A neighborhood is defined by the bars it keeps. This may sound completely absurd to some. But in the South End, its an absolute truth. Its a neighborhood that runs from classy to gritty to trendy in mere blocks. A place where Victorian brownstones abut an unapologetically modern loft building, and it works, albeit not without some controversy. Now, think about our neighborhood eating and drinking establishments. For every new trending hot spot, there’s a watering hole that can be summarized in one word, “institution”.
But this is so much more than gentrification. The fabric of the South End has been woven over the past 100+ years by an intricately diverse groups of residents, workers and industry. Much of our neighborhood’s history and future can be told by the lives of those walking in and out of our local barrooms.
Last Thursday night, the South End Historical Society partnered with Stephanie Schorow, author of Drinking Boston, Jerry Foley, renowned owner of J.J. Foley’s, and journalist Dave Wedge for a panel discussion on cocktails, the South End and the history made here. Much of the conversation focused on the history of J.J. Foley’s itself. A bar founded in 1909, J.J.’s holds the title of the oldest family owned and operated bar in the United States. J.J.’s is located in, to some, what’s considered an ‘up and coming’ part of the South End on East Berkeley Street. Interestingly, the street used to be called Dover Street before the L train which towered over Washington was torn down.
You’d need to write volumes to truly capture the history this bar has seen and made. The Boston Police strike was decided upon right upstairs. Through prohibition, Mr. Foley told us with a wink that his grandfather the bar’s founder, “never missed a day of work in his life.” Very recently, after the marathon bombing suspects were captured last April, many of Boston’s finest met there to reflect on the events of the week with their comrades. Bars across the US called into JJ’s that night, buying rounds for our local first responders.
This is a bar that’s seen a lot of change in the South End in the past century, and will continue to do so. One of the bigger real estate developments in progress in downtown Boston is “Ink Block” located on the former site of the Boston Herald. What will soon be luxury condos and a brand new Whole Foods Market was once the newspaper’s offices. Dave Wedge, a panelist who was a former Boston Herald reporter recalled arriving to work with the sounds of the printing presses whirling in the morning, and shortly thereafter the printers left for J.J. Foley’s for their breakfast, our happy hour, and apparently could, for a time, even cash their paychecks there.
When I asked Jerry Foley what he saw in the future for the South End, he said “it will be like Manhattan”. When asked if that was a good thing, he replied, “it depends if you like Manhattan”. Luckily, even Manhattan has a place for great neighborhood ‘institutions’ like J.J. Foleys.