Old-Timer Goes to City Hall Plaza

By Phineas J. Stone

Tax bills went out earlier this month, and if you own a place like me, you’ve spent the past few weeks putting your eyeballs back into their sockets.

Property taxes for me, and most in the area, were an afterthought. They were so low in year’s past that they probably didn’t even cover the cost of rubbish collection.

Now most every dwelling in the downtown neighborhoods is worth a small fortune, and the land that it sets upon – once worthless – now is as valuable as a newly discovered oil field. Everyone always says that a valuable home is good news.

You can sell it and make out like a bandit, they say.

You can borrow on the equity, they say.

When you’re older and in the city, none of that means anything. An older person doesn’t want to borrow money, and now that the neighborhood is so vibrant, who wants to sell? So, for the Mr. Bostons of the world, it just means a hefty tax bill that I have to plan carefully for – forgoing one of my two yearly vacations or a handful of trips to see the horses run.

My buddy in East Boston is having trouble with the same thing, as prices over there are just now starting to skyrocket. His father owns a house in Jeffries Point – a once forgotten enclave that’s now Boston’s hottest market aside the South End and Back Bay.

His father owns a place over there, and his dad’s a real old-timer. He was a brick mason right from Italy. He never really learned a lot of English because it doesn’t take much English to lay a good brick.

Last week, we were having lunch at the 10 to 2 when he got a call.

On the other end was a lady down at City Hall in the Tax Department.

“Your father’s here and he gave me his phone to call you,” said the lady. “I guess he doesn’t speak English, but he’s mad about his tax bill. Could you come down here?”

In the background, my buddy could hear his dad screaming, “Case-a Closed!”

Boiling it all down, my buddy’s dad’s place is assessed at about $1 million and this is a three-decker he bought for like $20,000 a lifetime ago. The taxes were just south of 10 big ones, and so it was an outrage for the old-timer – so much so he grabbed his coat, scally and headed to town. Once at the Tax Department, he started yelling at them about the value.

“This is no $1 million,” he kept yelling.

The lady just kept saying it is what it is. It was too late to dispute the value.

“Why don’t you buy if for $1 million then?” said my friend’s dad.

“I don’t want to buy it,” said the clerk.

“Ah ha!” he yelled at here. “It’s no $1 million. If you not buyin’ it, then it’s worth a-nothin’”

And that’s when he went into the case closed business, and my buddy got the phone call.

This is the hard, other side of the New Boston everyone is so excited about. An old, blue collar man at the end of his run can’t afford $10,000 or $20,000 in taxes every year, and no one wants to move after being in one place.

My buddy tried to convince his dad to sell, but he was brought to tears by the old man – and conceded to leave him alone. We put him back on the Blue Line for Eastie and headed off for coffee.

“We’ve had offers,” my friend said. “Big money. But we can’t do that to him.”

You see, old timers like that don’t have much left but the home they’re in. New Boston has emerged all around them, and their neighbors and friends are gone – replaced by nice people, but people who are young and move way too fast for an old guy who speaks Italo-English.

All the things that meant a great deal don’t matter, and the hang-outs he knew are gone too. There were no more wise guys to watch out for, or wise guys to buddy up to for favors.

That world is as gone as candy canes.

“My wife is dead, but she’s in my house,” he told his son there on the bench at City Hall. “My little boys and little girls are there too – learning to read English. My parents came here from Italy to my home to be Americans. It all happened there. Now I’m supposed to sell it away to stranger? For some money?”

It’s nearly intolerable when time makes something else out of what you knew so well.

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