- Toni Rossi, Brighton Center Main
Streets President, Speaks Out
- The following is an excerpt from a taped interview conducted
by local historian Bill Marchione with Toni Rossi, community
activist and President of Brighton Main Streets.
- Bill Marchione: Toni, would you begin by telling us a
little about yourself---your background, where you grew up, a bit
about your family?
- Toni Rossi: I came to Brighton when I was in the fifth
grade. Before that the we lived in the North End of Boston. The
North End was not as upscale then as it is today, but it did have
some wonderful features. You had a whole community of people of
the same ethnic background, who knew one another very well, and
people shopped every day in the many local markets. Sad to say, in
today's North End there are lots of restaurants, but all those
wonderful local markets are gone.
- From there we came out to Brighton. And I remember one of the
nuns at the school I attended asking me, "What do you like most
about your new neighborhood?" And I immediately answered, "The
trees!" That meant so much to me. We lived on a nice street (Hull
Street near the Copp's Hill Burial Ground) and we did have some
open space there. We could look over to the Charlestown Navy Yard.
It was very open, but the fact remained that I did not have a tree
in front of my house. The trees were something that I especially
enjoyed when I came to Brighton.
- BM: Did you move to Lake Street at that point?
- TR: No, we lived on Market Street, right next to what
is now Keenan Way. We moved to Lake Street when I was a junior at
St. Columbkille's High School.
- BM: So how long have you lived on Lake Street?
- TR: Over fifty years. Brighton has gone through
tremendous changes in that time. I can remember when Brock and
Beechcroft Streets were open fields. The same was true of Keenan
Way. Then there was the Middlemas Farm, where the Fidelis Way
project is today, and another farm next to the Edison School,
where Anselm Terrace is now. I regret the loss of those open
areas. They could have been developed better.
- BM: Your house---222 Lake Street---dates from the early
1800s and is quite important historically, as you know. In the
19th century, it was the home of James Lloyd Lafayette Warren, who
ran the Nonantum Vale Gardens, a nursery that stood just north of
the house. In 1849 Mr. Warren migrated out to California, and
became the pioneer horticulturalist of that state, the founder of
the California Agricultural Society and the California State Fair.
He's referred to as the "Father of California Agriculture." Was
your family aware of the importance of the house when it purchased
- TR: No, actually it was only when the Brighton/ Allston
Historical Society published an article about the house in the
Allston-Brighton Citizen-Item back in the early 1980s that we
became aware of its history. So we have the society to thank for
- BM: So, how did you become involved in the community,
- TR: Well, it's only in the past ten years or so that
I've been active in the community.
- When I graduated from High School in 1949, I went to work in
the downtown financial district, for the First National Bank,
which became Bank Boston, and is now the Fleet Bank. So for all
those years, working long hours in the downtown, I had little time
to devote to the community. But when I retired, in January of
1990, I decided that I should give something back to the community
that I had lived in all my life.
- It was at that time that the sale of the Cenacle Convent
property came up, which abutted the house in which I live, and
everyone on Lake Street was concerned about what would happen to
that beautiful 17-acre parcel of open land and the lovely old
building that sat on the property. And I remember you, Bill,
giving a presentation before the Boston Landmarks Commission at
the time, asking that the property be landmarked. I also got
involved in the LUCK Neighbood Association, which was very
protective of this area.
- BM: Were you involved in the founding of the
- TR: It already existed when I joined it.
- BM: Was Marion Alford the President at the time?
- TR: Yes, she was.
- BM: Are you satisfied with the outcome of the Cenacle
issue (its purchase by the EF International Language
- TR: Yes, I am. If there ever is a problem up there, I
call them and it's corrected. Also, they restored the barn and the
carriage house to a useful building, without destroying a single
line of its unique exterior.
- BM: So, they are being responsible.
- TR: Very.
- BM: Are you concerned about the future of that
property---the possibility of someone proposing large scale
development there at some point?
- TR: I would be concerned, certainly, because I think
Brighton has been overdeveloped. It's a small area with a dense
population. I think the 1950s were horrendous as far as
overdevelopment and poor planning were concerned. We have two huge
projects in the community, the Faneuil and the Fidelis Way
projects. In addition, of course, we have many, many multi-unit
dwellings along Commonwealth Avenue, so there's very little open
- BM: You're right on the density issue. We have almost
75,000 people living in an area that comprises less than four and
a half square miles. Of all the City of Boston outer
neighborhoods, Allston-Brighton is the most densely populated. So
you're saying that you would like to put some sort of a break on
- TR: Yes. New projects should be carefully regulated for
size and landscaping so as to benefit the community. Historic
preservation should also be considered.
- BM: Are there other issues of particular concern to
- TR: We have a large number of properties in our
community owned by non-residents that are not being properly
maintained; also, a large number of resident-owned rental
properties that are likewise poorly maintained. One of the worst
offenses is when owners pave over their front yards for parking.
One thing that impressed me when I was travelling in England some
years back, was how well-maintained the front yards are there,
even the smallest green spaces are full of beautiful flowers.
These are row houses belonging to ordinary people, but they're
still well-maintained. No one has paved over those spaces!
- BM: The English seem to be more sensitive to the
importance of enhancing their landscape than we Americans are. I
noticed the same thing when I was there in 1997. And it's equally
true of Canada. In cities like Ottawa, and in Victoria in British
Columbia, they hang baskets of flowers from their lamposts, and
take extraordinary measures to enhance the appearance of open
- TR: I believe the city government should take steps to
encourage proper maintenance of properties by their owners. I
think it's a city responsibility, and well within the
municipality's power. One very serious problem is the number of
unrelated people occupying units in Allston-Brighton, in
apartments that were built to accomodate a single family. Instead
of having one family, with one car, living in an apartment, we
often have four or more unrelated individuals, each with his or
her own automobile, and the resulting traffic and parking problems
are a tremendous burden on the community. Some curbs should be put
on multiple occupancy.
- BM: What community organizations have you been most
closely associated since you became active?
- TR: I was associated first with the LUCK Neighborhood
Association, and I've also been active in the Brighton-Allston
Improvement Association, serving on its Board of Directors, and
I'm currently the President of Brighton Main Streets.
- BM: How long have you held the Main Streets post?
- TR: One year. It's a one-year position.
- BM: Who is slated to become your successor? Has that
been decided yet?
- TR: Our Vice President, Ed Gottlieb, who is an attorney
with offices on Washington Street in Brighton Center. Ed grew up
in the neighborhood, on Brighton's Undine Road.
- BM: Were you involved in Brighton Main Streets from the
- TR: Yes, I was.
- BM: Can you give us some background on how the Main
Streets organization was set up?
- TR: I was one of the original founders. I remember
reading about Allston Village Main Streets, and I became very
- BM: So, Allston Village Main Streets existed
- TR: Yes, Allston Village Main Streets existed one year
before our group. And I remember calling Theresa Hynes and saying:
"Theresa, why doesn't Brighton have what Allston has?" Of course,
I recognize that Allston has a busier commercial area. It has more
stores and eating establishments than Brighton. More people seem
to come through Allston, and it has many more multi unit dwellings
than Brighton Center. I guess the powers that be felt that Main
Streets was more needed over there, but Brighton Center also was
in need of attention. Our business district was lackluster. People
would say, when we talked about Brighton Center, "It looks really
tired." It needed a face lift.
- Then we faced the problem of how to organize the community to
improve Brighton Center. There was the Brighton Board of Trade, a
group of business owners. And there was also a group of interested
residents. But these groups were separate, each having its own
nitch. Boston College facilitated bringing us together. We
contacted Jean McKeigue at the B. C. Neighborhood Center, and B.C.
offered us space in their offices for our meetings. They also
sponsored several symposiums to explore the feasibilty of business
people and residents working together, and talking the issues out.
This was the group that worked on the application for Brighton
- BM: Where does the funding for the Main Street program
- TR: From the federal government, from Washington, to
the city, which dispenses the funds to the localities that
- BM: When was Brighton Center Main Streets
- TR: In August 1997.
- BM: So, Brighton Center Main Streets has existed for
about four years. Is there any limit as to how long it can
continue to exist?
- TR: No. The funds from the city are scaled down after
four years, but there's no reason why the organization shouldn't
continue to work for the good of the business district. We also
have a corporate buddy. We are very fortunate in having the New
Balance Athletic Shoe Company---headquartered at Brighton
Landing---as our corporate partner. They've been very, very
helpful and extremely supportive.
- BM: What have been some of the achievements of Brighton
Center Main Streets?
- TR: Part of Main Streets mission was the restoration
and historic preservation of buildings in the business district.
Also, Main Streets works to improve facades with good lighting and
more attractive signage. The goal is to make the business district
appealing, so that its businesses will thrive. We're happy to say
that the vacancy rate is very low in our area. There have also
been two huge renovation/ preservation initiatives in Brighton
Center of late---the old Rourke's building and in the Brighton
Travel building, which is the oldest building in Brighton Center.
These structures look really beautiful at this point. And, of
course, I have to compliment the city for redoing Washington
Street and installing new lights, a major rehab that came to
- BM: There have been a lot of improvements in the
business district signage as well.
- TR: Yes, and there's more to come. Remember, we had the
old post office building right in the middle of Brighton Center
(formerly Ralph Jordan's fabric store) that was vacant for ten
years. That was another Main Streets achievement, helping to get
that building refurbished inside and out. It now houses Devlin's
Restaurant. Technical assistance for that renovation was provided
by the downtown Main Streets staff. What we have there now is a
very attractive restaurant. The physical improvements to Brighton
Center have been striking. The Rourke building renovation alone
cost $2 million. Agricultural Hall (the Brighton Travel building)
needed a lot of shoring up from the basement to the roof. And that
was close to a million dollar project. The old post office project
also involved a sizeable expenditure---of probably a half million
dollars. So a lot of money has been invested recently in Brighton
Center. We also worked very hard to get the federal government to
resume work on the new Brighton Center post office after it froze
funding last January, and that work is going on now. Main Streets
provides only a small amount of the funds really---$10,000 is the
maximum contribution, matched to the owner's contribution for such
things as lighting, signage, and so forth.
- BM: Would you say that the relationship between
Allston-Brighton and the city government has improved
significantly since you first became involved in the community in
- TR: I think that there's more community interest in
participation now than there had been previously.
- BM: But do you think that there's more of a disposition
on the part of the city to be responsive?
- TR: Yes, I do. But I also feel, as I mentioned before,
that the city should put into effect more stringent policies
regarding the condition, maintenance, and attractiveness of
property, residential and business properties alike.