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Would You Want A Restaurant As A Neighbor?

An uproar occurred in the South End this past week over plans to put two new restaurants in the neighborhood. NIMBYism? Maybe. But, maybe there's also something good happening here.

Some South End residents two new restaurants opening on Washington Street. To me, their reaction is a microcosm of what’s happening elsewhere in the city -- on Main Street in Charlestown, Centre Streets in Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury, Boylston Street in Back Bay, and Charles Street in Beacon Hill. People want an active role and a bigger say in what’s happening in their neighborhoods, and this means that sometimes people are against things.

As South End Patch reported, opposition led developers of the site to -- completely -- while at a neighborhood association meeting left a proposal by the owner of hanging by a thread. This behavior that has become the norm in many of our neighborhoods.

What’s driving this? My (educated) guess is, a rise in the numbers of owner-occupants located in each neighborhood. While in the past, perhaps there was little opposition to plans to open a restaurant -- or, a bar, a nightclub, a nail salon or pawn shop -- there is now a huge response, often negative.

The rise of the owner class

Although I don’t have the data at hand, my (educated) guess is that Boston’s seen a major rise in homeowners in many of its neighborhoods during the past two decades while the number (and percentage) of those who rent has gone down. You can argue with me all you want, but the truth is, the vast majority of people who rent don’t get involved in their communities as much as owners. They just don’t. That’s not a criticism, it’s a fact. Many renters live here for short periods of time (i.e., students) or are here indefinitely, so they don’t buy a home.

When Mr. and Mrs. (or, in my case, Mr. and Mr.) Homeowner settle down, they will end up looking around and assessing the situation -- what’s going on in the neighborhood, what’s new, what’s good, what’s bad? And then, (OH NO!), they get involved. And that’s when the trouble starts. Suddenly, there’s opposition to a restaurant with outdoor seating, a coffee shop, a doggy-day care.

I have a Facebook “friend” who flipped out over opposition to a South End restaurant to keep its rear outdoor patio open later in the evening. “If you don’t like living next to a restaurant, then MOVE TO THE SUBURBS,” he wrote.

Does that really make any sense? First, can you imagine what our city would be like if everyone who didn’t like something moved away? If you can’t imagine it, might I introduce you to Boston, circa 1950. Or, circa 1960. Or, circa 1978.

Not only that, but, who made you boss? Those who live here, renters and owners alike, who have invested in the city, have a right to voice their opinions. Many are happy to take on the responsibility of going to neighborhood association meetings. (Odd, I don’t see my friend’s name anywhere on the city’s voter rolls for the past 10 years …)

Restaurants can be kind of dirty

Who would want to live next to a restaurant anyway? Their clientele can be noisy, there are plenty of smells, and they attract rats. Not to mention, have you ever had to deal with valets? There’s never enough of them so there’s always a line of cars waiting, often double-parked, often blocking crosswalks and fire hydrants.

I live on Tremont Street in the South End. It can be very busy. We live across the street from two restaurants, one with valet parking, the other that attracts families with young kids who like nothing more than running around and screaming for hours at a time while their parents ignore them.

My block of Tremont has a corner market and offices for a lawyer and interior designer. Not bad. The Eagle bar is three doors down. I knew the bar got busy late at night, but didn’t much think about it. They’ve been a good neighbor for the past six years. There was a porn video store downstairs that closed after a couple years and I can tell you, I wasn’t unhappy it did. It was run-down and had a seedy kind of look to it (especially from the inside).

Living in the city requires patience and understanding

I’m under no misconception of what it takes to live in our city, in any city. To me, there’s a give and take, an understanding -- an agreement -- that not everything’s going to go my way. Sometimes I’ll be happy about living here and sometimes I won’t. Most of my neighbors are rational people, and they know this to be true, too.

It’s the odd person who pushes and pushes for something that makes no sense to the rest of us, or is unwilling to bend, to yield, to compromise, that sets off all of us.

Does it make any sense for a neighbor to be against a new building on Washington Street that would replace an “underused” retail shop, that would bring new housing to the neighborhood and a nice place to eat, too? To me, no.

But, does it make sense that, if you live on a block where your back door overlooks a community garden, you might not want a restaurant to open up two doors down with outdoor seating until 1 a.m. Well, yeah, kind of!

Unfortunately for us all, or, probably, fortunately, there are differing shades of gray in most situations and compromises can be made.

Oh, and the reason that things happen (or don’t) in our neighborhoods? It’s because people show up at meetings, talk to neighbors, write letters, and talk with their city councilors and state senators and representatives. Usually, these people get their ways.

There’s a lesson there.

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