Residents want 2d look at Eastie’s many firsts

By Brian MacQuarrie
Globe Staff / July 6, 2011

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East Boston harbors a rich trove of unsung history: first naval conflict of the Revolutionary War, birthplace of world-class clipper ships, and the first American home of the Kennedy family.

What East Boston does not have is much publicity about that past, either within or outside its 6 square miles of three-deckers, brownstones, and underdeveloped waterfront.

A determined group of community activists is trying to fill that void. In their vision, a visitors center and museum would rise near the harbor as a reminder of the people and events that have made the neighborhood a vibrant, if often overlooked, piece of Boston life.

“This would be nice to deliver to the community,’’ said Ron Hardaway, a retiree who is manager of the fledgling project. “They need it so badly.’’

The plan’s advocates envision a 4,000- to 5,000-square-foot building near Maverick Square, emphasizing the cultural impact of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who made East Boston their first stepping stone in the New World.

Successive waves of newcomers included Irish such as P.J. Kennedy, grandfather of President Kennedy; Eastern European Jews, who once made the neighborhood the largest Jewish community in New England; Italians, who moved from the North End and directly from the mother country; and, more recently, Latinos from Central and South America.

Planners also see an educational component tied to schools, walking tours, historical markers, and an interactive presence that would help residents of East Boston become more mindful of their place in history.

“The town does need a marketing push,’’ said Hardaway, whose home faces the water and the end of a Logan Airport runway. “East Boston doesn’t have anything like this at all.’’

To pay for the center, planners hope to use state conservation mandates to spur interest from developers of five planned waterfront residential projects. Instead of providing the public with indoor space at each of the projects, the museum’s supporters said, perhaps the developers could pool their contributions to build a visitors center.

Officials with Roseland Property Co., a New Jersey-based developer of one of the residential projects, said they had not been approached about the visitors center. However, the developer is “always happy to consider input and requests from the community,’’ said Nancy Sterling, a spokeswoman.

A visitors center and museum would be an allowed use under state conservation law, called Chapter 91, according to Jessica Shumaker, spokeswoman for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. However, she said, public-access uses were negotiated years ago with these developers, and the BRA would have little leverage to persuade them to support the new concept.

Susan Parker Brauner, who owns a real estate company in East Boston and specializes in historic preservation, said planners hope to approach developers within the next few months.

“There’s an amazing amount of history here,’’ said Brauner, a native of Wellesley. “Growing up, I knew two things about East Boston: Logan Airport and Pixie Palladino,’’ a former School Committee member from the neighborhood who opposed court-ordered busing in the 1970s.

During a recent tour of the East Boston waterfront, Brauner ticked off a list of people and places that make the enclave special to her. She pointed out a brownstone designed by famed early-American architect Charles Bulfinch, stunning downtown views from Piers Park, and funky artwork installed outdoors among gritty harbor industry.

“We’re the last undeveloped neighborhood, in a sense, on the waterfront,’’ Brauner said. “Not only do we want to build the project, but we want something of an endowment to keep it going. We do want to make this permanent.’’

Councilor Sal LaMattina, a lifelong East Boston resident, endorsed the concept.

“That’s a great idea,’’ said LaMattina. “That’s something that I’d be willing to work with the neighborhood on. I think East Boston could use a nice welcoming center.’’

East Boston’s role as a transient, temporary waystation for immigrant groups might explain why its history is not more conspicuous, Hardaway and others said. Another reason, LaMattina said, might be the disconnect that its cross-harbor location has caused with Boston proper.

“Years and years ago, sometimes it would take you a half-hour to get through the Sumner Tunnel,’’ the first underground connector between East Boston and the North End, LaMattina said. “A lot of people wanted to avoid coming to East Boston. Now, you can come in and out of East Boston in minutes.’’

Vic Mastone, a state archeologist who studied the 1775 Battle of Chelsea Creek, which occurred partly in East Boston, sees the neighborhood as a dynamic link among past, present, and future. Many people familiar with its history, Mastone said, know about the clippers built there by Donald McKay. But perhaps less known are the stones of English flint cobble, used for sailing-ship ballast, that can still be found in a neighborhood where demographics seem always in flux.

Latinos comprised 52.9 percent of East Boston’s population of 40,508 residents in 2010, compared with 39 percent in 2000, according to the BRA. Residents described solely as white made up 37.2 percent of the population last year, compared with 49.7 percent a decade earlier. Blacks or African-Americans comprised 3.2 percent of the population in 2010, a small rise from 3.1 percent in 2000.

“Each group tends to add something,’’ said Mastone, director of the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archeological Resources. “It also helps build an appreciation for what came before and what’s coming now.’’

One important vestige of that past is gone. The former East Boston Immigration Station, demolished this year, can no longer show visitors the place where as many as 51,000 newcomers arrived each year.

In 2010, the Boston Landmarks Commission ruled against historic protection for the building.

Although the recession has slowed waterfront development in East Boston, Hardaway and Brauner seem ready to push their vision over the long haul.

“We are not quiet people,’’ Hardaway said. “We are used to yelling over airplanes.’’

For Brauner, a visitors center and museum would be overdue recognition that the neighborhood has long been worth exploring.

In her view, Brauner said, “it’s OK to be from Eastie now.’’

MacQuarrie can be reached at