New Economy, old neighborhood

Ask Michael Duarte about the future, and his voice turns to resignation.

For 14 years, he's been here on Pier One in East Boston. As vice president of Bay State Towing, he's dispatched tug boats and piloted oil tankers safely through the shoals of Chelsea Creek.

He's even spent many nights on a tug, bunking there when work runs into the wee hours.

Yet if city officials have their way, Pier One will soon be one of Boston's hottest new addresses - home to scores of new shops and apartments. And Bay State's belching, banging boats will likely be searching for a new home.

"We have no place else to go," says the gray-haired Mr. Duarte, looking fixedly through rectangular, silver-rimmed glasses.

His story is a parable of the New Economy. Not long ago, cities wanted bigger ports, more manufacturing, a new GM plant. But increasingly, cities like Boston are turning away from models of prosperity laid out during the Industrial Revolution and focusing more on quality-of-life issues that bring the knowledge workers of the 21st century. From Cincinnati to San Francisco, they are finding that boutiques and bike trails can often do more for the economy than beltways or business parks.

"Part of the old economic strategy was to just get bigger," says Ron Atkinson of the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington. "Now, the focus should be different. Cities should raise the quality of life."

Years ago, that happened in New York's SoHo, where sweatshops became lofts and studios, drawing sophisticated young professionals. The same forces are at work today, but the trend has been boosted by the tight labor market and the acceleration of the Information Age.

Professionals now know they can find jobs everywhere. So they're moving to places with exotic cafes, scenic views, and a good music scene.

Lifestyle, not industry

"The mistake cities get caught in is having to build a 'good business cli- mate,' " says Richard Florida, a professor of economic development at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "What they have to do is build a people climate."

That's happening in Austin, Texas - the "Live Music Capital of the World" - as well as the Mission District in San Francisco and Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati. Home to the largest collection of Italianate architecture in America, and a short walk from Cincinnati's entertainment district, the old German enclave of corner stores and shuttered breweries is becoming a new dotcom haven.

In many ways, East Boston is a kindred spirit. At its height in the mid-19th century, it was a thriving shipyard and second only to Ellis Island in the number of immigrants processed. Donald McKay, the famous shipbuilder who perfected the Yankee clipper, lived and worked on this spit of land across from downtown.

These days, little from the golden days remains. Even the maritime industry has faded. Aside from Duarte's five bobbing red tugs, Pier One is silent. The rail tracks that used to bear cargo to and from the docks disappear beneath the pavement of a carless parking lot. The mammoth gray warehouse is now a crumbling concrete sarcophagus.

Like much of the East Boston waterfront, Pier One is city property, and planners see this as a waste of prime land. Across the harbor, Boston rises as a shock of neon, steel, and stone. "It's important not to have vacant lots [that overlook Boston] overgrown with weeds when they could be used for housing," says Jansi Chandler, a project manager at Boston Redevelopment Authority.

By and large, the people of East Boston agree. For years, residents have seen neighborhoods like South Boston and Charlestown get upscale hotels and condos, while Eastie has had only more subsidized housing.

Now, with market-rate housing, bigger parks, and even an expanded community-boating venture, East Boston might just capture some of those professionals who always go elsewhere.

"There's a desire for more upscale type of residences," says Robert Strelitz, a 30-year resident and community activist. "That's not a bad thing for the community or the marine industry."

What all the redevelopment will mean for the pilots and lobstermen of East Boston, though, is at best murky. Some groups say the recent harbor cleanup will mean more interest in water-related activities, so port services should remain.

"To the extent that we can enhance [vacant] property, it's to everybody's benefit," says Robert Durand, Massachusetts's secretary for environmental affairs. "It's important for us that we keep those traditional uses."

Mixing the old and new

Scott Smith, for one, agrees.

Once an investment banker, Mr. Smith left the faxes and mutual funds to found a shipmaking business with a colleague. Now, his Boston BoatWorks is one of only six operations in the nation that does high-end, specialized shipbuilding.

The company's workroom, tinged with the scent of wax and industrial solvents, seems a mix of "This Old House" and "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

To the left lies the hull cast for a $1.5-million sailboat - as soon as it's ready, it will head around the world. The deck of a $950,000 52-footer is being finished nearby. In the corner, a stouter boat, running only a couple-hundred grand, is a few months from completion.

Smith talks in the measured words of an ex-banker. His V-neck sweater and neatly parted hair also bespeak the businessman. But when he gestures to his boats, it's with the pride of a builder and the powerful hands of a seaman.

He knows he's following in the tradition of McKay and his clippers, and he hopes this fact will convince developers that Boston BoatWorks should be a permanent part of the East Boston landscape. "It's authentic, and it needs to be on the waterfront," he says.

Indeed, it's this mixture of the old and the new that might ensure that the marine industry has a significant place in East Boston's future.

"You don't want to overwhelm a place and kill what it is," says Professor Florida. "What gives a place its character is its uniqueness."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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