Seeking to Save the South End Charm:Retailers,Businesses Call on Neighborhood in Time of ‘Crisis’

By Seth Daniel

Moria Flynn, of MFlynn, and Sofi Madison, of Olives & Grace, in Madison’s store last week. The two female business owners are part of a larger group of women who are sponsoring ‘Get Tapped,’ a community celebration on March 28 designed to have fun and talk about the direction of the neighborhood.

For South End business owners – many of whom are women and who live in the South End – there is a crisis brewing in the eclectic business districts that have made the neighborhood one of the most popular destinations in the city, and on March 28, a group of strong women-owned businesses plan to bring the community together to have fun and to have a conversation.

Led by Sofi Madison of Olives & Grace, Rebecca Roth Gullo of Banyan and Blackbird, Hadley Douglas of Urban Grape, Randi Lathrop and Moria and Megan Flynn of MFlynn, the community is invited to an old time “keg party” at Banyan on Tremont Street on March 28 to have fun, raise money for the Peters Park Graffiti Wall and begin talking about the crisis facing small businesses.

Above all, Roth Gullo said they are looking to have fun – to slow down and enjoy the company neighbors and business owners at the end of winter.

“I’m overwhelmed by the political landscape right now,” she said. “With all that in mind, a keg party seemed proper to me. We are going to raise money for the Peters Park art wall, and we’re going to bring everyone together in something that’s not political. It’s just nice to have fun for once. No one has fun anymore.”

For many of the other women-owned businesses, it will also be a time to begin having an overall conversation about the way that beloved small businesses in the neighborhood are being threatened with the higher rents brought on by the ripe development atmosphere – rents that typically can only be afforded by larger chain stores.

“We all really care about the community and each other and appreciate each other’s businesses,” said Madison. “It’s with friendship and loyalty that we are coming together for the greater good of the South End. We recognize each business that closes; we take that personally and we feel that. It’s a big conversation, and then it’s ‘What now?’

“We want to come together and to ask the neighborhood to remember to support us,” she continued. “It’s a really big thing in what we can all do to reverse this. We’re not going to just wait and see what happens or ignore it. We’re going to talk with each other about it. Residents are having the same conversation we’re having. We’re just not talking to each other. We all feel the same way and we all want to slow this down.”

Madison, whose small store on Tremont Street sells premium products, said the trend is particularly devastating because it is a combination of large-scale development converging with the advent of online shopping. Those two things have hit retailers and restauranteurs particularly hard, and many times, the community doesn’t realize until it’s too late.

That, she said, is when one begins to see more banks and more real estate offices and more national/regional chains – which she said are the types of businesses that can afford the higher rents commanded by those two forces at work.

Moria Flynn said landlords and residents should understand that one main reason the South End is so charming, and such a desirable place to live, is that it has business owners who live and work in the neighborhood – or who get to know the residents on a first name basis.

“In the world of the Internet, it’s so easy to sit on your cute South End apartment and order everything online and never leave to go outside in the neighborhood,” she said. “We need to spread this message. When you hear it over and over it resonates and you change these habits. There’s a reason people choose the South End rather than Beacon Hill or other neighborhoods. They want that eclectic feel that’s here – the flowers placed nicely in the bike at Sault or the wreaths being made on the sidewalk bench outside Olives & Grace. There is something to that, and it can be lost.”

Hadley Douglas of The Urban Grape said she and her husband, TJ, have benefitted from a landlord, Linear Residential, who understands the value of having a small business in the neighborhood. She said it is scary to see other businesses who don’t enjoy that privilege and aren’t given a chance to grow, but rather are pushed out.

“What we’re seeing with a lot of these businesses is we’re come in and putting our stakes down in an up and coming neighborhood, helping to build a community and the economic base,” she said. “It was because of us the South End became known as fun and quirky. People started moving from the Back Bay and empty nesters began moving in too. Then rents started to rise and condos started to rise…Now we are tipping over on the other side and seeing it go from a quirky neighborhood to the highest property values in all Boston. What happens with that is that eventually the only businesses who can afford the rising rents are national chains or New England regional chains.”

Douglas said she is nervous about the business climate, especially for those that are not in the same good situation as Urban Grape.

“We have to sit down and figure out how to save our small businesses,” she said.

Roth Gullo said she recently had a situation where a major developer nearly doubled the rent on one of her popular restaurants. Though it didn’t happen, it was a wake up call for many in the South End.

“There is a tendency now for rents to go up,” she said. “There are quality landlords that are conscious of needing to have quality local tenants…Then there are some developers who only want to bust the rent rolls. We want everyone in the South End to see the local businesses for their value…The City has shown that they care about us. We have talked to developers who care about us and developers who could care less about us. We have talked to neighbors who care about us and neighbors who could care less about us. It just so happens, we all know and support each other. We need the community and developers to pay attention to us.”

In the Olives & Grace store last week, the long-time mailman came in. He knew Madison and she knew him. In fact, almost everyone knew each other. It was something that, they all said, tied the neighborhood together. It has become so common in the South End, that many might not notice it could be slowly eroding.

“This is a national trend, but what’s noteworthy here is we have a strong group of women-owned businesses coming together to have fun, to raise money for an art project and to talk with the community,” said Madison. “My confidence in the neighborhood being saved comes in the power of us all coming together. Someone is going to pay these rents. It might as well be someone who cares about the neighborhood.”

‘Get Tapped’ will take place on Tuesday, March 28, from 6-10 p.m at Banyan Bar and Refuge, 553 Tremont St. Tickets are $15 and that includes two drink tickets from kegs of Pabst, featured cocktails, limitless chicken wings, doughnuts, music, and live graffiti work by ‘Marka27,’ ‘Problak,’ and Lee Beard. All proceeds from the party go towards the Peters Park Art Wall project.

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