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 the property?
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 that information.
BM: So, how did you become involved in the community, Toni?
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 group?
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 Institute)?
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 space here.
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 development?
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 you?
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 land.
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 beginning?
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 jealous.
BM: So, Allston Village Main Streets existed first?
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 Main Streets.
BM: Where does the funding for the Main Street program come from?
TR: From the federal government, from Washington, to the city, which dispenses the funds to the localities that qualify.
BM: When was Brighton Center Main Streets established?
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 fruition recently.
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 1991?
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.
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