The history of this Colonial-era city is long and rich and deep, and so it was just a few municipal eye blinks ago when its critical core had sleazy strip clubs on its edges, grime on its streets, and a deep and ugly hole in its heart that for the longest time seemed unfixable.
That’s what makes Downtown Crossing’s renaissance so startling. That’s why to walk through the neighborhood today is to discover a deceptively stunning reality:
It’s a neighborhood, a truly vibrant one, after all.
There are upscale coffee shops on every other corner. More than 30 high-tech companies have moved in. There’s a lively and clean new residential district, home to more than 10,000. There’s a set of stone steps to nowhere, loosely modeled after a space in Times Square, where performers will soon entertain sidewalk traffic measured at some 250,000 each day.
The Opera House is booming. Fancy restaurants feature all-star chefs. The Godfrey Hotel is a newly polished jewel. Unlike the swift and staggering growth of the city’s Seaport, the development equivalent of “Brigadoon,” what’s happened in Downtown Crossing is more long-running passion play than fanciful musical.
When times were good, they were very good. Men wore fedoras and mothers brought their kids to Mickey Finn’s for sneakers. When the economy stalled and storefronts were emptied, the bad times were very bad — and seemingly endless.
But for Rosemarie Sansone, the former Boston city councilor who now runs the Downtown Boston Business Improvement District, the glory days are alive all over again. She’s lived or worked here for 40 years, including a stint straight out of high school in the new-accounts department on Filene’s seventh floor.
“There was a hustle-and-bustle back then,’’ she said. “And bumper-to-bumper traffic. I’ve seen it all.’’
Here’s what she sees now: That hustle-and-bustle is back. Theater marquees, bright and colorful, no longer carry empty coming-soon promises.
Showtime has arrived.
No one is applauding louder than Tony Pangaro, whose fingerprints are all over the gleaming bookend towers that signal and support Downtown Crossing’s soaring renewal. He was around for the bad old days, when one city official was mugged on nearby Boston Common and a leading business executive dismissed the area as a tired and dirty “downer.’’
“These places were on nobody’s mental map,’’ Pangaro said, standing under the shelter of the Parkman Bandstand, a 105-year-old landmark on the Common’s eastern edge. “You just didn’t go there. They were eliminated from your desired line of travel. You didn’t walk through them.’’
Pangaro heads Millennium Partners’ operation in Boston. He’s an architect and a builder and a student of urban life who recalls when urban decay here had chased pedestrians and developers and all hope away.
Across four decades, there has never been a more prolific under-the-radar developer than Pangaro, who along with critical stakeholders such as Emerson College and Suffolk University form the central propulsion system for Downtown Crossing’s rebirth.
For most Bostonians alive today, images of bright Christmas decorations beyond the plate-glass windows of Jordan Marsh at the corner of Summer and Washington streets are the stuff of history books and yellowed newspaper clippings. Those were the Eisenhower-era boom times.
Then, inexorably, a pendulum swung.
“People used to ask: Is it safe?’’ said Ken Gloss, owner of the Brattle Book Shop. “I haven’t heard anyone say that in years and years. Most people don’t even know what you’re talking about when you mention the Combat Zone.’’
Gloss, whose shop moved to West Street in 1969, said he regrets that some of Downtown Crossing’s character — that zipper repair store, for instance — has vanished. But all change is not lamentable, he said.
“We have hundreds of parents of college kids from all over the country who care that this is a nice area,’’ Gloss said. “The streets are clean. If a light post goes out, you have someone to call. They keep the crosswalks clear in the winter.’’
A few blocks away, Marc Epstein is watching the lunchtime rush at the Milk Street Cafe, which he opened in 1981, when he was just 23, finally subside. He’s got 80 seats, and a booming catering business dependent on three kitchens in the basement, where some of his 74 employees work to fill orders headed for Harvard, MIT, and the Broad Institute.
His menu has shifted to adjust to the changing mosaic that is Downtown Crossing. “People who are comfortable with change are here,’’ Epstein said. “The people who are not comfortable with change — and I loved them — are not here anymore. You have to change. Because downtown Boston has changed completely.’’
No one knows that deeper in his bones that Tony Pangaro, who grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Harvard, and cut his municipal planning teeth at the side of Edward Logue, Boston’s legendary urban renewal maestro. He knows this city well enough to know that when he and his New York partners started to remake Downtown Crossing, there were plenty of skeptics keeping score, and stifling giggles.
“This town is full of schadenfreude,’’ he said, sketching an invisible cast of doubting Thomases. “Watch this. This is going to be fun. Watch these guys fall on their noses.’’
They were almost right.
Millennium Partners opened the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Towers on 1.8 million square feet of space on the edge of the old Combat Zone on Sept. 9, 2001, two days before two jetliners crashed into New York’s World Trade Center, triggering an era of warfare and economic instability.
“We were very nervous,’’ Pangaro, a master of understatement, told me the other day.
Pangaro was building then at what was considered the down-on-its heel end of Downtown Crossing, a time of relative stability for Filene’s and Macy’s. Fast-forward to 2012 when the effort to rebuild on the old Filene’s block had produced nothing but a hole in the ground. Mayor Tom Menino, his dreams for the neighborhood big but his patience long since exhausted, introduced Pangaro as the site’s savior.
“Downtown buildings [should] have a life of their own, but understand and appreciate the life of the city around them,’’ Pangaro said on that winter day five years ago. “The best cities are the cities that put things on the sidewalk.’’
As we walked those sidewalks, Pangaro pointed out the tiles of an urban mosaic that now improbably gleams.
Little things like the marquee of the Paramount Theatre, a site his firm had inherited. The marquee needed 4,700 4-watt bulbs — bulbs nobody made anymore. Their 7-watt replacements cost significantly more.
But there was an important message to be conveyed.
“This is not a dead zone,’’ he said, standing on the sidewalk outside the theater. “This is not a failed site. This is coming back to life. The lights are on. You don’t want to look at a dark theater.’’
You don’t want to look at opaque storefronts, either. And the new retail shops at that once-upon-a-time hole in the ground at Summer and Washington streets are airy and open and bustle with shoppers who line up for the newest fashions at Primark, the Dublin-based retailer, and for the freshest cuts of meat at Roche Bros., the neighborhood’s newest grocery store. Upstairs, on the second floor at Pabu, celebrated chef Michael Mina is sellings a grass-fed filet mignon for $48 a pop.
As he sat in a $4 million model condominium unit on the 53rd floor of Boston’s third-tallest building, the 60-story Millennium Tower that anchors Downtown Crossing as Filene’s and Jordan Marsh once did, Pangaro talks about perspective and puzzle pieces.
“Anybody who thinks this is just a luxury residential project doesn’t see the whole piece,’’ he said. “The economic driver is up on these upper floors, but the place where the thing meets the ground has to be right not only for the people who live here, but it has to be part of the city or you may as well put a fence around it and push it out beyond [Interstate] 495.
“And my partners feel the same way, otherwise we couldn’t do what we’ve tried to do.’’
Those partners he mentions are in New York. His other partners are 53 stories below, where the streets are clean, the stores are busy, a small book shop thrives, and Marc Epstein takes a breath, relaxing in the wake of one rush hour while preparing for the next.
And, all around him, Downtown Crossing is the beating heart of a city all over again.