By Robert Israel
“I saw it coming three years ago, when there was a frenzy of development in the Fenway. Now the neighborhood looks like a corporate mall.”
A strange thing happened on my way to see a show last week: I got lost.
I was en route to the latest Gold Dust Orphans show, The Ebonic Woman, at The Machine nightclub on Boylston Street in the Fenway when I became disoriented. I had not anticipated the stark changes in the neighborhood. For a while, I was adrift, there were no familiar landmarks in sight. Finally, thanks to a bouncer at the entrance to a bar, I was directed to destination.
Turns out I wasn’t the only person dazed. I queried several people waiting in line to see the Gold Dust show, and, they, too, had a difficult time navigating the “new” Fenway neighborhood.
It’s only going to get more confusing. Developers will soon raze the block where The Machine, a long-standing gay nightclub, is nested in a homely building just a stone’s throw from the green and grassy Emerald Necklace.
Ryan Landry founded the Gold Dust Orphans over two decades ago. He and his rag-tag troupe of thespians have long called The Machine their home (except in the spring and summer, when they relocate to Provincetown). He’s always had a Boston performance space to return to.
“I saw it coming three years ago, when there was a frenzy of development in the Fenway,” he told me in an interview this week. “Now the neighborhood looks like a corporate mall.”
The Fenway looks like a mall, but it is really being transformed into a lucrative adult playground, with an expansive food court. If you take a leisurely stroll from Kenmore Square on a weekend night toward Fenway Park — it doesn’t matter if the Red Sox are playing a home game or not — the local boutique-ish venues are raking in the greenbacks. Long lines of revelers wait to gain entry at the House of Blues, to play in Lucky Strike bowling tournaments at Jillian’s, or chug shots of bar whiskey and draught beer at Oliver’s (just one of many watering holes in the area). Hoards of free-spending, freewheeling folks (overloaded with tourists) pack these places to their maximum legal capacities.
The Fenway is fragrant as well, now that recreational marijuana is legal. Walk down Landsdowne, or Haviland, or Kilmarock, or Jersey, or Van Ness streets: Mary Jane smoke blows and billows. You might just get a contact high.
The other night, when I finally made it past the cordoned off, open trenches of construction, I found a re-vamped version of Boylston Street populated with chain restaurants – Regina’s Pizza, Tasty Burger – open to please the tenants and ballpark fans who live in the new, expensive, glistening high-rise apartment complexes that line the street.
Does theater fit into this profit-oriented civic operation? “We were getting our new show ready, and I found out that the developer had plans to raze the block,” Landry recalled. “So, I called Joyce Linehan, policy director at Mayor Martin Walsh’s office, to ask her if she knew of any spaces for us to rent. To my surprise, she said that she had talked to the developers and they were open to discussing a project to build a theater space in the new building that could house us. I was shocked.”
(An email and telephone call I placed to Ms. Linehan requesting comment on this story went unanswered at the time of writing this report).
According to National Real Estate Investor, Scape, the British developer, expects to build a 15- story building to house approximately 500 private dorms for graduate students. Scape CEO Andrew Flynn told National Real Estate that “…we’re very pleased to have planted our flag here in Boston…we think that our brand is very well aligned with Boston and a lot of the core principles that Boston has really exhibited in recent years, including a real spirit of innovation and entrepreneurism and a deep knowledge economy.”
But what about housing an existing — and thriving — gay bar and a gay theater troupe?
“To my surprise, the Scape developers told Linehan that they were open to building a space for us to perform in,” Landry said. “So, we announced we’d have a meeting to discuss this with the community. Word got out, and various groups showed up to voice what turns to be more about their personal greedy designs to turn the proposed new space into a ‘gathering space’ for them. We couldn’t bring everyone together. It fell apart.”
Due to this community rancor, Landry fears that the developer will back out now with their proposed theater project.
“It’s because everyone wants a piece,” Landry concluded. “No one sees the bigger picture of working together.”
In the mean time, while audiences clamor to see the Gold Dust Orphans’ new production at The Machine, it looks as if the troupe will not have a future home in Boston. That might change — in a city known for fast-tracking changes. But, for now, the Gold Dust Orphans are truly orphans, thespian outcasts in a rapidly corporatizing city.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel, and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.