At Haymarket, a fence comes down, but is it too late?
For the first time in more than a year, Haymarket’s pushcart vendors are set to bring their discounted produce and brusque manners to Blackstone Street on Friday.
Since June 2018, the carts have been spread out on the sidewalk between the Greenway and a tangle of construction-related fencing separating them from Blackstone. A large section of the fencing — put up to accommodate site work for a 225-room hotel — has finally come down.
But the vendors weren’t the only ones affected by the barrier. It’s been an ordeal for a row of small businesses on Blackstone, pushing some to the brink of extinction. Among those obscured by the barrier were a cash-only pizza joint that serves $2 slices, a pair of halal butchers, and a tiny cheese shop. They recall an older style of stores that long ago were beaten back to outlying neighborhoods by sky-high real estate prices.
The fencing and subsequent relocation of the Haymarket tent stalls have kept many people from patronizing the shops. A once-steady stream of customers on market days — Friday and Saturday — slowed to a trickle. The rest of the week, Blackstone has been a virtual ghost street.
Shop owners say that an unexplained series of delays caused prep work for the hotel to stop and start. That phase of the project was supposed to last just a few months.
While pushcart vendors were able to relocate in the interim, the stores could not. The relative isolation has taken a heavy toll on their businesses. Some doubt they will ever recover.
Some shop owners estimate they have lost 30 to 50 percent of their revenue since construction began. They have been forced to pare staff, dip into personal savings to cover costs, and even consider selling their businesses.
“You see this?” said Mohamed Chitaoui, gesturing to the empty space in his subterranean Halal grocery store. “You see nobody here?. . . It killed business.”
Chitaoui figures he’s had just one-quarter of the customers he did before the fencing went up.
Al Sciola, who has owned and operated Haymarket Pizza for 26 years, said that he had put his savings into keeping his shop afloat, strung along by repeated assurances from developers that the carts and tents would soon be moved back to near the storefronts.
“It’s going to be done, it’s going to be done, it’s going to be done,” Sciola said. “The date always moves up another month, it always moves up another month, it moves up another month.”
Construction of the hotel isn’t scheduled to start until October, but crews have been digging intermittently, doing subterranean work, tearing up and replacing sidewalks.
“This is a complicated project that sits on [state Department of Transportation] land over the [expressway] tunnel,” said Richard Galvin, president of site developer CV Properties. “We are at the final point of completing the plan review process, or close to completing the plan review process.”
Galvin wouldn’t say more about why the work has taken so long.
The state also declined to comment on why the project stalled. Officials with the Boston Planning & Development Agency said the developer needed time to comply with the many city and state regulations governing such projects.
Philip DeNormandie, the shops’ landlord, isn’t buying it.
“The big issue is that they aren’t working on a very expedited basis,” he said. “These guys just really don’t know what they’re doing, [that] is the problem.”
Even though the outdoor market’s bustling foot traffic was still relatively close by, the fencing made stores invisible from the front and from Blackstone’s intersection with North Street. For a period during construction, the barrier was moved all the way up to the edge of the sidewalk in front of the shops, leaving only a narrow corridor for access.
Roy Fournier, who has run Harry’s Cheese and Cold Cuts on Blackstone for 40 years, used to pay someone on market days to draw attention to the displays of bread and cheese specials in his front window.
“I used to have a guy out there Fridays and Saturdays, hawking my wares,” Fournier said. “You know, ‘Come on and buy some cheese and stuff!’ Since construction, he doesn’t work here anymore. There’s nothing in the window.”
And although the stores were visible from the intersection of Blackstone and Hanover streets — where customers swarm on market days — few people made the short walk to get there. Shop owners say the construction zone has made it appear that their businesses are closed.
“Some people come down and say, ‘Oh, you’re open?’ ” said butcher Scott Lampert, who has spent the last 55 years carving meat for the Puritan Beef Company, a shop his grandfather founded in 1911. “Other people, they don’t even make the effort to walk down the street.”
The street has also been effectively blocked off at its intersection with North Street. A path through the construction site — about the width of a car — made it possible to reach the businesses, but only for those willing to dodge construction vehicles or possibly play chicken with oncoming traffic.
“Before construction, they [customers] used to come and park in front of the store,” said Salim Marhamo, a Lebanese immigrant who owns a shop for fresh Halal meat next to Lampert’s Butchery. “And then one of the employees puts [products] in the car.”
A large portion of Marhamo’s customer base — which is mostly made up of immigrants looking for familiar styles of meat not found in most supermarkets — decided seek out other shops. Marhamo went from selling about $8,000 worth of meat weekly to between $4,000 and $5,000. He has searched in vain for someone to buy the space.
The pushcart vendors, although able to adapt, haven’t been thrilled by the long-running disruption, and are relieved to be moving back into their old space.
“When you’re on Blackstone Street, you were almost part of a nook, you’re covered, you were a part of the inside. You didn’t get the effects of the weather as much.” Haymarket Pushcart Association president
Ottavio “Otto” Gallotto said. “Where we are right now . . . the winds are coming from every which way, and it really hurts during the winter. There were a couple of storms that were scary.”
Now, however, sunnier times have returned.
“I’m excited,” Otto said. “It’s time to get this show on the road . . . Let’s try to get some people back.”