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Neighbourhood Watch: South Boston's Buzzing Waterfront

Not far from the site of the Boston Tea Party (and close to Logan Airport), there's a whole other party happening for startup workers and visitors staying at new hotels

Everything you need to know about Boston’s newest neighbourhood, you can learn from standing in the lobby of its newest hotel, the Envoy.

Despite being ridiculously close to Logan, this is no airport hotel, and this is no airport suburb. Whether you call it the South Boston Waterfront, the South Boston Seaport, Fort Point or the Innovation District, this is the place to be in Boston.

The Envoy – which is incidentally a seven-minute cab ride from the airport – is one of a handful of new hotels in the area. When you walk inside, you’re met with dove greys and butter yellows, curves and trapezoids, obtuse and acute angles, all punctuated with bits of junky elegance – like the chandelier that looks like the sort of thing your pot-smoking aunt might have pulled together using her most poorly considered costume jewellery and several decades’ worth of disappointing New Year’s party favours. Go upstairs, and local design firm Group One Partners has made the rooms a prudent extension of the theme; just as delightful with reclaimed wood and TVs whose frames are part bicycle, but the whimsy is dialled back to eight or nine, which is just as well. You’d never get to sleep with the aesthetic riot that’s going on downstairs.

The Envoy hotel

The exciting part of Boston used to be the bit around MIT and Kendall Square; that is, not actually Boston at all but nearby Cambridge. But they started running out of land up there, and former Boston mayor Thomas Menino decided his city could draw some inspiration from Charleston’s Upper King Street or Toronto’s Liberty Village and turn an old industrial zone into something you might want to walk around in.

It worked. Using the sort of tax-incentive scheme that would make Bernie Sanders quite cross, General Electric was enticed to move its world headquarters to South Boston. As a consequence, in the last couple of years the area has become a virtual apiary for the sort of startups and next-gen companies (including quite a few biotech and biopharm outfits) – ones that attract the sorts of worker bees who like to hang out at the sort of cafés and shop at the sort of shops that make a neighbourhood fun to walk around in.

“What stands out to me, relative to the Seaport District’s development, is its emergence as Boston’s hottest neighborhood,” says Pat Moscaritolo, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. “What made this happen is city and state government coming together with Boston’s business community to give life to city planners’ innovative concepts for the neighbourhood."

Boston is many things, most of them old. It would be silly to go to Boston and not visit the site of the Boston Massacre, Faneuil Hall, Harvard, the hotel where they invented the Boston cream pie, or the spot where a bunch of disgruntled proto-Trumps protested taxation without representation by turning Boston Harbor into the world’s weakest cup of tea, just a couple of hundred metres from the riverfront Envoy.

Sitting at the 4,000-square foot Lookout Bar on the Envoy’s rooftop, talking to a trio of young, heavily accented rural Massachusetts scallop fishers in for a night on the town, your correspondent looked down and saw the ship that serves as the (deeply cheesy) Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, and took a gulp of a well-mixed gin drink, and took in the view. Conclusion: It would be silly not to spend some time down at the Waterfront – where Boston is – rather than where it was.

Things to see (and eat)

The streets are lined with buildings clad in the same shade of grey as the Envoy’s couches; behind these walls, the city’s wool industry once thrummed. Now, alongside those biopharmacists, there are buzzing nonprofits including Jumpstart (which recruits and trains graduates to work in preschool programs for low-income areas), Citizen Schools (which provides after-school program for middle school pupils in several U.S. cities) and Fablevision (which creates interactive edutainment for the likes of PBS and The Jim Henson Company).

Sportello

At street level, it’s all coolness. At Sportello, you get Italian food in a diner setting – by Boston culinary luminary Barbara Lynch. For visitors seeking seafood in Boston, Row 34 is a seafood restaurant with a luxurious raw bar (plenty of oysters) and impressive lists of both beer and wine. There’s a Flour Bakery, a local Boston café chain that TimeOut declared, serves some of America’s tastiest cookies. If you’d prefer ice cream over coffee and cookies for dessert, try the big Hood Milk bottle, cleverly known to all Bostonians as The Big Milk Bottle, outside the Children’s Museum.

Row 34

The raw bar at Row 34. (Spot the Montreal beer on the list above!)

And of course, where there is pastry, coffee and big milk, you can bet the artists were there first. Dave O’Donnell, who works in Boston’s tourism office, confirms it. “In the warehouse district of the Seaport/Fort Point area is the largest colony of artists and artisans in New England,” he says.

According to Fort Point Arts Community Inc., there are more than 300 artists living and working in the neighbourhood. They started coming in 1976, before studio apartments started going for $3,500, and are the original impetus behind the neighbourhood’s current status. For an introduction, check out the tiny Made in Fort Point shop in the new 315 on A apartment building, where you’ll find work by about 50 local artists, with work ranging from greeting cards to furniture.

For a deeper dive, check out the Institute of Contemporary Art in the 65,000-square foot Scofidio + Renfro building it moved into in 2006. The ICA was founded in 1936 to be the Boston counterpart of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and is one of the premier public art galleries in the United States. Its permanent collection focuses on art by women, with significant holdings of work by Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin and Louise Bourgeois.

Courtesy Greater Boston Convention and Visitors' Bureau

The Institute of Contemporary Art, whose permanent collection focuses on women artists, moved into this building in 2006

Places to stay

“Today the Seaport is our city’s fastest growing hotel district,” says Moscaritolo of the visitors’ bureau. The mix of new properties, he continues, is suitable for business travellers, convention attendees and tourists.

In addition to the Envoy’s 136 new rooms, three other hotels with a total of 650 rooms have opened in the district in the last year. Noteworthy among them are The Aloft (a Westin property) seems more energized while The Element (a Starwood hotel) has a wellness focus.

Aloft hotel

Meanwhile, the state legislature having given the go-ahead in 2012 for a total of 2,700 rooms before they’re done, all connected to downtown and the airport by the new bus rapid transit add-on, the Silver Line.

Published Thursday, July 7th 2016

Header image credit: The view from the terrace at the Envoy hotel/Courtesy Envoy

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