On Bromfield Street lives the past, present and future of downtown Boston

But Bromfield’s spirit – his heart – is gone, many say.

What was once a quintessential Boston thoroughfare has fallen victim to “business decentralization,” as Papertsian called it, accelerated by a pandemic that slowed pedestrian traffic in downtown Boston for months. The west side of Bromfield, closer to Boston Common, is now a wasteland of empty storefronts, just plywood and buckets of Home Depot debris visible through the windows. A notice from Eversource regarding an unpaid electricity bill of $1127 is displayed on a low medium height. An entire block remains silent in anticipation of a 22-story office tower project, currently under review by the city.

Although only a tenth of a mile long, Bromfield can be seen as a barometer of the central business district’s post-COVID recovery – slow and surely there, but daunting all the same.

The front window of King Frame on Bromfield Street, where foot traffic remains well below pre-pandemic levels.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

There’s good among the bad at Downtown Crossing: Anchor retailers including Macy’s and Primark have weathered COVID lows, though the Ireland-based retailer has reduced its building from four to two stories. The demonstrators march often here for racial equity or climate justice, amid growing numbers of street musicians and white-collar workers in starched shirts. On sunny afternoons, it is almost impossible to find a place at Caffé Nero on Summer Street. (Tourists, making their way down the Freedom Trail, apparently always arrive first – lattes and buns in hand.) Mayor Michelle Wu is also attracting 9-5 staff with a month-long outdoor programming plan featuring live music and free dunkin.

Overall, downtown foot traffic is up from 2020 with 14 traffic sensors, but “not yet up to the 2019 rush,” said Anita Lauricella, senior planner at Downtown Boston Business. Improvement District.

The same cannot be said for Bromfield.

These days, the narrow street that cuts between the Granary Burying Ground and Washington Street seems moribund. The Museum Of Bad Art recently took over a lifeless window and set up a temporary exhibit “to channel the positive energy,” acting director Louis Reilly Sacco said. But on a recent Tuesday, energy was scarce. A few passers-by passed: a man with a packet of toilet paper, two women pushing strollers, another harassed on a conference call.

Teenager swerves on a skateboard: Are you on Bromfield often? asked a reporter. “Only to go somewhere else,” he replied.

Putting it mildly, “Bromfield is a street in transition,” Lauricella added. “Good bones, at the dawn of great things.”

Bromfield Pen Shop employee Jennifer Pozark was less diplomatic. “It’s a shadow of itself.”

This old self exudes old world charm. A towering metal gate halfway through Bromfield “mirrors the Egyptian Revival entrance” to the nearby cemetery, according to a Bostonian Society panel, and the brown-toned buildings are among the last to remain in the Granite architectural style. Archived photos show a bunch of long-gone shops: tailors, cobblers, The Watch Hospital.

The original Bromfield Pen Shop in the 1950s. It specialized in fountain pens and inks, often sold to large office supply retailers.Tlumacki, John Globe Staff

It was an avenue so admired by longtime town planner Edward Logue that when he first saw the plans for the seaport, he asked“Where is Bromfield Street?” »

Now much of the allure has faded. Bromfield Camera owner Steve Centamore quietly closed his store earlier in the pandemic, and the decades-old pen business changed hands from Fred Rosenthal to a Netherlands-based company callboom in 2021. King Frame broke through lockdown in the shell of an otherwise vacant building, on a stream of customers looking to hang diplomas and posters.

“We look around,” said Zara Yah, who runs the custom framing business with her husband. “We don’t see anything.”

Lou Chorney echoed this story. The owner of Colonial Trading Co. is renting five floors at 41 Bromfield St., with the aim of subletting empty upper-level space. The Money Museum on the second floor is one of his passion projects, rich with 2,700 years of history, but not very profitable. It offers occasional private tours for a suggested group donation of $250.

He sells the majority of his inventory of valuables – ancient Athenian coins, rare brooches and signed Red Sox baseballs – on line. Even then, the 50-70% drop in foot traffic, Chorney estimated, is hurting sales.

Owner Lou Chorney organizes the sale of watches in the window of his Colonial Trading Company on Bromfield Street. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“I don’t need that one iota of space to do business on the internet,” he said of Colonial Trading Co. “I just like having a place where people can come in, browse the shelves, ask questions.”

Among Bromfield’s biggest losses – quite literally – is Marliave, the historic Franco-Italian haunt that hosted 300 people on its busiest Saturdays. It was a restaurant, cocktail bar and rooftop garden rolled into one, with more than 50 employees and a monthly electricity bill of $7,000 – “the pride of Bromfield” since its inception in the 1800s, according to former owner Scott Herritt. When Marliave closed in March 2020 and never reopened, the street lost something central to its existence.

“Boston’s vibe isn’t the same,” added Heritt, a “city rat” who left Boston during COVID for Dover, after 30 years. “Before, people walked a little faster.”

Maybe, in an ideal world, Herritt says, he could revive Marliave and once again hold the place over crowds looking for a bite to eat before shows at the Orpheum theater. But that’s unlikely – and for now, financially impossible. Labor shortages mean workers are hard to find; the rent is too high.

“In another life,” he hopes. He’s dreaming.

Versus, an arcade and restaurant at the intersection of Bromfield and Province streets, began to see a resurgence of office workers after 5 p.m.Barry Chin/Personal Globe

Others, however, fared better. Lines at Insomnia Cookie often overflow the door in the early evening; Bromfield Jewelers is flying high, thanks to a host of loyal customers; and the Silvertone Bar & Grill – with its dance floor in the back room – is reopening bar tabs after a long COVID closure. Versus, the pub-based arcade on the corner of Bromfield and Province streets, has also flourished, hosting spontaneous get-togethers for colleagues on a hybrid back-to-office schedule.

“The best feeling is you open the doors and suddenly four people are playing Mario Kart and ordering a pitcher of cider,” said general manager Mike Hagan. “I see some of my clients more than I see my wife.”

But the damage done to Bromfield cannot be undone. Along with a handful of retail space, the office floors — which housed booming tech startups before the pandemic — are empty. Some blame the city; some blame the crime. Police stepped up patrols after several downtown incidents, including one where a teenage girl allegedly brandished a knife and lunged at a witness in Silvertone.

Others blame the developers. Most of the street is owned by five owners, with 30,000 square feet in the hands of CRE Brokerage and the block owned by Midwood Investment & Development, which has long planned a tower at the intersection of Bromfield and Washington streets.

Painters worked on the wall of the former location of the Nest Salon at 53 Bromfield St.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Its current iteration would include nearly two dozen office floors, an outdoor terrace and retail on the lower levels – a development that could change the mood of Bromfield forever. But Midwood chief executive John Usdan says it would also bring new life, not to mention 1,700 office workers.

“It’s good for safety, security, the general environment,” he said.

The merits of the proposal aside, another longtime Bromfield landlord agrees with Usdan’s prescription for what ails their street and the neighborhood as a whole: a lack of people. Ron Druker, owner of a third-generation building with The Druker Company, said “smart and fair landlords” are doing what they can to support downtown through tough times.

“We have treated all of our tenants appropriately. We subsidized them,” he added. “The real answer is to get people back into offices.”

Bromfield Street has more than a dozen empty storefronts. Some businesses and residents blame landlords and the city for not keeping the street lively. Barry Chin/Personal Globe

Diti Kohli can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_.

David H. Henry