Author and journalist misses friendly and eclectic South End of the past

May 5, 2014 04:19 PM

Catherine Pears
Author Alison Barnet reads from her history of the South End, "South End Character: Speaking Out on Neighborhood Change," at a gathering sponsored by FENSfund, the Fenway Education Neighborhood Support group.

By Catherine Pears, Globe Correspondent

Longtime resident Alison Barnet is no longer a proud South Ender. Barnet has lived in the South End since 1964, studying English at BU, working as the founding editor of the South End News in 1980, and as a reporter for the Boston cable station, Neighborhood Network News in the mid ’80s.

She self-published book covering South End life over the years, "South End Character: Speaking Out on Neighborhood Change," this past November. The book chronicles everything from Tent City to a culture of stoop sitting and at times transitions into a commentary of the gentrification of the neighborhood, the high prices now accompanying renting or owning, and a personality that, Barnet says, the South End now lacks.

“I don’t like it now. I can’t stand it. I really just don’t know what to do,” Bartnet said. “When I was first there for many years it was a very mixed community, very interesting, very supportive. I knew everybody. Now, forget it — it’s just a rich, boring place.”

Barnet characterizes the “Old South End” as a friendly neighborhood with an eclectic community of people. She says the problem with a lack of a cultural diversity comes down to a lack economic diversity.

“I think rich people are boring. People’s values are different. One of the things that’s happening, the big thing, is the gap between the rich people, the white people, and the people who aren’t rich. It used to be a friendly place and we just don’t understand each other at all,” Barnet said. “We’ve gone so far in the opposite direction.”

The old ways of the South End were full of movement., she said. Artists, musicians, and writers from different economic and cultural backgrounds lived in the area and everyone mingled, from outside on the sidewalk to inside their homes. Those who lived in the South End were typically involved in some sort of change, and Barnet said that sense of a group taking collective and individual forms of greater action is no longer present.

“People in the South End are not progressive anymore. Back in the ’60s and the ’70s if I said I lived in the South End, people would say, ‘Wow, you must be involved in some sort of movement or something.’ It was great,” Barnet said. “There was a sense of excitement all the time. We used to sit on the stoop. Hardly anyone sits out on the stoop anymore. But we used to sit on the stoop every night and meet people. Here comes some guy we never saw before and two minutes later he’s sitting with us.”

The South End has managed to maintain a liberal, artsy reputation with its seemingly endless amount of coffee shops and art galleries speckled on Tremont Street, but Barnet said this idea isn’t well-founded. She says stoop sitting is now viewed as déclassé and a nuisance, and that mixing of race is even less common.

“I go to a meeting or party or something and everybody is white. That never used to be the case. I don’t like it,” said Barnet.

Barnet still writes a column for the South End News once in a while, although she says after submitting her column she will often find it missing from the issue. After contacting her editor, it will eventually make it in, over the objections from South End residents who aren’t happy with some of the things Barnet has to say.

A recent column of Barnet’s wasn’t published, but she hasn’t decided whether she’ll bother to ask why yet another one was excluded from print.

“Well, in the Globe, several weeks ago, there was an article that Boston was the fastest gentrifying city in the whole country,” said Barnet. “And I quoted that and I said all of these neighborhoods of Boston are gentrified — Roxbury, East Boston, you name it. But people do not talk anymore about the South End because we are over.”

That sense of “over-ness” is part of the reason why Barnet started to get involved in the FENSfund, the Fenway Education Neighborhood Support.

FENSfund board member Nikki Flionis agrees with Barnet’s sentiments regarding the South End and said that she now looks for people in the Fenway to do “good things.”

The FENSfund began as a way to accept grants to help push the cultural agenda of the Fenway News, which has been publishing for 40 years.

“The other part of our mission was to really be the grassroots part of cultural activities in Fenway,” said Flionis. “We just decided let’s give it a shot and get some writing events going this year and next year continue the writing events and add on a collaboration with music, dancing, choreography, painting, whatever we can find.”

The FENSfund brings in residents from various Boston neighborhoods. At a reading on Monday night, April 28, at Woody’s Grill and Tap at 58 Hemeway St, Bostonians from Jamaica Plain, the South End, Back Bay, and, of course, the Fenway, were present.

Barnet read two columns from her book South End Character, Speaking Out On Neighborhood Change, along with a reading of the novel The One Way Rain by Cathy Jacobowitz and poetry by Letta Neely.

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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