© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.


Getting the hook
By Steve Bailey

If I were Sal Patania, I'd be nervous, too.

From his loading dock on Boston Fish Pier, he has a front-row view of the New Boston rising before him. The Seaport Hotel is flanked on each side by a Fidelity office tower. An entire block on Northern Avenue just in front of Jimmy's Harborside is about to be replaced by fancy apartments and another hotel. Next door, a Canadian insurer soon will break ground on its North American headquarters, a stunning glass prism of a building. And more of the same is on the way.

The problem: Sal Patania, with hands that smell of fish, is not what anyone, himself included, would call New Boston. And where he fits in this New Boston is anything but clear. He is hardly alone in a city facing unprecedented growth.

Like his immigrant father before him, Patania makes his living on the Boston Fish Pier, operating a couple of fishing boats and processing fish at his family-owned Ideal Seafood, one of about 20 such companies on the pier. The newspapers have written the Fish Pier's obituary a dozen times over the last 30 years, its imminent death attributable to - pick one - overfishing, Boston's polluted harbor, or chronic underinvestment.

But the spunky mom-and-pop fish processors who have inhabited the pier since it was built for them at the dawn of World War I have survived. And with New England's fish stocks now rebounding, the future looks, remarkably enough, brighter than it has in years. Except, that is, for all those cranes in the air.

With a furious building boom all around them and their leases expiring in 2004, what Patania and others like him on the Fish Pier can't get is a straight answer from their landlord, the Massachusetts Port Authority. ''They want us off the pier, but they won't tell you that,'' Patania says.

A half-dozen years have passed, but the Fish Pier lifers have never forgiven Massport's former director, Stephen Tocco, for turning their aging but graceful fish exchange at the end of the pier into a conference center for anyone who can pay the freight, from business groups to Sunday weddings. Now they are sure they are next.

No long-term leases mean no financing at the bank, they say. Already much of the fishing industry's infrastructure - the guys who fix the engines, repair the nets, supply the fuel - have been forced out by the new development. Massport is encouraging the processors, one by one, to move to a new, privately developed facility at nearby North Jetty.

How long, they wonder, until Massport can point to the ''underutilized'' Fish Pier? How long, they wonder, until Massport issues a request for proposals from the developers?

Massport says it is, in fact, committed to maritime uses for the pier. An agreement signed with the state Department of Environmental Protection ensures that, Massport says. But the agency says it will not discuss new leases until it is finished with a study that considers the needs of the entire fishing industry, not just the processors. Just 10 percent of Boston's fish processing is done on the pier today anyway, a spokesman notes. Rents are painfully low.

Meanwhile, Patania is left with an off-the-record conversation he had with a Massport executive. The official, Patania remembers, told him that in time Patania would not want to be on the fish pier. Not with the office buildings and the hotels and all the new shops. Fish smell. The trucks that come and go off the pier are noisy.

And the Fish Pier, Patania asked? ''Think Newburyport,'' the Massport executive replied. A few boats for the ambience, a boardwalk, who knows?

Steve Bailey can be reached at 617-929-2092 or by e-mail at bailey@globe.com.

This story ran on page F1 of the Boston Globe on 8/22/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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