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Arts community and mix of menus stir a happily gritty neighborhood

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / April 4, 2010

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When it comes to “transitional’’ neighborhoods, artists can be bellwethers. Where they lead, real estate developers often follow. East Boston has yet to be declared chic — or even bohemian — but its art community has been putting down roots for the last decade.

It’s a Thursday night in early March and the white walls of Atlantic Works Gallery are hung with a three-woman show. Masterful oils of duck tchotchkes face off with color-splashed engravings and panels of hot colors in luscious abstract patterns. None of the artists paints landscapes, but they agree that part of what draws them to East Boston is the view. From Eastie’s shore, downtown Boston floats on the water like a distant architect’s maquette. Financial District towers poke the sky, sailboats skim along the shore.

Painter Maureen O’Connor and her husband, painter David Harrison, moved to East Boston a decade ago. She cites art critic Dave Hickey: “He says all artists should live by the water for the reflected light.’’ She and Harrison have individual studios at 80 Border St.

The venerable brick industrial building, once part of the Samuel Hall shipyards, now holds about three dozen artists’ studios scattered through the four floors along with a day-care center and the 80 Border Street Cultural Exchange Center. The quirky community-oriented programming at the center ranges from poetry readings to knitting classes, musical concerts to Spanish-English conversation nights. Atlantic Works Gallery, which occupies a prime third-floor corner, functions as the social center for the East Boston art scene. Although the space keeps only limited weekend hours, “we have parties twice a month,’’ says painter-collage artist Lola Baltzell, once for an opening and again on the third Thursday. “There’s a bar and we always have food.’’

East Boston has clearly endured rough times and periods of not-so-benign neglect, as its ruined piers and vacant shorefront lots attest. But the unmanicured reality of the place has its own appeal. “Maureen and I love East Boston,’’ David Harrison says. “It’s not Beacon Hill.’’

Baltzell, who started working at Border Street in 2003, concurs. “I like the grittiness of it,’’ she says. “I’d move to East Boston if my husband would agree. The neighborhood is a great place to take photographs.’’ Roughly 80 working artists — each with his or her own reason for choosing Eastie — belong to the loosely affiliated East Boston Artists Group.

Because zoning restrictions don’t allow artists to live at 80 Border St., they’re often found chowing down at Dough, a contemporary pizza, pasta, and sandwich shop across the street. Co-owners Kevin Curley and Michael Sanchez opened Dough in fall 2006, hoping for nearby condo developments to take off. While the recession has put those projects on hold, Dough is rising despite the economy. “People aren’t going out for steak dinners,’’ says Sanchez, “but they’re coming in for a Reuben burger or the Vermonter.’’ (The latter is an awe-inspiring baked sandwich of turkey, Gouda cheese, bacon, and sliced green apple.) Despite limited wall space, Dough helps encourage its neighboring artists by mounting a monthly exhibition.

At 303 Cafe, owners Melinda Jones and Tom Clackett have turned the handsome exposed brick walls into a display space that often features local artists. A relaxed tone, a rotating menu of craft beers, and free Wi-Fi have helped make the cafe a premier Eastie bohemian hangout. Jones and Clackett also hold “open mic’’ nights for musicians on the first and third Tuesdays and trivia contests every Wednesday. It’s also a good place to catch a breakfast frittata or a dinnertime plate of beer-braised ribs.

Only a five-minute stroll up Cottage Street, the New England Gallery of Latin American Art was created in late 2007 by Peruvian-born co-owner Franz Israel partly “to break stereotypes about Latin art’’ that it’s all colorful pottery and backstrap weavings. Exhibitions are sporadic but fascinating. The most recent show, which closed in mid-March, featured surreal constructions by performance artist-DJ Vela Phelan of Roxbury. “During this show,’’ says Phelan, who was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in Venezuela and Mexico, “I’ve gotten to experience my Latin roots. Ninety percent of the people walking by are speaking Spanish.’’

East Boston has had many dominant ethnicities — English, then Irish, then Italian — but many of the newest residents hail from Mexico and Central and South America. Salvadoran pupuserías abound in Maverick and Central squares, offering the thick corn tortillas filled with meat, cheese, vegetables, or some combination of the three. Central Square has an even more vibrant restaurant scene. Families converge on El Peñol for generous plates of Colombian food, all of it served with either fresh or fried plantains. Just outside the square, Spanish- and English-speakers alike flock to Angela’s Cafe Restaurant for the Puebla-style Mexican dishes of Angela Atenco Lopez.

The restaurant scene reflects the stewpot of cultures in Eastie, from the Vietnamese pho shop to a Halal restaurant of Pakistani-Indian cuisine opening in the former Tony’s on Sumner Street, an Italian-American institution. “The neighborhood used to be all Italian, but we’re a minority now,’’ says John Mastrangelo, born and bred just a few blocks from Kelley Square Pub, his family’s restaurant, known for pizza, pasta, and barbecued lamb.

The septuagenarian was a boxer in his youth, but these days he crafts replica Tiffany stained glass lampshades, featured in a recent show at the Cultural Exchange Center. “I loved stained glass from the churches,’’ he says.

“Church’’ is what many East Boston artists call Sunday mornings at Scup’s in the Harbour, when they join other Eastie folk around a long common table in the small brick building inside the Boston Harbor Shipyard & Marina. When co-owners Wendy Saver and David Rockwood (formerly of Emma’s Pizza in Cambridge) needed to name an unusual brunch sandwich of scrambled eggs and potato chips with slightly spicy tomato jam and greens on grilled bread, some artists proposed calling it “the Rapture.’’ (Really starving artists can add “Millionaire’s Bacon’’ to the pile for an extra $2.)

Since opening in August 2008, Scup’s has become a minor institution in East Boston, in part because, as Saver puts it, “This is the forbidden territory. It was a shipyard for years, and locals remember when they couldn’t enter.’’ Now the Boston Harborwalk passes straight through. Visitors still have to check with security, which is a good chance to chat up the guard, an East Boston native more than conversant with the history of the Jeffries Point neighborhood on the bluff above. If you ask about the Golden Stairs (concrete steps connecting the fine houses of Webster Street with Marginal Way just outside the shipyard), he’ll point out JFK’s grandfather’s former home. The stairs were named by immigrants coming in from the docks, on their way to a better life in America.

On one side of the shipyard, the Harborwalk leads to the Navy Fuel Pier park and continues as a dedicated pathway around the slip and the shorefront to the Hyatt Harborside. On the other side, it goes down Marginal Way to Piers Park, which has become the shining, hopeful new face of East Boston. Summer home to a sailing center, it is one of the most intensely used green spaces in the neighborhood. The Harborwalk steps back from the water, passing a stalled condo development, before it reaches LoPresti Park on the corner of the waterfront near the mouth of Chelsea Creek.

LoPresti is steps from 80 Border St., and the artists take full advantage. “I love to walk along the harbor and see the skyline and the tugboats,’’ says graphic artist Melissa Kulig. Painter Maureen O’Connor is even more explicit about the million-dollar views. “Standing at LoPresti Park,’’ she says, “you see the Zakim Bridge, the USS Constitution, Bunker Hill, Old North Church — and you see it all for free. It’s fabulous.’’

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

If You Go

What to do

Atlantic Works Gallery

80 Border St., 3rd floor

www.atlanticworks.org

Fri-Sat 2-6 p.m., third Thu 6- 9 p.m.; exhibition openings and by appointment.

80 Border Street Cultural Exchange Center

80 Border St. , 1st floor

617-510-7011

www.80borderst.org

Call or check website for hours and events.

New England Gallery of Latin American Art

186 Cottage St.

617-418-5838

www.neglaa.com

Call or check website for hours and events.

Where to eat and drink

Dough

20 Maverick St.

617-567-8787

www.doughpizza.com

Mon-Fri 11 am.-9 p.m., Sat 1-9. Sandwiches, pizzas, and pastas $3.95-$13.95.

303 Cafe

303 Sumner St.

617-569-3001

www.303cafe.com

Tue-Thu 7 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri-Sat till 10, Sun till 3. Dinner entrees $12-$13.

El Peñol

54 Bennington St.

617-569-0100

Daily 10-10. Entrees $8-$14.50.

Angela's Cafe Restaurant

131 Lexington St.

617-567-4972

angelascaferestaurant.com

Mon-Thu 8 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri-Sat till 10, Sun 8-3. Dinner entrees $8-$14.

Kelley's Pub

84 Bennington St.

617-567-4627

www.kelleyssquarepub.com

Daily 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Dinner entrees $6.95-$20.95.

Scup's in the Harbour

256 Marginal St., Building 16

617-569-7287

www.scupsintheharbour.com

Wed-Fri 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat-Sun 10-3. Most entrees under $10.