The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
With so many massive projects underway in Revere — Suffolk Downs to the south, Ocean Avenue to the east, and Wonderland to the north — it feels as though tectonic plates are shifting in this city.
And all around Shirley Avenue, the main commercial district and the home to dozens of immigrant-owned businesses, people can sense big changes afoot.
“It’s like a volcano waiting to erupt,” longtime City Councilor Ira Novoselsky said, waving his arms at various construction sites as he toured the street. And rumblings are now being felt all along throughout the city’s main shopping corridor, jostling the makeup of the streetscape.
Novoselsky has spent all of his 73 years living just one block over from Shirley Avenue. He can remember when it was lined with kosher butcher shops, shoe stores, and a synagogue. By the 1970s the storefronts had been boarded up, he said, and the strip had become a haven for criminals. Today, the trouble has abated, and those same storefronts teem with life, reflecting a new generation of arrivals: a Colombian bakery, a Cambodian grocery, a Brazilian butcher shop, and a restaurant serving Moroccan cuisine.
“I’ve always called it the corridor of change in Revere,” said Wendy Millar-Page, head of the Revere Chamber of Commerce. “It’s the original doorstep for new immigrants in the city.”
And that change is rapidly escalating. With the Revere Beach MBTA stop at the end of the street, and Bluebikes scheduled to arrive at the end of the summer, the neighborhood has become an increasingly attractive location for commuters looking for quick access to downtown Boston. The area is zoned for taller buildings, and they’ve been cropping up quickly: four- and five-story apartments built with commuters in mind, some with micro units and fold-down Murphy beds.
This week, bulldozers began ripping up the street’s asphalt as the state embarked on a $2 million MassWorks rehabilitation project that will widen sidewalks, install new trees and lighting, and make a more pedestrian-friendly pathway from the beach. These enhancements are expected to drive more foot traffic to the new restaurants that have begun arriving — and there are many.
In more than a decade of working in restaurants along Revere Beach, Alex Herrera saw the changes coming. And in October, he and a partner opened Valsos Table & Bar, a cool, cozy restaurant and bar on Shirley Avenue that specializes in Italian, Spanish, and Latin American cuisine.
Before COVID, he said, business was good, with a mix of locals and visitors in search of an interesting bite along Shirley Avenue. After COVID hit — and with a multi-month shutdown — business was harder. But Valsos has added outdoor tables in a parking lot next door, and Herrera said he’s hopeful they can ride out the pandemic.
Long-term, Herrera is bullish on Shirley Avenue, enough so that he and his partner are opening a second eatery, a cafe, up the street. He’s betting that all those newcomers, and longtime residents, will want places to eat in the neighborhood, places they can walk to and avoid a trip downtown.
“We just see tons of potential here, compared to downtown or the Seaport [areas] that are so saturated,” he said. “In a couple more years, this place is going to be very different.”
It’s that promise that drew Alicia Manzano and her husband to the street, as well. They’re just weeks away from opening Esquite, a Mexican street-food restaurant.
The couple, who met in Mexico City but live in Revere, worked as servers in Boston’s restaurant industry for the past decade. For the last two years they’ve been selling Mexican street corn from their Eloti food truck and dreamed of opening their own restaurant, but never imagined they’d get a location on Shirley Avenue. The restaurant, which will open Sept. 15, is on the first floor of a former rooming house that was converted to apartments. Manzano and Herrera both received assistance from the city to open their storefronts.
“The avenue is changing a lot — the whole city is changing — and we want to be part of this,” she said. “This is a new era for Revere.”
The street’s transition is in many ways a microcosm of the city’s transformation, and that, of course, is not without challenges.
Tech Leng, who grew up in the neighborhood and is now a Revere city planner, said that the city’s efforts to attract development jump-started questions about the commercial district’s future several years ago. “It started a lot of deep conversations about who are we? Where are we going? And how are we going to support and guide the change?” she said.
Existing businesses depend largely on Revere not being gentrified. Leng said she’s working to ensure change can happen without displacing residents.
Some business owners welcome the growth. Maria Arango owns Las Delicias Colombianas restaurant and a check-cashing company on the street and has been a business owner on Shirley Avenue for 25 years. She said new businesses have helped create more jobs for local workers, which is a good thing overall.
But Kaiuna Ke, who for 20 years has run Angkor Thom, a Cambodian grocery store just down the street, said she’s worried that all the change might mean her building will be sold. And she’s not alone.
Millar-Page, the chamber’s head, said the city has been thoughtful in its approach to the shopping district, supporting immigrant-owned businesses and encouraging their growth. With growth comes opportunity, of course, but also a sense of what might be lost down the road.
“There’s an underlying current of fear of gentrification and displacement,” she said. “But on Shirley Ave. they’re more hopeful, because it’s Shirley Ave.” It’s always been a corridor of change.
Tim Logan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.