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Yvonne Abraham

East Boston shipyard has an ugly beauty

If it weren’t for the pies, I would never have known about it.

And that would have been a shame, because the Boston Harbor Shipyard in Eastie is a phenomenally cool spot.

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I went there to eat at the new outpost of KO Pies, the restaurant that replaced Scups, a local favorite. I have waxed rhapsodic about the Aussie meat pies at KO before, so I’ll spare you more drooling here. (But just let me say, sweet Jesus, the pastry is every bit as breathtaking, the filling as juicy and delectable, as it is at the Southie branch that won my homesick heart two years ago. And this KO has Coopers, the glorious beer of my youth.)

It wasn’t easy to find the place. The security gate, at the end of an overgrown stretch of Marginal Street near Piers Park, is wide open, but at first you wonder if you should be in here. You should.

The shipyard isn’t one of those gussied up, ye olde places, harking back to the city’s maritime glory days, but an actual working yard where stuff is still built. On weekdays, you can hear the whinny of sanders and the clang of metal on metal as face-masked boatmakers build luxury vessels, and hard-hatted steel fabricators put together a massive drilling platform. Boston pilots, the boats that guide ships into the harbor, are based here. There’s a marina where a few hardy fools live year-round, a bait and tackle shop, and a scuba center. There are also spectacular views of the harbor and the city skyline.

This shipyard has gorgeous bones, but the buildings aren’t spiffed up. It has what so few places in this polished city seem to possess any more, an industrial, honest, ugly beauty.

One blackened dock is so picturesquely warped and overgrown that you wonder if it’s part of the shipyard’s most appealing (non-comestible) feature — its outdoor sculpture gallery. The gallery was dreamed up by Steve Israel, an artist and environmentalist who lived on a boat in the marina until recently.

Dan Noonan, one of the shipyard’s owners, saw how art could make the shipyard — and especially its ho-hum cinderblock buildings — special, and was on board right away. In 2009, HarborArts was born. Its first work, a giant steel cod made by Israel and others, now sits atop the Boston Boat Works shop, and has become the shipyard’s mascot.

With help from the Urban Arts Institute and the Institute of Contemporary Art, HarborArts assembled a collection: Right now, there are 27 pieces on display, by artists from around here and as far away as Norway. They won’t all floor you, but there are plenty of works to love: A massive half-mermaid, half-octopus called “Iscariot,” perched atop a steel shop; “Submersivity,” covered with lovely ear-like barnacles, which sits on a boaters’ barbecue deck; “The Other Shore,” a perfect stone egg on the pier; and the funny “Hazards of Modern Living,” a series of fake warning signs — a send-up of over-cautiousness.

The art — some of it made and placed with help from shipyard workers — can be hard to find. A guided tour app is on the way, says Matt Pollock, who runs HarborArts. But the treasure-hunt aspect of the place is part of the fun. As is the unconventional setting.

“As an artist, I love the backdrop,” Israel says. “Even before we started putting sculptures there, I used to tell people I live in an art gallery. It’s a very creative place to work.”

The city, and the shipyard people, want you to come here: It’s on the Boston HarborWalk. The HarborArts people would like nothing better than to be a far less well-kept secret. And, Tuesday through Sunday, there is killer food.

So go. Just don’t eat all the pies.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com

Because of a reporting error, a Metro column in Sunday’s Globe gave incorrect hours for KO Pies in East Boston. It is open Tuesday through Sunday.

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