery tunnels, the Silver Line, the Boston Harbor clean-up — and developers were lining up to reap the benefits of Downtown Boston's new frontier, including Menino, with his plans to relocate City Hall to South Boston in tow. At the same time, since the old industrial zoning was being completely rewritten, the BRA should have had considerable leverage in guiding the direction of development. Two years ago, after thousands of hours of planning meetings, the BRA unveiled its "100 Acres" master plan, designating the whole district a Planned Development Area, giving the BRA extraordinary latitude to approve projects on a case-by-case basis. Reflecting the consensus of residents and artists, the BRA laid down core principles for development, including that new projects "be at least one-third residential or artist live/work in character."

Among the signatories to the 100 Acres plan was a real-estate company known, ominously enough, as Archon, a partnership between the Archon Group — a real-estate subsidiary of the Wall Street investment-banking and securities firm Goldman Sachs — and Tony Goldman (no relation), a fancy-pants developer who takes credit for the gentrification of New York's SoHo neighborhood. In a 2006 New York Times article, he described his grand vision to transform Fort Point into "the Wharf District," where high-end condos, boutiques, and galleries would co-exist with edgy artists.

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