“It’s like taking a plastic bag, and closing it up around us.”
Jin Liang Wu and the other residents at Mason Place barely recognize the neighborhood where they’ve lived for decades. When the stately old Boston Herald-Traveler building was converted to affordable housing in 1978, this part of Boston was a different place. Downtown Crossing was gutted, and the Combat Zone thrived. The worst of the city surrounded the apartment building.
Now the residents — elderly, mostly Chinese-Americans — are surrounded again. Only this time, they’re walled in by luxury — towers full of mind-bendingly pricey hotel rooms and condos on all sides. Once an island in the midst of urban blight, Mason Place is now beset by another kind of isolation: The 150 people living here are holdovers from another era, out of place in a neighborhood that has undergone a supercharged — even for Boston — transformation.
“Sometimes, people look at me on the street, as if I’m taking up the road,” said Wu, 72, speaking through a translator. “I live here!”
Now there’s a proposal to build more luxury condos across the street from Mason Place, at 171 Tremont St., facing the Common. The building would be 255 feet high and contain 18 single-floor condos, with underground parking for 21 cars. Residents of Mason Place say it will cut off what little sunlight they have left. Already, many of the apartments are dark for much of the day.
“I have sunlight for half an hour each day in the summer, reflected off the glass of the hotel,” said Siu Ching Tang, standing in the living room of the third-floor apartment where he’s lived for 19 years. “When you have no sunlight, it feels like you are not alive.”
Tang says the exhaust vents from the Ritz and the movie theater across Avery Street belch grime his way. He slid a finger along the outside of a window, collecting a thick coating of black dust. “I always hope for it to be windy, to blow it away,” he said.
There must have been a sweet spot in time for the residents at Mason Place, a point at which the pendulum had swung just far enough in the right direction to make their streets safer and prettier. But, as happens so often, change has hurtled well beyond that moment.
Though the residents don’t live right in Chinatown, they spend plenty of time there — walking over to buy food, see friends, play chess in the park by the Chinatown gate. There, property values have also exploded, new buildings sprouting like mushrooms. Every day, the activists at the Chinese Progressive Association fight to keep the working poor and immigrants of Chinatown in their tumbledown apartments, battling landlords, including Chinese ones, eager to cash in.
The residents here will not be forced out by rent increases: Mason Place, owned by a nonprofit, will remain affordable indefinitely. The question is whether it remains a place where folks want to live.
The project at 171 Tremont is under review by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which, a spokesman says, is concerned about its height. But even a shorter building will cut off sunlight to Mason Place. Residents would like the BRA to nix the project. Or, at the very least, to move the parking garage entrance off their street.
But, one way or another, that site is going to be developed.
It is “inevitable,” developer Joseph Dabbah said in a statement. “Knowing that, the priority for us . . . has been finding a use . . . that intrudes as little as possible on our neighbors, especially those at 80 Mason St.” He said the building will bring little extra congestion to the area and that he’s committed to maintaining the pocket park next door, which gives residents a place to sit and a clear path to the Common. He said security at the new building will make the area safer for everyone.
He says he will keep trying to make his building something Mason Place residents can live with. But he can’t give them what they really need: a neighborhood that feels like it belongs to them. It would be easier to bring back the sunlight.