Sixty or more years ago, before the advent of the ubiquitous shopping mall, Dudley Square was Boston’s second most active retail area. The major department stores were downtown. Within a few blocks were Filene’s, Jordan Marsh, Gilchrist’s, Hovey’s and Sterns. However, the city’s largest furniture store was Ferdinand’s in Dudley Square.
The elevated train from downtown to Dudley provided easy access to the area. A number of multi-level department stores offered merchandise that was less expensive than downtown. Kresge’s, Duttons, McLellans and Woolworth’s were all in the area.
For entertainment there were two movie theaters. The Rivoli once stood on the plot that is now the police station parking lot. The Roxie became Blair’s Food Land, a large grocery store that is now the parking lot on Washington Street opposite Ruggles.
Public retail tastes change over time and none of the stores either downtown or in Dudley Square have survived. The removal of the elevated tracks opened new vistas along Washington Street, but that was not enough to jump start an economic renaissance for the area. Some new construction and renovation have been helpful: the courthouse, the Boys and Girls Club, the post office, Hibernian Hall, the Dartmouth Hotel and the office building at Warren and Palmer Streets. However, the skeleton of the Ferdinand building is a perpetual eyesore. Its presence announces to those travelling south on Washington Street that you are about to enter a depressed area.
Mayor Tom Menino has a new plan for the Dudley area. He will construct a new office building at the Ferdinand Furniture site. The new building will be the Boston Public Schools headquarters. According to estimates, construction will begin within 12 months, will develop 350 jobs and cost $115 million.
Menino has developed a public-private development structure to assure that this project moves forward. In the past, impediments beyond the control of the city prevented progress. Menino deserves credit for his determination to build a new Roxbury. His support of the Ruggles project also reflects that commitment.
Real estate projects of this magnitude are difficult to complete. There is still a hole in the ground downtown where Filene’s once stood. Several years ago Gov. Mitt Romney planned to develop the Ferdinand site but his plan fell apart. Despite the political risks of failure, Menino is determined to rebuild Dudley Square.
This project deserves the support of Boston’s citizens. Those old enough to have a nostalgic memory of Dudley Square should be excited by the project. Others should be aware of how the commercial revival of the area has the potential of rebuilding the community.
The renaissance of Roxbury in Dudley Square and the expansive Ruggles project will be a major legacy of Mayor Tom Menino to the city he loves.