Story and Photos by Chris Lovett
(This article was originally published in the
Dorchester Reporter, in June, 2001)
My father grew up in a three-decker on East Street.
Stacked with its neighbors on a slope of Meeting House Hill facing
Dorchester Bay, the house is easy to miss. There’s white trim, and the
asbestos siding is a washed-out gray, with the texture of a grindstone. Just
inside the chain-link fence, the front yard looks carefully tended. There
isn’t a speck of trash, except for the barrels lined up in tight formation
and branded with the address.
To judge by appearances, this could almost be the same house William Morse
sold in 1918 for the equivalent of $5,400 to Nellie and Patrick Lovett. They
were Irish immigrants from County Kerry, and this was the first home they
bought in America. The people who live in the house today are also
immigrants. Some of the names on the mailbox are from Cape Verde, others
from Vietnam. In a new century, it seems, the story has come full circle.
People come and go, cycles go up and down, but three-deckers endure—for some
as a gateway to opportunity, for others as a source of irritation.
Standing on the front porch at the house on East Street, I ring the
doorbell for the owner, who lives on the same floor where my grandparents
had lived with their six children and one of my grandmother’s relatives.
After a while, an elderly woman in a kerchief opens the door and we try to
converse. The most I can manage are a few words in Spanish that don’t even
come close to Portuguese.
If a Dorchester three-decker in the 21st century can be a
different world for me, then so was the world of my grandparents. The first
image of Patrick Lovett we have in our family shows him as a carpenter, one
of six men standing in formation with tools in hand. The image looks almost
too formal to be a photograph. My grandfather holds an axe and a brace with
a drill bit. The hem of his jacket looks blown back by the wind, but nothing
will stop him from holding his pose. The workmen behave as if an artist is
doing their portrait, but what they face is nothing more than a traveling
photographer—one more workman engaged in a mechanical act of reproduction.
For many, that was the problem with three-deckers: they were look-alike
housing, not so much built as reproduced. That’s how they appeared to the
first pastor of my grandparents’ parish, St. Peter’s. Rev. Peter Ronan was
“heartily applauded” when he called for keeping these houses off one of
Dorchester’s last remaining pieces of large open space, at Savin Hill.
According to an account of his speech at the Dorchester Day Banquet in 1907,
he “told of how three-apartment houses are being built all over the
district, and said we did not want such things to mar the spot where the
first settlers of the now great district landed.”
In his study of neighborhood development, Streetcar Suburbs, Sam
Bass Warner, Jr. described “cramped streets” of three-deckers that turned
the yearning for picturesque houses and garden lots into an “ugly joke.” In
The Second Settlement 1875-1925, architectural historian Douglass
Shand Tucci tells how three-deckers were despised for destroying the earlier
“garden city.” He agrees that three-deckers were a different kind of
building—a mutation of the row house—and that they had some flaws, such as
turning corners badly. “But,” he also cautioned, “what destroyed the garden
city was cheap three-deckers – and cheap singles and cheap doubles.”
The “Second Settlement” was a time of enormous change in Dorchester, when
the population of the former town went from about 12,000 at the time of its
annexation to Boston in 1870 to more than 150,000 by 1920. Feeding the
population growth and the proliferation of three-deckers was the expansion
of streetcar service, which made Dorchester affordable to a commuting lower
middle class. The waves of growth also produced a sequence of building
styles traced in a report for the Boston Landmarks Commission by Arthur J.
Krim: formative prototypes, followed by the “Early Classic Period,” a “Late
Classic Period,” and finally a less imaginative “Functional Period.”
Where some saw uniformity in Victorian three-deckers, Krim saw “pure fancy”
and “individuality of spirit.” He found three-decker streetscapes to be
“highly creative” and, in the Early Classic period from 1900 to 1910, he
admired a “a marvelous expression of the builder’s art and a major source of
Just as three-deckers were meant to be seen in groups, they were also meant
to link people beyond limits of the nuclear family.
My father’s older sister, Mary M. Lovett, still remembers the two quiet
families who lived above and below on East Street. There was one time when
the girls in the floor above got a bit noisy and my grandfather sent Mary upstairs to
have them quiet down. Instead, they made fun of her, chanting, “Papa Lovett
wants us to keep quiet.” Mary came back and told her father, “I’m never
going up there again.”
When people on the other floors were members of the same extended family,
the effect could be quite different. Take the example of the 27 year-old
president of the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Assn., Annissa Essaibi. She lives
in a three-decker with relatives going back two generations. Essaibi’s
grandparents, who were immigrants from Poland, bought the house 45 years
ago. Her grandfather did television repairs and used part of the first floor
for his business.
“The house was always full,” says Essaibi. “There’s always someone home,
there’s always something to eat.”
Essaibi makes a
connection between life in a cluster of Dorchester three-deckers and the
village where her father grew up in Tunisia. In her own village bordering
Dorchester Avenue, there are her sister’s friends running in and out of the
house, neighbors putting away each other’s trash barrels, some of them
living in the area for 30, 40 or 50 years. And, on Dorchester Day, there’s a
balcony view of the parade from the porch.
“It forces people to be close—being so physically close,” she says.
A few years after moving into the house on East Street, my grandfather began
to buy more property in Dorchester, possibly with the help of money from his
wife’s sale of property in Ireland. During the early and mid-1920’s he
bought as many as a dozen properties a year, from Neponset Avenue to
Buttonwood Street and Milton Avenue. But when the Depression came, he lost
everything, including the house on East Street.
In Krim’s history,
there were many builders who went bankrupt, as the production of three-deckers
all but came to a stop around 1930. Real estate consultant John Anderson
points to another factor: a 1929 change in zoning, which discouraged three-deckers
by imposing new requirements for depth and frontage. By the time the
building was over, three-deckers had practically defined the texture of a
whole city. Even in 1970, the Boston Redevelopment Authority reported,
one-to-four family homes—chiefly three-deckers—accounted for three-fifths of
the city’s housing stock.
By 1970, three-deckers were my father’s concern. As a district chief in the
Boston Fire Dept. stationed on Meeting House Hill, he saw them burn.
According to the BRA, during the 1970’s the city lost more than 7,300 units
of 1-4 family housing. Among the causes often cited: federal policies that
encouraged migration to the suburbs, mortgage and insurance discrimination,
urban renewal and busing. One report for the BRA placed the “era of
throwaway housing” between 1950 and 1980. In his study of Catholics and Jews
in Boston, Urban Exodus, Gerald Gamm looks back even further, to the
arrival of the automobile.
Among the more immediate causes was a program to provide mortgages to
African-American homebuyers at below-market rates and with small down
payments. The Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group (BBURG) introduced the
program in 1968, on the heels of unrest following the assassination of
Martin Luther King, Jr. The program operated within a set of boundaries from
the South End and Jamaica Plain on the west and as far east as Dorchester
Avenue and Adams Street.
One effect of the BBURG program was a form of racial steering. BBURG
homebuyers were also saddled with the expenses of older housing and an
economic downturn in the early 1970’s. The result was a wave of
foreclosures. Banks faced with a weak market, and reimbursed by the US Dept.
of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), had little incentive to look for new
buyers. With an inventory of abandoned housing, much of it three-deckers,
HUD became Dorchester’s largest slumlord.
Each house that burned was a threat to its neighbors, so people turned out
at community meetings to get buildings torn down or boarded up. Many of the
meetings were organized by Dorchester Fair Share, which also pressured City
Hall to stop the over-assessments that added to the burden of rising
property taxes and declining property values. It was after one Fair Share
meeting in 1976 that a housing expert predicted the decline would only get
worse. With a sweep of his arm from Bowdoin Street toward Columbia Road, he
said, “In ten years, this will all be prairie.”
The losses might have been greater, if not for government incentives, mainly
for owner-occupants, to fix up and maintain older housing. Though three-deckers
continued to attract speculators who did little to improve them, they also
attracted people who saw their value, whether as a home or a badge of
identity worn proudly on tee-shirts.
Before the end of the 1980’s, the BRA reports were more alarmed about a
vanishing supply of affordable housing. By the early 1990’s, there would be
another slump in the housing market, though without a heavy loss in supply.
Figures for last year show the effects of prolonged recovery. By the third
quarter, the city’s Dept. of Neighborhood Development reports, the median
sale price for a three-decker in Dorchester was $228,000. That was up from
1999 figure by 27%, but still among the most affordable in Boston.
The executive director of Mass. Affordable Housing alliance, Thomas
Callahan, says there are still some three-deckers within reach for buyers
with a household income as low as $25,000.
“The affordability level,” he says, “is unparalleled as far as being able to
reach down into the low and moderate income population.”
Much of the affordability comes from tenants in a strong rental market,
though it’s increasingly common to find three-deckers on the market one unit
at a time as condominiums. But three-deckers still face some resistance from
the secondary mortgage market. The director of the Fannie Mae Partnership
Office in Boston, Robin Drill, says the reason is trends in mortgage
defaults throughout the northeast, more so among absentee-owned properties,
and especially during the slump of the early 1990’s. Since that time, Drill
says, Fannie Mae has backed financing of three-decker purchases at a “much
“There’s much more activity now,” she says, “because we’ve figured out how
to deal with the risk.”
If, in some ways, three-deckers are the great bargain they were a century
ago, other things have changed. The executive director of Nuestra Comunidad
Development Corp., Evelyn Friedman Vargas, notes the owners of three-deckers
are less likely to be renting to relatives, while their tenants have more
rights in a legal dispute.
“Now you have to go through a long process,” she says, “and, as a result, a
landlord could be out of that rent for six months.”
Nuestra Comunidad is among the non-profit groups that have built housing on
the vacant lots that sprang up in Roxbury and Dorchester in the 1960’s
through 1980’s. Though the group has rehabilitated three-deckers,
Friedman-Vargas says, it has avoided them in new construction—partly because
of resistance by neighborhood residents.
“You have people who just don’t want to have rental housing,” she says. And
that even applies to two-family houses.
“Many of the people who come out to these meetings, they themselves own two-
or three-family houses that they live in,” she says, “but they didn’t want
any more in their neighborhood.”
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