What Happens to Revere?

The loss of Suffolk Downs could be East Boston’s gain

By Alistair Birrell and Mikaela Lefrak

If Suffolk Downs closes, it might not be such a bad thing for Revere.

Yes, the locking of the stable doors will be the death knell for many folks with jobs in the horse racing industry. But it could also be a step forward in East Boston’s centuries-long process of urban development.

Back in the 1830's, East Boston wasn’t even a real place yet. It was a general name for a grouping of islands in the Massachusettts Bay, apparently named by a 6-year-old with an active imagination: Noddle, Hog, Breed’s, Governor’s, Bird, and Apple Islands. The only way to get to Boston proper was to snag a seat on the 15-person paddle steamer that made infrequent runs across the bay. Only a thousand people called the place home.

But East Boston had location, location, location, and land developers knew it. By the 1920s, the place had exploded. Immigrants from southern Italy flooded in, bringing its population to a high of 64,000 in 1925. Even then, it still had a lot of unmet potential. When Massachusetts legalized pari-mutuel wagering in 1934, and a group set out to build a race track in East Boston, the area was undeveloped enough for them to buy 200 acres of straight-up mud flats to build on.

East Boston is now entering a third stage in its life cycle, according to Madhu Dutta-Koehler, a professor at BU’s school of City Planning and Urban Affairs. It might not all be doom and gloom for East Boston.

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