City officials will gather downtown on Tuesday, bend their knees, and toss a couple shovelfuls of ceremonial dirt into the air. The stated reason for this display is the official start of construction on the Filene’s block, and the end of Boston’s longest-running development soap opera. These types of ceremonies happen all the time around town, but few are as significant as this one. The ceremony celebrates much more than the reemergence of construction crews on a lifeless block at the city’s core. It celebrates a fundamental shift in Boston’s relationship with its downtown.
The block has enjoyed an outsized presence in Boston’s history, and in its psyche. Filene’s stood as a symbol of the pre-war boom years when Washington Street bustled with department stores, and the downtown acted as Boston’s throbbing commercial heart. The old department store also embodied the decline that rocked the downtown shopping district in the 1960s and beyond, when residents fled the city for the suburbs, retailers chased after them, and the downtown commercial core settled into a grungy obsolescence.