Editorial: Inside a gutted L Street: 'It'll be worth the wait'

In the beginning, there was this massive space... City Hall photo

Like most other facilities in the city of Boston, the Curley Community Center in South Boston – known to many as the L Street Bathhouse – closed its doors last March when Covid-19 reached the region. Unlike most other city facilities, it has not re-opened.

City officials made the call to keep it closed and speed up an existing plan to renovate the 70-year-old beachfront center in a massive rehabilitation project that’s intended to make what many consider the “crown jewel” of the city’s community centers even more special.

It’s not a small project, either in scope or cost. It was originally earmarked for a $15 million upgrade, but the Walsh administration ended up green-lighting a $24 million expenditure to make the center, named for the legendary Boston Mayor James Michael Curley, more grand than even the Rascal King himself could’ve imagined.

The Reporter walked through the project last week with Patrick Brophy, the outgoing chief of operations for the city of Boston whose last day at City Hall was on April 16, capping a career that began under Mayor Tom Menino. The Curley Center is just one of dozens of city buildings that Brophy and his team have left their mark on over the years. This one, clearly, is special.

L Street— as many members and neighbors call it— is sui generis. Situated on Day Boulevard, it features its own private beach along Dorchester Bay that attracts a blend of Bostonians from all generations. It’s one of the places in the city that draws in people from all walks of life.

Contrary to stubborn stereotypes, that includes the racial mix. And it has been a particular haven for older Bostonians — self-described ‘Brownies’— who’ve made a dip into the frigid waters of the bay a New Year’s tradition. L Street is also home to a popular running club that draws people from well-beyond Southie’s side streets. Membership is a very affordable $100 per year for adults who live in the city. For seniors, it’s $40. If you’re a teenager (12-18), it’s free.

So, when Brophy— at Mayor Marty Walsh’s direction— told a packed room of more than 200 people back in October 2019 that the center would need to close its doors for a couple of years, not everyone was thrilled. But most understood: L Street was long overdue for a makeover.

“What’s going to happen here is going to be the nicest community center in all of Massachusetts,” Brophy told the crowd.

Last month, soon-to-be-Secretary of Labor Walsh took a walk through the still-gutted interior of the Curley as one of his last stops as mayor. With the walls down, you can pretty much see from one end of the massive building to the other— a length of several football fields, or nearly a quarter-mile.

The project is scheduled to be completed on budget and on time by the end of this year. It may, in fact, be one of the very first jobs of Boston’s next four-year mayor to re-dedicate the space.

What will she or he see that day? For starters, there will a spacious lobby area with large windows affording sweeping views of the beach and bay largely unavailable in the old structure. An upper floor solarium will allow natural light to pour down into the L Street entry. And new windows are being added to the Day Boulevard side to allow in more light.

The project is also aimed at making the Curley more climate resilient with new flood barriers by doorways to keep the high tides from swamping the center. All new mechanical and heating equipment has been installed and will be elevated— no longer stored in the basement allowing water damage.

The Covid-19 shutdown last spring may have worked a bit in the favor of the project, according to Brophy, who notes that BCYF staff members were able to inventory and remove old equipment and office furniture ahead of schedule to allow demolition and new construction work to start last October.

“The whole idea is to have the young and old and Southie people and people from other neighborhoods come in, enjoy a space that’s right on the Atlantic Ocean, right in the middle of Boston,” said Brophy. “It’s beautiful. At the city, Mayor Janey, we are incredibly appreciative of the community’s patience on this project; it is definitely going to be worth the wait.”

–Bill Forry

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