In just about any American city, there are tourist traps that natives are well-trained to avoid. You’d be hard pressed to find a New Yorker trekking to the Top of the Rock, or a Chicagoan snapping selfies in front of “The Bean.”
But Faneuil Hall Marketplace, one of Boston’s most postcard-ready landmarks, has always prided itself on being different — happy to serve both a lunch break gyro to a downtown office worker and an overpriced lobster magnet to an out-of-towner. Just consider the gilded quote wrapped around the inside of Quincy Market’s rotunda: “This building has served the people of Boston as the central market of the city since its dedication in August 1826.”
Nearly two centuries later, however, do today’s people of Boston feel that they are served by the famed festival marketplace? The answer — according to many of those who traipsed through the other day — is a resounding “meh.”
“The locals you get are school groups,” said Erica Polk, an employee at the Build-A-Bear Workshop that opened in the North Market Building last year. “That would be the only people from Boston that you actually really see.”
“Or drunk adults late at night,” joked fellow employee Rachel Dhoray.
Last week, a new landlord was announced for the sprawling city-owned complex, which comprises dozens of restaurants, shops, and old-school pushcarts spread across four buildings. It’s a handoff that follows years of merchant discontent with the previous operator, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp.
The hope among merchants and local politicians is that the new overseer, J. Safra Real Estate, will achieve what Ashkenazy promised but never delivered: The capital improvements and unique, can-only-find-it-here retail concepts to make Faneuil Hall Marketplace a destination — not just for tourists, but also those who call Boston home.
“I think this change in management is an opportunity to move back in that direction,” said Michael Nichols, president of the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District.
But why is it that locals — even those who do swing through — are so notoriously not fans of Faneuil? Visitors who spoke with a Globe reporter had no shortage of theories: the lack of parking. High retail prices. Uneven cobblestone pathways. Some vigilant consumers may be turned off amid the debate over whether it should be renamed over Peter Faneuil’s ties to the slave trade.
It’s also a matter of modern-day competition. Why schlep downtown when newer mixed-use playgrounds like Seaport Square and Assembly Row abound closer to where more of us live? Why pay airport-like prices for lunch from Quincy Market when fancier food halls, such as Hub Hall and High Street Place, are less than a mile away? Why battle tourists to shop at national chains such as Urban Outfitters and the newly opened Margaritaville that take up much of the storefront real estate?
“I just don’t really have a huge reason to come here,” said Abigail Zuckerman, a Brookline resident who cut through Faneuil Hall on her way to a nearby park. It was just the second time Zuckerman had been there in the nearly four years she’s lived in Boston; her first was to watch a friend be sworn in as a lawyer.
It wasn’t always like this. When the run-down Faneuil Hall was reimagined as a modern shopping center in the 1970s, the $30 million project was hailed as an urban marvel that helped revive downtown. Even by the 1980s, however, it was already considered primarily guidebook fodder.
It’s a reputation from which the “Cradle of Liberty” has never quite freed itself — but one that rings far from true for some of the people who do business there.
“There’s plenty of tourists, but there’s also plenty of locals that actually come there every year, month after month, year after year,” said George Maherakis, president of the Faneuil Hall Merchants’ Association, who has slung seafood at The Fisherman’s Net since 1998.
But deserved or not, the stigma has persisted.
“There’s not a ton of locals who look at this as a hangout spot anymore,” said Spencer Harry, 31, a Watertown resident picking up birthday presents from Newbury Comics and other shops. Or, at least, not a ton of locals in the city’s younger cohort, he noted. “My mom, who’s like 65, is like, ‘Let’s go to Faneuil Hall!’ ”
Before the pandemic, the marketplace boasted 18 million visitors a year, though it is unclear where that number stands today as downtown continues to rebound from the nosedive in foot traffic. By August 2020, nearly one-fourth of Faneuil Hall’s tenants had yet to reopen, including the stalwart Cheers bar, which closed after nearly 20 years in business. Durgin-Park, a 192-year-old restaurant that had fed generations of townies, closed in 2019. Nothing has yet filled its place.
“There’s a vacancy there, both literally and figuratively,” said Dave O’Donnell, vice president of strategic communications for Meet Boston, the city’s tourism bureau.
Joseph O’Malley, who oversaw the marketplace as general manager from 2016 until 2022, also blames the all-but-empty events calendar. “The experiential experience would bring locals there,” he said. “Right now, there’s nothing.”
To be sure, not all Bostonians are so cynical. On Friday, Aaron Siegel, an employee at a nearby branch of Santander Bank, picked up a Regina Pizzeria pie for his office. Regina has an account with the bank, he said, so he tries to support them in turn.
Darrin Simpson, an East Boston resident who took shelter from the brisk temperatures and grabbed a hot dog before picking up his wife from work, said the marketplace still holds a certain appeal, despite its gimmicks.
“It’s got a vibe,” he said. “It doesn’t look like a food court in a mall. The cobblestone is different. And three seasons a year, you’ve got some pretty good street performers.”
And if Faneuil Hall is known as a destination mainly for tourists, at least that sentiment hasn’t reached all the tourists themselves.
Just ask Amber Strickler, a visitor from Pennsylvania who was browsing merch from the New England Sportswear pushcart the day after going to a Celtics game with her husband.
“I said, ‘We can go in here and eat and hang out with the locals,’ ” she said.