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Downtown's dark heart

Boston's shopping district loses its charm at night, becoming a lonely, desolate place apart

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / March 22, 2009
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All was still, so still that the only sound was the buzzing of the sodium-colored street lights and the flapping of a pigeon in the partially demolished shell of the former Filene's building. Washington Street was empty, dotted with trash bags left by the shopkeepers who had long ago hauled them to the sidewalk and headed for home. Suddenly, two figures emerged from the doorway of a century-old apartment building. One was smoking a cigarette; the other held a pit bull on a leash.

"There's nothing to be afraid of," said the smoker, Alex Ogan, smiling and taking a puff, as his friend looked on, "because this is a ghost town."

To travel to Downtown Crossing at night, long after the lively throngs of after-work commuters, shoppers, and joggers have gone, is to enter a desolate and at times foreboding world sparsely populated by a Runyonesque cast of characters - bar hoppers, smooching lovers, a man looking for a fight, and a cane-toting 90-year-old called Princess Diana.

Between 6 p.m. and midnight, the neighborhood undergoes a profound transformation, from kinetic shopping hub to lonely alleyway. After the shops close at 8 and 9, the only movement on the street is from the occasional taxi, the rhythmic patter of its tires audible as it rumbles over the crisscrossed pavers that line the pedestrian mall along Washington Street.

While many streets in famously sleepy Boston can be quiet at night, the feeling here is different. The lack of all but commercial traffic makes it seem a district apart from the rest of downtown - so quiet that the click of heels echo from a block away and you can hear the horns honking on Tremont Street.

Downtown Crossing is one of the country's last remaining pedestrian malls, a vestige of the 1970s that was intended to enliven American downtowns by blocking them off from traffic but instead made many of them seem eerie and forlorn, particularly at night. At 11:30 p.m., surveying the stillness outside his condo on Washington Street, with Ogan and his pit bull, Twister, Kevin Barron offered an idea, unbidden.

"We need to open it up to traffic," said Barron, who moved to the street in 2001. "We are so sick of this. It's plagued by loiterers at day and a ghost town at night."

Ogan nodded. "From a purely residential convenience standpoint, it would be helpful," he said. "Newbury Street works great."

Ogan moved to Washington Street from Somerville's Davis Square six months ago, he said, to be closer to his job as an investment manager in Copley Square.

"I wish my neighborhood were nicer," he said, "but I love my apartment."

When the evening began at 6, Downtown Crossing was at its liveliest, jammed with men and women with garment bags and briefcases, teenagers gabbing on the sidewalk, shoppers carrying bags, vendors hawking roasted nuts, sausages, fruit. Snippets of conversation filled the air.

"I gotta go! See ya, kid."

"I sent the e-mail and CC'd Brian."

But as the sun dipped behind the skyscrapers and the shops closed, buttoning up their gates, Washington Street began to empty.

"Downtown is dead-town at night," said Omar Lopez, a baseball cap vendor who packed up his pushcart at 7. At 8:30, the bustle had become a trickle. At 9:30, the street was mostly still. Mary Ann Ponti, who has lived on the street for seven years, stepped out of her building, trailing her Yorkshire terrier, Cannoli. She spotted the elderly woman with the cane, another resident of the street, carrying a bag from Wendy's.

"Hi, Princess Diana!" Ponti said, and they chatted briefly.

"I love living here," Ponti said, explaining that she can walk to her job in the Financial District and to her kung fu class in Chinatown. "I'm always meeting people I know in the Crossing, which I like because this is community."

Then she went back inside. The street was lonely again. Taxis that had inched along earlier sped through, unimpeded. At 10:30, a burst of life hit the street as a crowd of theatergoers left a performance of "Dirty Dancing" at the Boston Opera House. And then, just as quickly, they were gone, into cars, buses, and the subway.

At 11, with the street barren, a large man with a bristling crew cut appeared. His speech was slurred. "Bunch of nerds!" he said to a bespectacled reporter and photographer, who did not argue and walked away.

Leaving a bar, John Hodgkins and Dwayne Theriot stopped at the former Filene's building. They peered over a fence at a gaping hole in the ground, and a sheared-off wall, signs of a stalled effort to convert the building into a residential and retail tower.

"Dude, this is worse than the Big Dig," Theriot told Hodgkins.

"It's a scar," said Hodgkins, who has worked downtown for 15 years.

Still, he said, the area could come back to life, like Times Square in New York, mixing nostalgia and buzz. This is music to the ears of city officials, who say new restaurants and plans for 750 housing units by 2011 will eventually revive Downtown Crossing.

"I think it does have potential to be very strong," Hodgkins said. And then he and Theriot were gone, down into the subway, and all that was left was the night.

After six hours in Downtown Crossing, it was quiet again, and still. A horn honked in the distance. The street lights buzzed. A taxi rumbled past.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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