As Roslindale Village Main Street celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2015, past board president Carter Wilkie shares key moments in Roslindale’s evolution from 1997 to today.
Roslindale's revival has been a drama in three acts. Act I, or the stabilization phase, was akin to treating an injured patient brought into the emergency room, where priority number one is to stop the bleeding. My wife and I made Roslindale our home in 1997, at the start of Act II.
Within weeks of our arrival, Chris and Kim Fallon opened Fornax Bakery on Corinth Street. At the time, Roslindale seemed like the last place for an artisanal bakery, but the couple saw potential where others did not. It was to be the first of many successful new businesses to join longtime establishments like Sullivan's Pharmacy, Tony's Market, Roslindale Fish Market, Harrison Refrigeration and Wallpaper City.
On a sunny day in February 1998, a crowd stood on Corinth Street for the grand opening of The Village Market. The full service grocery store became the equivalent of an anchor department store in a suburban shopping mall, a magnet that draws in pedestrian traffic every day of the week. Before the market opened, Corinth Street was dark and empty at night, with metal grates and graffiti covering many storefronts. The Market lit up the sidewalk at night, made the street feel safe and welcoming, and proved that a small,18,000 square foot grocery store could thrive in a tight, urban location. City planners made sure the building fit the look of the district: brick exterior, flush to the sidewalk, with parking to the side, a departure from shopping center design that puts parking lots in front.
About the same time, a flutist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra bought and rehabbed the brick flat iron building on Belgrade Avenue, attracting Centre Cuts as a tenant in 1998. Shortly after, a new full service restaurant, Gusto, opened at 4174 Washington Street. The upscale menu drew people to Roslindale Village for evening meals and more restaurants soon followed: Steve Judge's Delfino and then Village Sushi and Grill.
(A quick word on the name of the business district: the term “Roslindale Square” came into use after World War II. Before that, the area was simply called the “Village.” The older name was revived in 1986 when commuter rail service was restored, recalling Roslindale’s turn of the 20th century roots as Boston’s “Streetcar Suburb.” RVMS marketed “Roslindale Village” as a deliberate branding strategy to set the location apart. Every neighborhood in Boston had a square, but few had a village or a village feel.)
An entrepreneur named Stavros Frantzis bought up a block of decrepit buildings on Birch and Corinth Streets and set about fixing them up. The courtyard behind them was his idea, inspired by places he loved in his native Greece and in Cartegeňa, a colonial Spanish port on the coast of Colombia. Three Garufi brothers returned to Roslindale from the suburbs to create Birch Street Bistro, and then Joe and John opened Sophia's Grotto soon after.
In 2001, RVMS won a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for a study of what could be done with the empty substation on Washington Street, unused since 1971. Donovan Rypkema, an expert in the reuse of historic buildings, told us the project would take seven years. Fourteen years later, the work continues, steered indefatigably by a soft-spoken local real estate attorney named Adam Rogoff, with help over the years from the nonprofit group Historic Boston Incorporated and the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
Patience is vital when reviving a location, because the desperation for a quick turnaround can tempt people into accepting any development proposal that comes along. A community can accept the future it gets or choose the future it wants. Our community held out for the best outcomes and said no to options that didn't meet our vision of what the district could become. In 1997, neighbors said no to a Wendy's fast food franchise that wanted to put drive thru service next to the library. The parcel held a boarded up former gas station, a real eyesore. Critics said a drive thru would ruin the walkable village atmosphere and make it smell like a deep fat fryer.
Some of our biggest victories were the awful proposals you don't see today. Charlie McCarthy and Glenn Williams led the fight against a four-story storage warehouse proposed on Washington Street, at the site of the closed Ashmont Discount Store, next to Dunkin Donuts. More than 300 people packed a meeting to oppose the plan. It was the largest crowd I've seen assemble for a meeting here in 18 years. Later, when Joe Murphy sold Boschetto’s Bakery across the street, he turned down an offer from a dollar store chain from out of town to accept a local bid to bring in a restaurant with a bakery attached. Joe was the community spirited mensch who initiated the annual “A Taste of Roslindale” event to show off the great food in our location.
In 2005, the BRA initiated a strategic plan to guide future development of Roslindale, rezoning the neighborhood for the first time since the 1950s. Roslindale is indebted to city planner Marie Mecurio and architect Michael Cannizzo, who helped the community articulate on paper our vision of how we wanted the Roslindale Village to develop in the future: buildings should come flush to sidewalks, no drive thru businesses, no new driveways across sidewalks, no parking lots in front of buildings, no roadside signs on poles, and no plastic back-lit signs on buildings. The new zoning dictated the design of the new Staples building on Washington Street. Later, when a developer came to Roslindale Village Main Street proposing a new retail building next to the library, he shared plans for a one-story strip mall, angled perpendicular to Washington Street, to allow maximum surface area for parking cars. Our board suggested that he bring his building flush to the sidewalk and raise it three stories, to fill out the street wall on that part of Washington Street. The new zoning also encouraged new housing units on upper floors of commercial buildings, to bring more residents and life to the district.
For years, the Farmers' Market had operated in the MBTA parking lot atop Belgrade Avenue, a meager flea market selling trinkets, with only one farmer, Peter MacArthur, from Holliston. Sonia Garufi suggested moving the farmers’ market to Adams Park, saying it could become a bigger attraction in the center of the town, where everybody could see it, and see everybody else. Jaime Pullen, Steve Gag and Rick Ward raised an army of volunteers who grew the market into what it has become: the most popular weekly celebration of locally grown food in any Boston neighborhood.
There were many more small (and not so small) achievements: the “Litter Posse” led by Adriana Cillo got the Public Works Department to commit to sweeping sidewalks of litter on weekdays. Volunteers from Roslindale Green and Clean planted and maintained flower beds in pocket parks, after city departments redesigned ugly traffic islands and made them look presentable. RVMS branded the location with new sign posts and raised money to put up holiday lights on lamp posts, installed by volunteers from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Graphic designer Brad Harris created a series of art posters that became Roslindale icons. Mayor Tom Menino steered millions of dollars to construct the new medical center, followed by the renovation of the municipal building, where activists prevented the Registry of Motor Vehicles from abandoning for the suburbs. The Parks Department then worked with the community to redesign Adams Park. City Councilor Rob Consalvo and his aide Lee Blasi were allies through all of this.
The biggest achievements over the last two decades have been the rise of a broader and more inclusive civic leadership and a reinvigorated pride of place in Roslindale Village as a destination where people want to be, especially for food. The growing popularity sets up new challenges for Act III: managing the scarcity of street parking so customers can shop here; optimizing the retail tenant mix; and confronting rising rents and chain stores that threaten mom and pop businesses. These burdens are a different set of challenges compared to what confronted Roslindale when city councilor and future mayor Tom Menino initiated Roslindale Village Main Street and Roslindale's revival thirty years ago in 1985.
Carter Wilkie is a former board president of RVMS and co-author of “Changing Places: Rebuilding Community in the Age of Sprawl.” He was an advisor to Mayor Menino from 1997-2000.