March of Gentrification

By David Abel  | Globe Staff  |  January 20, 2008

A block from the Pine Street Inn, near the 3-month-old yoga studio, the year-old Asian furniture boutique, and all the recently finished condo complexes, Ali R. Yagcioglu has jazzed up his taqueria with arty splashes of paint and has raised prices - not to squeeze the yuppies flooding the neighborhood, but to keep out those who stay at the homeless shelter.
Across town, developers of a new boutique hotel have encouraged the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans next door to rebrand itself a "center," even offering to pay for a new sign.
Near the old Combat Zone, where condos now sell for seven figures, the homeless at St. Francis House watch television in a new waiting area built with money from their neighbor, the Ritz-Carlton; the addition helps keep them from loitering outside.
As gentrification spreads to nearly every corner of Boston, the city's largest homeless shelters, once outposts in rough-and-tumble neighborhoods, have found themselves surrounded by pricey condos, luxury hotels, and ritzy restaurants.
The encircling development has created a clash of cultures and complicated relationships, as the rich butt up against the poor, business owners try to scrub out the malcontents, and patrons question whether to venture into uncharted territory.
"The new environment will be a continuing challenge that requires a great deal of faith, a willingness to listen, and avoiding jumping to stereotypes, on all sides," said Lyndia Downie, president of the Pine Street Inn.
Among the challenges of her changing neighborhood, Downie has been forced to debunk rumors that the shelter is on the cusp of closing. Four years ago, she said, the shelter signed a 99-year lease with the city.
"It's a persistent rumor spread by people selling real estate," she said. "It's false. We're not leaving."
In just the past year, the area around the Pine Street Inn, for decades a bleak neighborhood strewn with discarded needles, empty liquor bottles, and roaming addicts, has changed dramatically.
On most days, more than 400 men and women come and go from the shelter, but now they often cross paths on the once-desolate streets with a growing number of new residents emerging from Mercedes and Audis, artists and professionals who work and live in the newly built lofts, and a stream of well-off customers of new furniture stores such as Devi Home and diseno|bos or chichi restaurants including Rocca, Gaslight, and Myers + Chang.
Since opening the O2 Yoga studio a block from the shelter in October, Heather Stewart said she has managed to attract about 100 regular clients.
But it has been a challenge to persuade many of her female clients to attend evening classes, especially those from elsewhere in the city, who know the area by its less gentrified reputation.
"I've heard people say, `I don't want to go out to my car late at night. I don't want to go there,"' Stewart said.
On the same block at El Triunfo, the newly renovated taqueria now doubling the size of its dining area, Yagcioglu, who bought the place nine months ago, pointed to a crack in the restaurant's glass door, which he said was evidence of a fight between two drunken homeless men. He decided to raise his prices, because he thinks that will discourage many of the homeless from returning.
"I don't want them here," he said.
He plans to add more seafood to the menu as part of his effort to lure the new residents and those who work at the new dry cleaner, frame shop, art gallery, and luxury furniture store, all now on the same block of East Berkeley Street. "Over the past nine months, I'd say we have reduced the number of homeless customers to 5 percent," Yagcioglu said. "It used to be about 20 percent."
To entice people to buy the pricey real estate in the area - a four-bedroom condo recently sold for $3.9 million - Bill Kasper, owner of Urban Property Management, which has dozens of properties in the South End, said his agents promote their buildings' security - video cameras, lighting, and efforts to ensure entrances are always locked.
"We're very proactive about security," he said, though he noted that this month someone broke into four cars in a garage of a new condo complex on Fay Street. "We tell people, `You just have to use common sense, be aware of your surroundings."
Since 2000, there have been 1,720 new units of housing built in the South End, many of them in more than 10 new residential buildings around the Pine Street Inn, said Sheila Dillon, deputy director of housing at the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
Before Hanzi Khalsa opened Devi Home a year ago in a space that had been abandoned for four years, she said her landlord told her she was taking a big risk. When she asked whether it was unwise for two women to run a store there, she said he responded: "I wouldn't let my fiancee do it."
They have since had one theft and had to ask some drunken men to leave the store. "We were nervous in the beginning, but it feels safe now."
When Jason Kelly and his wife paid $440,000 for their 900-square foot condo on Fay Street in 2004 - before it had been built - they knew what they were getting into. But now with a 3-year-old son, there are some things they haven't been able to accept.
"It does sort of wear on you, seeing all the homeless people every day, to be honest," said Kelly, 35, an accountant from Ohio whose nanny has been propositioned for sex. "You see people urinating on the street, more than any other places."
But they're not moving. "Overall, it's not as troublesome as most people would think," he said.
While larcenies last year climbed 5 percent in the D-4 police district, which includes the area around the Pine Street Inn, the overall crime rate dropped by 3 percent from 2006. In the blocks from Albany to Tremont streets, police last year recorded 106 violent crimes, about the same as two years before, and 404 property crimes, nearly 20 percent less than 2005.
As he has watched the area change, Captain William B. Evans, the police officer in charge of crime prevention in the South End, said he has been impressed by how quiet things have been. He has received few complaints from new residents.
"It's really sort of surprising," Evans said. "I think the more people out visiting the restaurants and the galleries is indirectly creating a safer neighborhood. The homeless haven't been scaring people away."
In interviews outside shelters around the city, the homeless said they had mixed feelings about the encroaching gentrification.
As work continued on the multimillion-dollar transformation of the century-old, long-vacant Ames Building into an ornate 120-room hotel on Court Street, Kevin Scribner, 40, stood in front of the building next door, the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans, his home for the past year.
He said he wouldn't mind if the hotel, slated to open next year, offers the homeless jobs in food service or security and helps the shelter raise money.
But he and others worried that the shelter's plan to change its name by dropping the word "shelter" and adding "center" reflects pressure from the hotel. "You can change the name, but you can't hide that this is a homeless shelter with 300 guys," Scribner said.
Outside the Saint Francis House, now surrounded by a newly expanded Emerson College, the renovated China Trade Center, the luxury Archstone Apartments, and the looming Ritz, where a presidential suite is available for $5,500 a night, Jay Tankanow, 49, said he feels hemmed in by the new buildings and mistreated by those who look after them.
"They think we shouldn't be here," he said. "They don't even let us stand on the sidewalk. I can't be here for 15 minutes without getting pushed away."
Drinking coffee at a year-old sandwich shop across the Street from the Pine Street Inn on Harrison Avenue, Eric Pierce, 63, and Earl Farnsley, 66, said they are allowed to sit at the shop and not be bothered.
"It's nice to be treated with respect and be allowed to sit down and have a cup of coffee," Pierce said. "The problem is when we're down the street, and we sit on someone's steps, and they tell us to go away."
At the table next to them, Janet Bartlett Goodman, 52, an artist who works nearby, remembered how a decade ago she used to find the homeless passed out on top of her car, how it felt like she was risking her life walking a few blocks in the neighborhood.
Pointing to a Mercedes parked in front of the shop, she said: "Now, there's nowhere to park."
But she said there feels like a balance emerging.
"It would be unfair to drive the homeless out," she said. "We need to get along, and it seems like that's happening."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.