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Centre Street, 350 years old, enjoying a renewal in West Roxbury

Posted by Roy Greene  March 7, 2012 03:22 PM

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wroxcentrefirestrip.jpg

(Boston.com file)

Centre Street, including the above business strip rebuilt after a deadly fire, has become a booming area of commerce for West Roxbury.

When Centre Street was laid out 350 years ago, it was intended to be the main route between Hartford and Boston.

Instead, as it celebrates its anniversary this year, the thoroughfare has become a booming area of commerce for West Roxbury, retaining its mom-and-pop feel while accommodating large-scale chain stores.

“You can see the vitality, you can see the action," said antiques' store owner Shirley Walsh, who is working to open new, women-owned businesses. "People are spending more time in their neighborhood. They’re not having to leave West Roxbury for their recreation, dining, shopping."

After a period of stagnation and decline, Centre Street in West Roxbury is now in the midst of revitalization, area merchants said. Several new businesses, including two restaurants featuring specialized fare -- The Red-Eyed Pig and The Porter Café-- opened up within the last year, continuing the small-business tradition that is characteristic of the neighborhood.

The home-grown ventures share the strip with Starbucks, Hallmark Gold Crown and the local grocery chain, Roche Bros, in what business owners say is a positive dynamic.

Centre Street "is a business district that’s in transition, and I think that’s all in a good way,” said Joe Greene, who owns a restaurant with his wife, Eleanor, called West on Centre. The couple transformed what had once been Greene's bar, Buck Mulligan's, into a more upscale eatery -- typical of the kind of investment that others are making on the strip. They refurbished the restaurant, spending money on everything from new windows to fixtures.

“They were making a statement: We’re separating from the past, we’re paving a new path -- and they’ve done extremely well,” said Paul Finnegan, a resident of West Roxbury who works in the store where Greene purchased the windows.

Like other businesses on Centre Street, West on Centre has retained what area residents say they value most: a neighborhood feel.

“The people that they hire are locals," Finnegan said. "Ray the manager, our kids play hockey with him." His wife, Donna, agreed, noting that West on Centre has been receptive to hosting community events.

Tom Dougherty, the former president of West Roxbury Main Streets, said Centre Street has taken a turn for the better.

“We’ve had a lot of entrepreneurial businesses open on Centre Street over the last several years,” said Dougherty, known by the community as 'TD'. “I think there’s a satisfaction at being able to go into somebody’s store that you know is owned by a local merchant or small business person."

Jim Casey, the chef and owner of The Red-Eyed Pig, lives in West Roxbury with his wife and two children. In the 12 weeks since opening his barbecue restaurant, he said he has seen how close the community is. People waiting for their food talk and joke together, and other Centre Street business owners have come by to wish him well, he said.

Small-business owners say they are not bothered by the larger chains, which give the street more commercial gravitas.

“It’s a business. They’re coming in to invest,” Greene said of the presence of Starbucks and other chains. He said the addition of Roche Bros to the street was a boon for the neighborhood, in part because the owners themselves are from West Roxbury and contribute to the community.

Walsh, who owns the Kalembar Dune antique store, said she believes the retail pendulum is swinging back towards "personalized service."

“I think [people are] tired with the malls, tired with the plasticization of our shopping society," she said. “People love the corner store, love being able to just drop in and chat… They want you to remember their name.”

Greene and others say the economy has slowed the development of Centre Street in recent years, but they note that a number of vacant buildings have changed hands and attracted new tenants.

“We need to continue to look for new businesses and new opportunities to continue to improve the community,” said Dougherty.

Walsh said the street, while changing by the month, still serves the same purpose it did hundreds of years ago.

“It’s the main artery of the community," she said. "All the side streets have the different flavors of the different neighborhoods -- but it is what joins us together.”

This article was reported and written under the supervision of journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (l.chedekel@neu.edu), as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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