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WALK THIS WAY | CHARLESTOWN

Monumental changes

Attorney Tom Greene walks the line between townie and yuppie in a transformed Charlestown

Email|Print| Text size + By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / July 25, 2004

Tom Greene is an attorney and condo owner, part of the vanguard transforming Charlestown from tradition-bound hub of firefighters, churches, and pubs to an enclave of professionals, boutiques, and bistros.

Stroll with him around the neighborhood, its narrow streets and sturdy frame-houses giving the feel of a colonial settlement, and Greene ticks off the latest properties to go for eye-popping sums, the developers making a mint off the deals.

But come to a sloping lane of trim town houses and he stops short. He stares ahead, returned, it seems, to his childhood when Soley Street -- near the Bunker Hill Monument -- was home for him and 75 other kids, where fun was had with a stickball bat and a bit of moxie. "That's what gets me," says Greene, 35, of the now-empty street. "The quiet."

To traverse the historic core of this narrow peninsula between the Mystic and Charles rivers is to immerse oneself in a pocket of well-tended urban serenity, perhaps most noticeably around Monument Square, its center dotted by the 221-foot granite obelisk of the Bunker Hill Monument, a tribute to a Revolutionary War battle that the colonists lost to the British.

In a neighborhood well-known for clashes between townies and yuppies, Greene is an unusual mix of both. He remembers the square as a playground favored for baseball and football, and as the site of the raucous reenactment of the Battle of Bunker Hill each June -- a practice ended once the land was transferred to the National Park Service in the 1970s. Today, the square has returned to its roots as tony redoubt, with nearby condos going for upwards of $1 million. When he was a kid, Greene says, "for $2 million you could have bought the whole square."

Greene turns a corner onto Main Street, a once hectic corridor dirtied by an elevated railway. The railway gone, Main Street today is a tidy warren of boutiques and restaurants. But hints of its less upscale past can still be found. Greene points out a mosaic that still bears the name "Donovan and Fallon," a pharmacy with a soda counter once favored by Greene and his buddies.

Warren Tavern, the oldest existing bar in the nation (it was opened in 1780) and named for Joseph Warren, a Battle of Bunker Hill hero, was once a pub little different from others, Greene recalls. Now it's a hotspot: "The first time you really knew things were changing was one Wednesday night," Greene says. "I came down here with a few guys I grew up with from around the town. There were lines around the corner and they were asking for a cover. We were flabbergasted."

Greene turns down Warren Street, and we arrive at St. Mary's, founded in 1828 as Charlestown's first Roman Catholic church. It is a swirl of Gothic points, considered by many to be an architectural gem. Today its base is scrubbed clean of soot that obscured it during Greene's childhood. "It was black in the day," Greene says.

City Square is Charlestown's storied founding site, but not so long ago it was a tangle of highway ramps, the result of what many consider wayward redevelopment during the last century. Today the ramps are gone, and the square is a park ringed by high-end development and eateries, including Olives, the restaurant to which first-season "Apprentice" contestants were treated; the Cold Stone Creamery, a new super-premium ice cream spot; and Meze, a high-end Greek restaurant whose name refers to the Greek version of tapas. The government "ruined it all and then they built it back," Greene says.

At the turn of the 19th century, the Charlestown Navy Yard opened, and soon became the area's largest employer. "Growing up, Charlestown was
blue-collar. A lot of the people were firefighters. There were some cops," Greene says. "And there were a lot of longshoremen. Both my grandfathers worked down on the Navy Yard."

The Navy Yard was shuttered in 1974, but it remains a busy port of call for tourists who flock here to see the USS Constitution, or "Old Ironsides," the world's oldest fully commissioned warship still afloat. Many walk a short distance from there to Tavern on the Water, a ship-shaped restaurant with better-than-usual bar food.

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at schweitzer@globe.com.

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