How we became unsuspecting heroes in a lawless Downtown Crossing.
Intro illustration by Scott Murry | HOTDOGTACO
Storyboard illustrations by George Pfromm II | @HDOGFIGHT
Boston’s rarely accused of being a sickeningly scrubbed metropolis. From neglected blocks of Blue Hill Avenue where pushers peddle with impunity, to the student ghettos of Allston which make the human chicken coops in Gangs of New York look civilized, the Hub is not in danger of becoming a museum city. We have too much authentic cobblestone, plus a regenerating college-aged set to rely on for ritual public puking and revelry. More importantly, even as accelerated gentrification sends our working families scrambling, we still have a thriving underclass lurking in the midst to provide us with a relatively tame and modern version of the Combat Zone, that notorious collection of porn shops and tug shows that once filled Boston’s seediest sections around Scollay Square.
After a particularly irksome Orange Line ride that spit us out in Chinatown early last Wednesday evening, we found ourselves with two hours to kill around Downtown Crossing. This isn’t difficult; we both spend at least that many hours each day perched on barstools, and the Tremont Street area is home to some of our favorite wet spots. What started as an impromptu plan for heavy drinking and light talk, however, quickly spun into a throwback to the downtown gutters of the 1970s, replete with drugs, violence, vagrants, and a bitter twist of surveillance state irony—all packed into a hallucinatory half-hour of weird.
Follow along as we recant our momentary brush with heroism.
A hulking and sweat-soaked rube is walking with the awkward, staccato movement of a brainless drunk and aggressively tailing three oblivious blond tourists, one of whom is lugging a waist-high plastic suitcase on wheels. He’s about 260 pounds of soft flesh, all of which is splashing on the concrete step after step. As we pass and admire one of the two new head shops in the area—a glowingly illuminated sinner’s oasis of blown glass and exotic blunts—the stalker closes in on his prey. Their rhythm matches ours; as the knuckle-dragging cave troll speeds up to get about a foot behind them, then drops back and repeats the pattern several times due to his high intoxication level, we’re right there alongside him. This all happens within one block.
As if some angry god hears us wondering out loud if Boston has descended into a frightful jungle of indifferent bystanders, the guy finally lunges for the bag, spurring us to run directly at him and unleash a roaring “YO!” Our volume bounces off of the surrounding stonework, and perplexes the guy with the suitcase getting robbed—as does the realization that he has one Neanderthal behind him plus a pair of bearded animals hounding from a flanking position. He doesn’t know that we’re the good guys, and given our general unkemptness and the fast-moving nature of street violence, we forgive him for assuming we are two more vultures.
Startled by our brazen idiocy, the seemingly drug-addled thug—straight out of central casting, filthy wife beater and all—surrenders the suitcase and steps back. Meanwhile, we’re occupying the middle of Tremont Street and corralling the innocents to safety somewhere in the matrix between the Masonic Temple and Dunkin’ Donuts. Horns are honking. Traffic barrels straight at us. We trip over each other in the rush to still make a 7pm screening at Loews, and one of us loses a sneaker in the intersection. It’s picked up, slid back on, and we somehow wind up on the Chinatown side of Tremont. Blocked from us by traffic, the would-be thief scurries off. The tourists thank us profusely, but seem a bit confused when we inform them that we followed them for a block before swooping in. Nevertheless, we neutralize the threat, and triumphantly gallop into the theater lobby, our kicks now firmly fastened.
Since we’re both reporters, you’d think we might avoid admitting that we went to the wrong theater to preview The Fifth Estate, the upcoming docudrama about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. That’s exactly what happens, though, as it’s being shown at the Regal Fenway at least 20 minutes from the Boston Common theater where we’ve mistakenly come. After deciding that we can’t make it across town, we instead decide to re-enter the exhilarating time warp we had briefly experienced, and zip back into the Combat Zone heyday like Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris, at the mercy of the universe, pitching his novel to a young Hemingway.
Back out on the beat, one of us sees the wife beater causing more trouble—this time he’s attempting to commandeer a bag of hot nuts from a street vendor. We holler loudly, he retreats once more, and so we decide to turn snitch and find a cop to run official interference. Considering that we just published a Dig feature smashing Donnie Wahlberg for his fetishizing the police, it feels like a bad idea to call authorities on our cell phones, even with the NSA presumably on hiatus due to the government shutdown. If there’s ever a place where you can find the law in this city, though, it’s in the sketchy no man’s land where Chinatown meets Downtown Crossing. Or so we think.
The only authoritative siren within earshot is the bellhop’s whistle at the Ritz Carlton. Moving toward Park Street on Tremont, scanning for a blue uniform or undercover—the latter tend to stand out like boners in tight sweatpants on account of their bright white cross-trainers, shaven mugs, and cropped ‘dos—we come up empty for blocks. There are no cops near the fountain on the Common, nor by the train station. We spy a park ranger’s lone, shadowy cruiser near a playground, but there’s nobody inside. Meanwhile, the place is hopping, and we’re soaking in the alternate reality—a woman playing one of the tricked out pianos that Celebrity Series of Boston installed for the season, a random barrage of firecrackers popping with no visible source or mischievous teenagers in sight. You’d almost think the city wasn’t bombed earlier this year, and that the area isn’t watched by hundreds of law enforcement cameras and multiples of that affixed to storefronts and hotels.
On your average weekday afternoon, there are dozens of cops hovering around Downtown Crossing. We’re not exactly fans of the police state, but it’s completely understandable, as punk kids tend to clash after school, sometimes stabbing over ridiculous beefs and ill-received glances from suits hurrying through. Tonight, though, there’s not a single officer in sight—not at the post outside the food court where they usually stand, nor on the Macy’s side, where you can typically find some fuzz ogling the tattooed makeup clerks. There’s a transit cop car parked nearby, but like the ranger ride back on the Common, there’s no one inside. We finally spot a BPD wagon, but despite our loud guttural cabbie whistling to gain its attention, the rolled up windows silence our cries, and the driver’s moving too fast for us to catch him.
Heading back toward the scene of the crime, still looking for a cop to squeal to, we pass a large and dirty degenerate wearing a tattered Bruins jersey. He’s drinking from a paper bag. If he wants to skin us alive, he can take his sweet time carving every limb to the bone. For that and other reasons, we’re traveling quickly, concerned that the perp we wish to report may have struck again while we wandered around. By the time we get back to the Chinatown T station, he’s nowhere to be found, but we do finally locate a transit officer—nearly 20 minutes after setting out to find help. We give him the description—about 6’3”, white trash, more than 250 pounds, ill-fitting stone-washed denim shorts that hang below the knees, sweaty beater—and he thanks us. We pat one another on the back for being good samaritans.
Feeling brave, we venture out for vegan fare in Chinatown, and begin to record the surreality we’ve just encountered, moment by absurd moment. The time warp continues as we walk along; after struggling to track down police when they were needed, right after we report the problem, we suddenly spot a Boston cop nearby, this one working a construction detail in full reflective regalia. We consider telling him about the issue as well for good measure, but he disappears into a sleek silver Mercedes coupe that’s parked illegally beside the work site. It’s one more highlight of our bizarre ride, another hark back to the days when rank-and-file officers pushed luxury whips and let the streets run wild.
Ordinarily, you can’t heave a chocolate Munchkin in Boston without hitting an idling squad car or an unmarked vehicle helmed by an upcoming cast hopeful for Boston’s Finest. Yet on this occasion … nothing. Anywhere. In the time we spent stomping the perimeter, the brute we sought to sideline could have at least found his way to the South Station bus terminal, or blended in with a beehive of grabby drunks and wastrels elsewhere. If he struck again, we apologize for not phoning the cops immediately, even though we could have just acted spinelessly detached like the cast of Seinfeld, and mocked the criminal activity in progress while snapping cell phone pics. Of course, then we’d have missed the rare opportunity to embrace the wild wilderness of Downtown Crossing in its former glory, temporarily free of law and order, where it takes a couple of average schmucks like us to save the day.
FLASHBACK: THE COMBAT ZONE
BY SHANNON NARGI
Centered on Washington Street between Boylston and Kneeland Streetse—stretching out to Stuart Street and Park Square—our ancestral Combat Zone was New England’s leading hub for drugs and prostitutes for more than a decade before it was leveled around 1980. Here’s a flashback through some stats and facts:
1800-1880 Scollay Square serves as a travel destination for the world’s elite.
1967-1979 Years of major criminal activity in Boston’s Combat Zone.
898 Number of solicitation and “common nightwalking” charges stemming from the Combat Zone alone in 1976.
1978 Year the BPD vice squad issued 843 complaints against bars for allowing prostitutes to solicit clients and nude dancers to interact with customers.
97 Number of girls under the age of 17 (as young as 12) who were arrested for soliciting men in the Combat Zone in 1977
17 Age of Judy Belfrey, who was found murdered in her Back Bay apartment after going home with an apparent John in 1977.
4 Number of murders that serial killer Kenneth “The Giggler” Harrison confessed to committing in and around the Combat Zone between1967 and 1970.
ERRATA: A previous version of this story mistakenly conflated Scollay Square with the Combat Zone. While the Combat Zone was an adjacent outgrowth of its seedy predecessor, Scollay Square, the latter was demolished in the early ’60s to make way for today’s Government Center. As such, there were 898 solicitation and “common nightwalking” charges stemming from the Combat Zone in 1976 – not Scollay Square. We regret the error.