I had breakfast at Charlie’s in the South End the other day as we wanted to show this legendary diner to a young friend of ours who was in town for a few days. It was a worthy visit because not only did it delight my palate and senses but also it gave me some food for thought…
Charlie’s teaches us a thing or two about business. It is also the last symbolic bastion of the old South End in an ultra-gentrified neighborhood.
Charlie’s has been a staple in the South End for decades – it has found the formula for staying in business all these years: Consistency and Value… Consistency in their staff, quality of the food, and attention of the service. Charlie’s has been staffed and managed by the same 4 folks since the 70’s (two women and two men). Good people, very welcoming – they each have a different personality but just seem happy to be there. Prices are fine given the quality of the food and the huge portion size but the place is not cheap. You’ll order pancakes, or French toasts, or an omelet – order for two and coffee, you are looking at a $20 check. But Charlie’s offers excellent value: they serve the best French toasts I have ever eaten (and I am big and demanding on anything sweet) and thus, the “package” given the quality of the food and of the welcome is very compelling.
So, in short, a few simple lessons: provide consistent quality and value, know who you are and don’t change your personality (or corporate identity / DNA for that matter)…
Charlie’s is also one of the remnants of the old South End, i.e. the neighborhood as it was pre-gentrification. I am not going to romanticize that era – granted, it had a higher crime rate than today and a lot of the sections were just decrepit. There was much less activity all around and there was no such thing as “Restaurant Row” like today.
However, a sign that shows that the neighborhood has not only changed for the better is that Charlie’s $20 bill for an omelet and coffee for two seems actually dirt cheap compared to the neighborhood’s funky “eateries” (what a terrible word…) where you’ll have to pay about $15 just to get an order of pancakes or French toasts over brunch.
I also find it quite striking that we live in an actual state of de facto segregation in the South End today.
For those of you who don’t know the neighborhood, the South End has historically been the home of several housing projects. Since Boston is required by law to have at least 15% of its housing stock as social housing, the South End projects are not going anywhere. In the past 10-15 years, the folks who were paying market rate rents were priced out by inflation and moved further out and a lot of those who owned places cashed in and left.
As it was getting more hip and lively, the neighborhood kept attracting a younger, whiter, and wealthier crowd and that trend has not stopped. I’ve been in the South End for 5+ years now and disparities keep growing wider and wider.
I look around me and I sense that in most cases people of color look at white folks with mistrust and unease – and conversely.
Again, I don’t want to romanticize the old times but there is a consensus among the old-timers that the neighborhood had much more of a community feel in the 80’s and 90’s as folks loving the Victorian architecture or all the studio loft spaces that were available for almost nothing moved in.
I don’t sense any of this today. Most residents seem to care more about property values and new “eateries” and lounges than about their fellow neighbors.
How did we get there?
Gentrification of historic neighborhoods in downtown areas is not unique to Boston. The same has happened in a lot of big cities around the world, in the US and in Europe in particular. But this is where urban planning comes into play. It should be an essential goal of every large municipality to preserve the “social fabric” of its neighborhoods and do whatever is possible to maintain a representation of all levels of income.
By encouraging new construction or building conversions that only catered to the high end / luxury segment, the City of Boston has in my opinion failed its constituency and failed to make the downtown area a place that is lively and welcoming to everyone - where people from all walks of life feel equally comfortable.