Columnists :: South End Character
Fitness by Alison Barnet
MySouthEnd.com ContributorThursday Mar 29, 2012 Northampton Square!
Luxury tower near CVS with view of James Michael Curley’s birthplace. Historic South End location: former site of Boston City Hospital South Department for contagious diseases; Roxbury Canal flows underneath. Call now!
P.S. South End Fitness Center not included.
David, who lived downstairs, was the first to take Boston City Hospital up on its offer: if we lived in the neighborhood, we could use the hospital’s new South Block Recreation Area (later South End Fitness Center)-$5 a month. He crossed the street and started swimming laps in the beautiful, 25-yard pool, urging the rest of us to join. Once I started, I didn’t stop for thirty-five years.
In the early Seventies when South Block opened (it was renamed "Northampton Square" in 2005), it included two apartment buildings-the "low rise" and the "high rise," loosely known as the Nurses’ Tower. A swimmer named Sam once took us up to his apartment in the high rise to show off the built-in butcher block furniture. It wasn’t "luxury"-we didn’t think in those terms in those days-but it was modern and nice, and we were suitably impressed. In addition to the recreation center, with its pool, gym, full-size basketball court, squash courts, locker rooms, and ping pong table, there was an auditorium, a garage that neighbors could use, a walkway to the hospital, offices, and even a piano lounge. Anchoring the low-rise retail strip along Harrison Avenue, for many years, was Edward Williams’ "signature" Hair Focus salon.
The camaraderie was enormous. On a big board next to the pool, swimmers marked down their laps. When we reached our fifty-mile goal, the center threw us a party. I’ll never forget one particularly wild "hat party."
After swimming, we hung out upstairs, joking around with management and the other members, who for years included two lawyers and a morgue attendant who played squash together. Needless to say, everyone knew everyone, and many a significant other was met there.
Over the years, South Block/Northampton Square has had its ups and downs, including management controversies, if not scandals, but hasn’t changed an awful lot. Nurses moved out and non-medical people moved in; at one point, so many divorced people lived there it was known as Heartbreak Hotel. But when the Boston Public Health Commission took over and the piano lounge became a burial permit office, I knew that times had changed.
Now, BPHC plans to turn the complex over to Trinity Financial, which proposes to build a 23-story, "market-rate," tower on the Northampton and Albany side of the complex. In the process, the mixed and low income "high rise" and "low rise" will get much-needed new appliances and new windows, but the Fitness Center will probably bite the dust (no one says for sure).
The Fitness Center is used by amazingly diverse groups of young and old. The pool is one of the largest and the best in the city-"the only good pool in town," as I recently overheard in the elevator.
At a recent Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association meeting, people expressed dismay about the plan, especially the demise of the fitness center. Pointing out that there are few resources in the area to support a luxury tower, they asked Trinity Financial to come up with something more "creative." A supermarket was suggested, as well as other useful businesses that might bring in taxes and benefit the area as a whole.
What is the fascination with luxury towers, especially those plunked down in places where there are no stores? I once asked a woman who lives in a downtown luxury tower where she shops for groceries, and she answered that she and her husband both have cars. Why do we encourage cars, cars, and more cars? Will this become the new South End character? Will the high-rise and the low-rise remain affordable if the Albany Street "corridor" becomes deluxe?
Well, maybe the money won’t come through. Maybe nothing will happen.
But, as is so often said, the place "needs work." This is also the case at the Huntington Avenue YMCA where the gym building, which "needs work," is going to be torn down. Are urban gyms becoming obsolete? Sounds like destroying a village to save it.
Alison Barnet is the author of Extravaganza King: Robert Barnet and Boston Musical Theater. She has lived in the South End since 1964 and has been writing about it for almost as long.