Luxury condos planned on 'New York Streets'

Yawu Miller | 6/15/2011, 12:05 p.m.
Mel King stands across the street from the former site of his childhood home, now the headquarters of...
Mel King stands across the street from the former site of his childhood home, now the headquarters of the Boston Herald. A Newton-based developer wants to develop luxury condos on the site. Yawu Miller

A Newton-based developer envisions 274 luxury apartments and 64,000 square feet of upscale shops for the 60 acre parcel of land where the Boston Herald’s headquarters now stand.

But when former state Rep. Mel King looks at the site, he sees something radically different: his childhood home.

Standing in front of the tabloid’s 1950s brick building, he points out the former locations of the streets that were leveled in 1952 by the Boston Redevelopment Authority wrecking ball: Way St., Seneca, Oneita, Genesee, Oswego, Rochester.

“Most of the buildings here were apartments with four or five stories,” he says, looking at the industrial wasteland that emerged out of the city’s second major Urban Renewal project. “There were churches. There were fruit stands and a fish market on the corner where I lived. An Italian bakery, two Jewish bakeries, an Armenian store, butcher shops.”

King first learned of the imminent demise of his New York Streets neighborhood in a letter his family sent him in 1948, when he was away at Claflin College in South Carolina. Included in the letter was a newspaper clipping from the Herald Traveler — now the Herald — declaring that the New York Streets area was a slum.

“They called it Skid Row,” he says. “I learned something important from that: If they name you, they can claim you. If you let them define you in negative ways, they can devalue you.”

The slum designation assigned to the New York Streets area was a federal classification that legitimized the BRA’s plans to demolish the housing in the densely populated, diverse South End neighborhood. The city first used the designation in the West End, a downtown neighborhood with a similar mix of blacks, Jews, Italians and other European immigrants.

Under the BRA plan, the area became an industrial area, with the Herald headquarters, a large storage facility and several manufacturing plants. One of the few buildings to survive housed a greeting card company and later became the headquarters of the tech firm Teredyne.

Other than Albany Street, all the New York Streets names were erased. The new street names assigned to the area include Herald and Traveler streets.

In its heyday, the New York Streets area was an enclave of the South End bordered by the Boston and Albany Railway yard (now Interstate 90) Washington, Dover (re-christened East Berkley) and Albany streets. Churches in the area provided food, shelter and services to a small, but lively homeless population in the area. A number of bars provided them with spirits.

King says the Herald Traveler focused on the drunks in making the case for demolition.

“They defined the neighborhood by that small number of people,” he comments.

The slum designation allowed the BRA to declare eminent domain and tap federal resources to acquire property and demolish it. A series of articles in the Traveler detailing alleged slum conditions in the neighborhood didn’t help the residents’ case.

But it certainly paved the way for the newspaper to acquire the 6.2-acre property it now plans to sell, as King points out in his autobiographical book, “Chain of Change.”