Wednesday, January 10, 2007

RIP The Ritz, Jimmy's Harborside and James Kelly

Events of the past few days remind me of the lyrics of a song sung by Al Stewart, "Time Passages". Every city evolves and things that always were are suddenly gone.

In North Cambridge there are many who are completely lost with the possible closing of Verna's Donuts on Mass Ave a fixture since 1941 and a favorite haunt of Mr. Speaker "Tip" O' Neil. In the comments section we learn that Verna's may now be saved. In Union Square Somerville many are despondent over the impending closing of Tir na nOg a little Irish pub that has developed a loyal following over the past 10 years. The Nog's sudden closing comes as another shock to those who fled to Somerville after The Plough and Stars in Cambridge changed hands and even the Plough's former owner George worked a shift or two at The Nog.This story can be repeated in just about any Boston neighborhood these days and we collectively shrug and continue on. But then there are institutions located downtown that change or vanish and they seem to hit harder. It has been over ten years but does any native Bostonian call "Jordan Marsh" Macy's? A native still refers to I-95 as 128 even though the signs were changed decades ago. If there is anything Bostonians do best it is to resist change.

This week comes the news of 2 more parts of Boston that are vanishing forever.Tomorrow (January 11th) the Ritz-Carlton on Arlington Street changes its name to Taj Boston. One can only imagine the horror this is causing in the world of the Boston Brahmins. Michael Levinson in the Globe wrote a piece on the change in Wednesday's Globe. He tells the story of a man who was asked to leave the bar because he was wearing a golf shirt and a Red Sox hat who just happened to be the Mayor of Boston at the time, Ray Flynn. Chances are any other innkeeper in the city would have a legion of city inspectors’ swarm onto the premises if the Mayor was insulted but the "Ritz" had its own rules and that was understood by everybody.

"The Ritz people are the people who have yachts in Florida, who have Cadillacs, whose families have always stayed at Ritz hotels, who don't want crowds, who expect and demand the best," Charles Ritz , chairman of the ParisRitz, declared during a visit in 1965. "They don't care about all these modern gadgets. You could give them a hotel where you could push a button and go to the moon and they wouldn't want it."

I have been in the Ritz twice in my life and both times the staff eyed me as though I was "The creature from the dark lagoon". It was a totally different world from what you and I know and that is exactly what they wanted. Years ago when I drove a cab to get through school you would treat any passenger to and from the Ritz differently than other people. If a Ritz bellhop complained to Boston Hackney about a driver, their taxi career was finished. I can recall several famous people I drove there like Arthur Fiedler, Jean Stapelton (when she was Edith), Caroline Kennedy (when she was a student at Harvard), Senator George McGovern and a fascinating character who went by the name Reverend Ike. I also had a memorable faux pas when I picked up an older European gentleman at Logan going to the Ritz and asked him if this was his first visit to Boston. He exploded that he was the former conductor of the Boston Symphony (Erich Leinsdorf) and how could I possibly not know who he was? Now if he had been a reliever for the Kansas City Royals.

Now granted the Ritz is not closing but somehow I sense the name Taj Boston is not going to become part of the Boston lexicon. Even though there has been another Ritz in Boston now for 10 years across from the Common if you said Ritz to anybody in the city they assumed you meant the one on Arlington Street.

On Monday workers began the destruction of Jimmy's Harborside on Northern Avenue. Jimmy's closed one year ago with the hope it will reopen in the future but that remains to be seen. The Globe's Thomas Palmer wrote on Monday that "Seafood eatery Jimmy's braces for demolition" and speculates what the future holds for the restaurant.

Jimmy's was never as famous with the tourist crowd as Anthony's Pier 4 but was the seafood restaurant of choice for generations of Boston families (including mine). The bar which was fashioned from an old boat was the location of countless Boston political, banking and real estate deals. It was the place the power brokers hung out at. It certainly was nothing to look at from the outside considering it was an old warehouse on the fish pier but inside it was something special. Its large red neon sign was an icon on the waterfront. But Boston's seaport-waterfront district is undergoing drastic changes now with new hotels, bars, convention centers, museums, offices and restaurants springing up all over. It also should have been the new home of the Boston Patriots (a name Bob Kraft was going to restore) when he built his new stadium in South Boston. But Bob and Jonathan Kraft made a fatal mistake when planning the stadium as they decided they didn't have to deal with Jimmy Kelly. The stadium is in Foxboro today and the Red Sox probably are still at Fenway because of what happened with the Patriots plan.

Jimmy Kelly passed away yesterday at the age of 66. He was a product of the gritty streets of South Boston and first became known as a fierce opponent to forced busing and then as a long time city councilor from South Boston. Kelly was beloved in South Boston and hated elsewhere for his views. I suspect Jimmy never found Archie Bunker to be funny as he probably agreed with him on most issues. Southie did not like outsiders and it had nothing to do with the color of your skin. You could be Irish-Catholic from Cambridge or Somerville and when you stepped off the Red line in Broadway you were a million miles from home. One of the biggest fights the City of Montreal ever witnessed was between 2 groups of Bruins fans from Southie and Charlestown at a beer hall known as The Old Munich. More importantly people in Southie would not tolerate people from outside the community telling them what to do.

Jimmy would be amused by the coverage of him in both daily papers. Howie Carr in the Herald wrote the column they will be reading in Southie and Eileen McNamara in the Globe writes the column they will be reading in Hingham and Lexington. Both columns represent who and what James Kelly was. The city now plans to rename the Broadway Bridge linking the South End with South Boston in his honor. There is a delicious irony there.

Finally on the day Jimmy Kelly died another figure from the busing crisis in South Boston also passed away. William J. Reid died yesterday at the age of 94 outside of Chicago. He was the headmaster of South Boston High School when busing began.

Well, I'm not the kind to live in the past

The years run too short and the days too fast

The things you lean on

Are the things that don't last

Well, it's just now

And then my line gets cast into these

Time passages

There's something back here that you left behind

Oh, time passages

Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight


Ron Newman said...

it appears that Verna's Donuts may stay open under new ownership:

Buyer may takeover neighborhood landmark (The Alewife)
Verna's may stay open (Cambridge Chronicle)

Pamela Moran said...

OMG that is wonderful news about Verna's. I had been avoiding going by there thinking it was gone. Thank you so much for posting that.

Rhea said...

I get very nostalgic about stuff, particularly Boston stuff. I hate when institutions like the Ritz or Verna's (yes, I mention them in the same sentence) disappear. I know Verna's has been saved, but what about all the other places?

Susan said...

A lot of property owners are being idiots. I didn't
even know about the Nog (or I certainly would have
visited it), but if I walk to Park Street from Borders
I see the demise of the Littlest Bar on Province
Street. *Sniff.*

I had no idea that Verna's Donuts was in trouble And I've
never had a chance to eat at Jimmy's. The No-Name
doesn't count, but I hope that isn't going, too.

The lovely old Ritz becoming "The Taj?" You'd think
the dumb property owners would want to capitalize on
the fame of the "Ritz" name. What are they going to
do now -- serve Indian food? It's not as if anyone is
actually going to get the "Brahmin" joke.

I still haven't forgiven Macy's for destroying Jordan
Marsh and now Filene's. Bad enough that the New York
Times owns the Globe.

I haven't recovered from the closing of Wordsworth or
even the Crimson Grille, after all this time. And the
Montreal Forum is a very bad shopping mall.

Ron Newman said...

the Nog hasn't closed yet. You have until the end of January.

Sometimes a family just doesn't want to run a business any longer, or no longer has children who want to keep it going, even if the business doing well. I think that was the case for Verna's.

Ron Newman said...

As for the Ritz, I don't think the buyers had a choice -- they were buying only the property, not the trademark, which remained with the seller.

Fenway said...

Now comes word that the Loews Assembly Square movie complex in Somerville will close on January 15th.

Suddenly I wonder how safe the run down Harvard Square theater is.

Ron Newman said...

If AMC doesn't want Harvard Square anymore, I'm sure some other theatre operator will buy it. It's a very good location.

Assembly Square is old, tired, and not especially well located (especially for public transit folk). Nevertheless, I'll probably go there Monday night to say one last goodbye to it.