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Downtown’s surreal, empty scenes convey a haunting omen

Congress Street in Boston’s normally bustling Financial District was nearly empty at 10 a.m. one morning last week.
Congress Street in Boston’s normally bustling Financial District was nearly empty at 10 a.m. one morning last week.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In normal times, South Station would be bustling at 8:15 in the morning, with wave after wave of commuters pouring from the Red Line and commuter rail. Some would hurry over Fort Point Channel to the Seaport, while thousands of others headed for the thicket of office towers downtown.

On Thursday, at about the same time, just a handful of people got off when the Red Line rumbled into the basement of South Station. Upstairs, a commuter rail train from Plymouth, built to carry hundreds of passengers, discharged about 50. Masked and heads-down, they scattered across Dewey Square, past a papered-over coffee shop and the stub of a stalled-out skyscraper that not so long ago hummed with activity.

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“It’s all just so weird,” said Walter Downey, an investment advisor who has worked downtown for decades, as he walked to his office on Federal Street. “It’s like you can hear the dogs barking out there.”

It has been that kind of summer in the heart of Boston: quiet, a little lonely, and kind of weird. There are no throngs of tourists following the Freedom Trail or searching for Fenway Park. The weekday commuters are far fewer; landlords estimate that office towers are maybe 10 percent full. Without those workers to serve, the delis, convenience stores, and dry cleaners that form the fabric of downtown’s streets, are quiet, too. Some remain closed. And the after-work beer gardens and outdoor boot camps that have popped up in recent years didn’t happen this summer.

It’s not like there is no one around. People still trickle in and out of office buildings, though the relatively high percentage who are wearing shorts suggests a more relaxed dress code inside. Tourists still stare at their maps. Construction workers still linger on lunch break. But there is no escaping the depressing reality: The normally bustling center of a city that just months ago brimmed with life, today feels like some lesser place. A place left behind, or suspended in amber.

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A cardboard cutout of a person stood on a window several stories up at 225 Franklin Street office building in Boston financial district.
A cardboard cutout of a person stood on a window several stories up at 225 Franklin Street office building in Boston financial district.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

But, of course, it’s not. Cities are never static. The massive Winthrop Center project aside, the construction boom continues. Boston’s skyline changes by the day, even if no one’s sure what or who might fill those towers rising above the streets. But some small businesses — pummeled by the pandemic — are slipping away, almost unnoticed. An Au Bon Pain on State Street, cleaned out and gone. A hair salon on Summer Street, never coming back.

Others are in survival mode, trying to adapt to a radically changed city. Many restaurants have added outdoor seating, erecting concrete barriers to claim parking spaces, hoping to woo diners while the weather’s good.

Their efforts, however, are just a short-term solution, said Bessie King, who along with her mother owns Villa Mexico on Water Street. In better times, a line of customers would stretch along the sidewalk at lunchtime to buy tacos and burritos. Not these days.

“It feels nice and hopeful because it’s summer,” King said. “But once it’s September or October, and schools aren’t back and patios won’t work, then you’re going to start seeing the stark realities of things.”

And the reality is there just aren’t enough people around right now, said Bob Kelley, whose hole-in-the-wall locksmith shop on Pi Alley gives him a daylong vantage point on street life.

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There are no lines and almost no food trucks at Dewey Square in Boston during the weekday at lunchtime.
There are no lines and almost no food trucks at Dewey Square in Boston during the weekday at lunchtime. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

He sees a few residents, including those who regularly walk their dogs and go to the gym, along with the homeless and other street people who frequent Downtown Crossing. Construction workers line up at the Dunkin next door. But the office-dwellers Kelley relies on to buy keys and scratch tickets are mostly working from home in the suburbs. Business is down 85 percent.

“It’s probably been February since I had a tourist ask how to get to Faneuil Hall,” he said.

Indeed, merchants at the now-subdued tourist mecca are struggling, too. After re-opening a month ago with hopes of salvaging summer, it has become clear that few tourists are coming this year, said Linda DeMarco, president of the Faneuil Hall Merchants Association. Business at Quincy Market, overall, is down 88 percent from last year, she said. Some pushcarts are only open part-time, their owners manning the register, to keep labor costs down. A few national retailers have closed their doors entirely.

“We’re doing horrible,” said DeMarco. “I’ll be hard-pressed to see people staying here after August.”

There are signs of life, too, sometimes in the sort of transgressive ways that would be impossible in busier times. A young couple getting romantic outside Boston Public Market. A handful of teenagers on stunt bikes popping wheelies down Congress Street in the middle of the afternoon. A man — he’d give his name only as his Instagram handle, @savagefreespirit — riding a motorized skateboard around the State Street Orange Line platform at morning “rush hour,” blaring the “Flintstones” theme song from his phone.

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“It’s all just so weird,” said Walter Downey, an investment advisor who has worked downtown for decades, as he walked to his office on Federal Street Thursday morning. “It’s like you can hear the dogs barking out there.”
“It’s all just so weird,” said Walter Downey, an investment advisor who has worked downtown for decades, as he walked to his office on Federal Street Thursday morning. “It’s like you can hear the dogs barking out there.”David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“I’m having fun,” he said. “Everything feels OK.”

But back by South Station, some people wonder how much longer everything will feel OK.

Ed Boyer has watched business at his High Street candy store — Au Chocolat — fade by the month. The corporate accounts buying gifts, the workers buying snacks, they’ve mostly vanished. No telling when they’ll be back. Boyer’s not sure he’ll make it past Valentine’s Day. He opened his store in 1991; he has weathered recessions.

“They were nothing like this,” he said.

And he has lived in Boston since 1974, long enough to remember downtown as a poorer, dingier place than it has become in recent years, before the Combat Zone gave way to fancy apartments, when South Station was, as Boyer put it, “a pit.” He worries that if big companies and their workers don’t return, Boston could easily go back in that direction, erasing the progress of the last 20 years, losing not just the hip hotels and swanky restaurants, but the solid jobs they provide, and the taxes that pay for schools and social services.

“All that money was coming from this business district,” he said. “What are you going to do if that collapses?”

Janelle Nanos of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.



Tim Logan can be reached at timothy.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.