’A little pocket of the South End’ spills over with arts, crafts, food, flora, and its own funky acronym for South of Washington Street
You know the story: A rundown neighborhood of warehouses with low rents attracts artists and creative types. Soon galleries, bakeries, and boutiques appear, creating a buzz. Then before you can say “gentrify,’’ rents skyrocket and artists are priced out of yet another place to call home.
In the 1980s, the South End, with the largest district of Victorian row houses listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the United States, was being renovated at a rapid pace. Not so the area one block beyond Washington Street where large, brick-and-beam factory buildings, erected 150 years ago to house canneries, piano factories, and other industries, seemed less desirable to anyone other than artists.
And so the acronym SoWa (South of Washington Street) was created to draw new business and development to this neighborhood-within-a neighborhood.
In SoWa today there are dozens of galleries, destination-worthy restaurants, PR agencies, graphic- and interior-design studios, residential lofts, and shops selling goods such as vintage clothing, beads, and handmade tribal rugs. And, lucky for Boston, the artists have been encouraged to stay. With hundreds of studios in buildings throughout the area, one might even say that artists are the heart and soul of SoWa around which the galleries, restaurants, craft markets, food trucks, and festivals revolve.
On a recent evening, the galleries along Harrison Avenue were packed with visitors of all ages who arrived for the monthly “First Friday’’ art openings. Plastic cups were filled with wine and sparkling water, the mood convivial. Friends greeted friends with air kisses and hugs, threading their way through crowds that circulated through the white-walled exhibits.
In the Bromfield Gallery, artist Judy Riola stood alongside her work, “Jumping-off Point,’’ a brightly patterned oil and acrylic painting created in her nearby studio.
“SoWa is one of the areas that developed for artists that continues to support artists,’’ said Riola.
Elizabeth Strasser, another gallery artist, agreed: “It’s a very vibrant area. It’s made that way by the artists and galleries and shops. None of that was here 10 years ago.’’
Business was brisk in Bead and Fiber, a craft gallery selling necklaces, scarves, bracelets, and artwork as well as the materials to create your own. (The gallery also offers classes.)
“SoWa is a destination all itself, a little pocket of the South End. People walk over and stay, unexpectedly,’’ said owner Andrea Garr.
It’s possible to dine on a variety of cuisines. On Washington Street alone you’ll find Asian (Myers + Chang, Oishii, Seiyo), Middle East and Mediterranean (Red Fez), New American (Union Bar and Grille, The Gallows), Italian (Stella and Stella Café), Spanish tapas (Toro), Senegalese (Teranga), and hearty, home-style American (Mike’s City Diner). In addition, there are many cafes, bakeries, and pizza parlors.
After an evening of art hobnobbing, a brief stroll along Harrison Avenue led us to Estragon, a stylish tapas bar run by Madrid-born chef Julio de Haro and his partner, Lara Gavigan. At the white marble bar, under the cheerful gaze of the owners’ old-time family photos, we sampled Serrano ham croquettes, toast topped with tomato, white anchovies, Manchego cheese, and coca de bitifana, a pizza-like offering featuring white sausage, arugula, and caramelized onions.
We returned to SoWa on Sunday to check out three big markets, two of which operate from May through October. They are a farmers’ market, an open-air crafts and art market (with food trucks), and an indoor vintage market that plans to be open through late December this year.
First, we fueled up with a hearty breakfast at Gaslight Brasserie, a classic neighborhood French bistro. Brazilian samba music bounced off the white tile walls, making a low-key Sunday morning even more relaxing as we indulged in flaky raspberry croissants, a croque madame, and scrambled eggs with tasso ham and roasted red peppers.
A full breakfast blunted our desire to purchase everything in sight at the nearby SoWa Farmers Market. One could, of course, arrive hungry and enjoy samples from the many vendors offering locally crafted pastries, honey, bread, marmalade, relish, cupcakes, smoked seafood, and pesto. Local farms displayed the bounty of the season that recently included ears of fresh-picked corn, heirloom tomatoes, kale, rainbow chard, pumpkins, eggs, flowers, and many varieties of apples.
People lined up to buy almond croissants, apple bear claws, and berries and cream tarts at The Danish Pastry House, a local bakery. Though sorely tempted, we resisted.
We strolled to the area of galleries, studios, and shops between 450 and 460 Harrison Ave., where a pedestrian-only walkway called Thayer Street led to the lively SoWa Open Market, located in a parking lot at the far end.
The food trucks offered a United Nations of lunch choices, including Vietnamese rice bowls, barbequed ribs, Italian ice, gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, hot dogs, curried goat stew, cupcakes, vegetarian sandwiches, and soft-serve ice cream. Happy eaters perched on the decorative curved walls near the galleries, apparently the preferred dining spot of the day.
For shopping, rows of white tents held sellers offering all manner of art, crafts, and indie-designed objects including silkscreen prints, paintings, jewelry, T-shirts, cards, handbags, dresses, ceramics, woven scarves, hand-knit sweaters and caps, birdhouses, and maps.
Artist Saya Cullinan, who has a studio in the 450 Harrison Ave. complex, designs functional, one-of-a-kind handbags in all kinds of upholstery fabrics.
“I like that this area is more accessible to the public,’’ said Cullinan. “There’s a lot of stuff happening here, more foot traffic, restaurants, and shops. There’s a reason for people to come here now.’’
The SoWa Vintage Market offers everything you might imagine under the heading “antiques and collectibles,’’ proving the adage that one person’s junk is another’s treasure: baseball cards, glassware, sheet music, porcelain pitchers, old suitcases (without wheels), clothing, cut crystal bowls, silver candelabras, gilt-framed mirrors, toasters, jewelry, and more.
Public bathrooms are located in the 450 Harrison Ave. building, at the end of the hallway past the artists’ studios. Some studios (and most galleries) are open on Sundays, so if you miss the Friday night festivities you can still see the newest exhibits.
The walls of artist Tom McCarthy’s studio are lined with colorful paintings including his iconic series of the neon Citgo sign in Kenmore Square. He moved into this studio three months ago, and already has sold two paintings.
“There’s a two-year waiting list to get in here,’’ said McCarthy.
As morning progressed into afternoon, it became difficult for a claustrophobic visitor to navigate between cheerful hoards of shoppers, foodies, art lovers, baby strollers, leashed dogs, toddlers, and picnickers sprawled across every available surface.
Of course, one doesn’t have to visit SoWa only during these orchestrated events. On a weekday afternoon on Washington Street, the used clothing and accessory shop Boomerangs had customers wandering in and out at a steady pace. One of four stores owned by the AIDS Action Committee, this one specializes in better labels of clothing for men and women.
“We’ve been here a year and a half and have become a community store,’’ said manager Kristine Jespersen. “We try and support artists. We’ve had exhibitions here, and artists also shop here.’’
As SoWa grows and becomes more successful, some worry that the artists will inevitably be pushed out by rising rents.
“I hope that it doesn’t turn into another SoHo,’’ said Strasser, referring to an area in New York settled by artists and now overrun with high-priced boutiques.
Strasser has exhibited at the Bromfield Gallery for 10 years and is cautiously optimistic the area can retain its creative base.
“One of the upsides of the down economy is that people are thinking local and celebrating things regional,’’ she said.
Necee Regis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.