If the Cocoanut Grove fire had happened recently, there’d be a more compelling memorial than the small plaque now set into the sidewalk on Piedmont Street in Boston’s Bay Village. The 1942 nightclub fire was the Boston Marathon bombing of its day, only more so — a ghastly tragedy that drew international attention and prompted Bostonians to take a deeper look at their city. Among the 492 dead and the many injured were employees, musicians, servicemen, even Hollywood figures. Beyond the advances that the fire spawned — in the treatment of burns and in fire codes across the country — it also exposed a vein of corruption in Boston’s municipal government, as word got around that the nightclub’s politically wired owner had opened a new section of the club without adequate safety inspections.
The question of how to better commemorate all this has gained new urgency in recent months. While a private roadway and the parking garage for what is now the Revere Hotel have long occupied most of the Cocoanut Grove’s former footprint, one part of the ill-fated site is currently a nondescript parking lot. But a company called TCR Development hopes to use it, and an adjacent parking area to the west on Piedmont Street, as the site of four townhouses, a four-story condo building, and an underground parking garage.
If not for the history of the site, TCR’s plan would be unremarkable; the 40-foot height of the proposal, though slightly above the existing 35-foot zoning for part of the site, is hardly out of synch with a dense neighborhood at the heart of the city. While the Bay Village Neighborhood Association isn’t opposing a variance, some nearby residents strenuously object to the height of the project and to the inevitable construction-related disruptions. Unfortunately, the possibility of setting aside some land for a memorial barely arose in that discussion, until a small group of local history buffs stepped in to press the issue.
“Buildings are going to come and go, but history does not change,” says Kenneth Marshall, a Watertown plastic surgeon whose mother, a nurse, was working at Boston City Hospital the night grievously wounded Cocoanut Grove victims began flooding in. Marshall and others would like to preserve what’s left of the nightclub site as a memorial.
Intriguingly, the debate about the Piedmont Street site highlights the currents and crosscurrents in which today’s Boston floats. The city has a legitimate need for new housing, and it’s rightly criticized for a planning process that takes unpredictable turns. Yet Boston is also a city that’s beloved for honoring its history.
An obvious way to do so would be to let TCR build higher on part of the site in order to leave some space open for a memorial. Yet such an outcome seems almost inconceivable in neighborhoods where taller building heights are regarded with suspicion, rather than as a progressive way to promote historic preservation and solve Boston’s space crunch. Last month, the Zoning Board of Appeals deferred action on the TCR project, but as a courtesy to abutters rather than memorial proponents. The panel is expected to take up the proposal again this week, but brokering a way to build a memorial that hasn’t even been designed isn’t part of its job description.
Indeed, one obstacle to building a memorial all along has been that it’s no one’s responsibility; in the pre-Internet world, victims couldn’t organize on Facebook. Preservationists rally more around triumphs than tragedies. At least, the current controversy is a wake-up call. A little-used strip of land behind the Revere Hotel garage could be reimagined as a memorial. Shawmut Street Extension, the private road that cuts across the site, could be renamed for the Cocoanut Grove. Memorials can come in many forms. What matters is the remembering.