This post is part of the Portraits of Place series.
Boston’s Newbury Street appears to be just a wealthy, thriving shopping street for tourists and the well-off. It is more.
Over the past year I’ve been inspired by Aditi Mehta’s Who’s on Broad? series, which uncovers the dynamism of a declined but revitalizing main street in New Orleans. Although Newbury and Broad share neither appearance nor economy, I think they are similarly mistaken to be more simple and static than they actually are.
I’ve been a Newbury Street regular since 1997 when I started volunteering at the Women’s Lunch Place, a daytime refuge for poor and homeless women in the basement of the Covenant Church at 67 Newbury Street. My friend Tara and I would take the commuter rail in early every Saturday, set up the play room and organize fun things for kids too poor to afford lunch. Then in the afternoon we’d peruse the shops, dreaming of clothes we weren’t old enough to buy or wear, feeling the weight of the contradiction Newbury Street presented to us. The malls we were used to never asked as much of our consciences.
When I was little, my mom used to save up one dollar at a time over the course of the year so that we’d have $100 to spend on Newbury Street on my birthday. I loved that. It was enough money for our train tickets, lunch, and one new outfit. I used to fantasize about living in a secret room above my favorite store. I’d be able to walk downstairs every morning before the store opened to pick out a school outfit right off the racks. Honestly, that still seems like a great idea.
Newbury Street hosts the most expensive shops in the city. Chanel and Burberry anchor its easternmost end, which terminates at the Boston Public Gardens. Urban Outfitters and Best Buy anchor its westernmost end, which empties out onto Massachusetts Avenue and I-90. The seven blocks in between gradate from affordable-to-a-movie-star to affordable-to-a-suburban-teenager the way one color bleeds into another in a good ombré print.
I’ve walked up and down Newbury Street over a thousand times. I see something more complex than the shiny chain stores I fell in love with as a child. Most people don’t know, for example, that prostitutes lurk under certain awnings after the stores close, or that the slow-moving traffic affords some drivers the opportunity to slow down and eye any woman walking alone or with a suitcase to see if she’s in the business. A lot of people don’t know that the baristas at Espresso Royale think of themselves as a family.
There are things I’ve always wanted to know better about Newbury. I don’t know what it takes for a small business to make it on Newbury Street, and I also don’t know how artists and musicians claim the space in front of the mural alcove on the Mass Ave end.
For me, this summer series is my chance to look closer at a place I love. If you’re reading this and you’re a Newbury regular, consider yourself cordially invited to get involved. I am looking to connect with interesting people, shops, and organizations on Newbury Street. I plan to dedicate one post to each of them. I welcome contributions from people who want to author their own blog posts. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested.
Post and photos by Alexa Mills.