Our slick and silly South End
Our slick and silly South End
by Alison Barnet
Monday Apr 5, 2010
I used to enjoy reading the real estate transactions in the Banker & Tradesman, the only paper that ran them years ago. I recognized names and addresses and was often privy to situations: I already knew so-and-so was moving, that what’s-her-name was getting a divorce and selling the house. Now, like everything else in the South End that used to be interesting, these long lists of unit numbers and trust names are downright boring.
Throughout history, real estate was considered a "good investment" and a "security blanket"-a place to live or rent out that you hoped would appreciate in value steadily and modestly over the years and be there when you got old, something to leave the kids. No one assumed that after owning a place for a month you’d be driving a Jaguar and blowing $500 on dinner. It was home, and your first thought wasn’t selling it.
When the nature of real estate transactions started changing in the early 1980s, some South Enders started excitedly combing through the lists, gawking at what was being asked and what gotten. They were tickled pink at sky-high prices implying that their own property-to say nothing of their self-worth-was equally valuable. Letters and phone calls started coming.
Dear Property Owner:
As you well know, the real estate market has been booming in the South End for sometime [sic]. The demand is at an all time high. At you [sic] request and convenience, I will appraise your property, after which you can sell it or if you prefer to keep it ... develop your building yourself and sell each unit as a Condominum ... Act now and maximize your gain.
During the past week, I spent time looking at and studying property in your area and have found many of the buildings along this stretch ... in need of repair. The purpose for this letter is to inform you of the options available in the market in ways to improve your property to bring you a greater return. I would like to meet with you at your convenience to discuss your property and the ways to make [your street] a better place to live and work.
The letters got slicker, accompanied by color photos of real estate brokers, now local celebrities. It became a badge of honor to live down the street or around the corner, as though they were ordinary folks like us. "As both a real estate professional and a neighbor, he knows the value of your home best," said one flyer.
Sometimes I responded. Why did they think it was okay to intrude on me? Had I expressed any interest in selling? Where did they get off implying that my neighborhood would be better if I were no longer in it?
A silly, choppy, breathless advertising style probably began with Jordan Marsh, the department store, in the 1980s: "Jack and Jill live in Boston. They moved here from someplace else. They’re nice. They’re young and fun." A few years later, Betty Gibson Associates ran a similar ad: "Caroline and Chris ______ owned an apartment house ... Caroline is an archivist. Chris is a free-lance writer. Their son, Matthew is a year old. After enjoying five years in the South End, they decided it was time to move on ..."
Now this tactic is stronger than ever. SoWa News: "Greg and Lisa ______ live at Rollins Square in central SoWa, they created and run the award-magnetized Appleton Bakery Café here in the South End and they have two appallingly cute daughters: Tess age four and Emma age six."
"Was ’appallingly cute’ a typo?" an editor once asked. No, it was just that so many people sounded like walking real estate ads, using words like applianced and fireplaced in casual conversation. Said a friend, we’re well into a "real estate orientation of the world."
Never before have restaurants played such a role in selling real estate. "We should eat out tonight," the handsome young man whispers in the ear of the beautiful young woman, a wall of windows behind them. "We can walk over to Toro, Stella’s, Beehive ... or you pick!" A seductive young woman curls up on a couch-or is it a bed?-"The only thing to worry about? What time to meet for dinner."
My spell check balks at Mela, Masa, Rocca, Oishii, and Picco. This is to say nothing of Diseňo, Lekker, Looc, and SoWa.
We talk about "gleaming" hardwood floors, "fabulous finishes," "spa-style" baths, granite countertops, and Subzero fridges-doesn’t anyone shop at Sears anymore? Top floors are "loft-like" or have a "loft feel" (fifth floor walkups no longer exist), and decks are always miraculously "private."
Years ago, new buildings with the addresses One or One Hundred were trendy, and we called old buildings by the name of the original owner-the Allen House, the Porter Houses. Lately, we’re calling an utter wreck on Washington Street the Ivory Bean building. Now ordinary numbers are in-Atelier 505-especially if preceded with The: The 27, The 1850. We also like the sound of The Modern, The Bryant, and The Penmark Garage.
Shall we chalk it all up to "History ... with attitude?"