When Red Sox World Series trophies need buffing, third-generation Downtown Crossing silversmith Mike Davis gets the phone call. The same goes for when Patriots nick Super Bowl trophies with their bulbous bling, or when Paul Revere’s teapot needs some TLC, or when Bob Vila, also a customer, has tarnished goods. Today, Davis is polishing three sets of ornate flatware for a woman who will soon pass the heirlooms to her about-to-wed granddaughter. Whether they’re careless celebrities or cautious civilians, Bostonians surrender their trust and treasures into Davis’s charcoal hands.
As silversmiths go, Davis is practically the last tradesman standing. His workshop at 36 Bromfield Street is a throwback to the days when Boston was regarded as a hub of the storied American silver industry. An open-shaft steel-cage elevator takes visitors from the beaten first-floor hallway to the fifth-floor Davis Silver Company, the store his late grandfather John Davis founded in 1945. There’s no hot-water line, so Davis keeps a cauldron steaming on the exposed pipes. There’s no computer, either, so Davis uses hand-written invoices to keep track of the trophies, spoons, and teapots scattered on his dusty wooden shelves.
John, his grandfather, opened the shop after leaving Tuttle Silver, where he started as a 12 year old and worked his way from polisher to foreman. When Tuttle moved from Southie to Connecticut, John refused to relocate, and instead brought his bench to Bromfield. There, he eventually taught his son, Ed, who ran the business until retiring 12 years ago, turning the operation over to Davis, his son. The cement walls, splintered window frames, and even the rusty air are essentially the same as they were the day John opened shop.
“I don’t remember when I didn’t work here,” says Davis, 55, who has run a full-time solo operation since 1996. “I’ve been coming to this place since I was at least five years old.”
It would be understandable if Davis — whose shop has outlived the refugee Russian tailors who filled 36 Bromfield in the ’50s, as well as most lawyers and accountants who rented in the ’70s, and the nonprofits that got priced out in the ’90s — was reluctant to welcome the glossy, near-billion-dollar projects that pols, planners, and mega-corporate interests have slated for his ancestral soldering grounds. But despite being a near-anachronism in Downtown Crossing as it transitions into the 21st century, Davis is a surprising ally of change. Whether they’re developed with mirrored skyscrapers or magnificent prewar paragons, Davis has the same ideal for every lot from Temple Place to School Street: the buildings should be accessible, occupied, and bustling with shoppers.
The future of Downtown Crossing has become a hot potato in the embryonic 2010 mayoral race, as all three declared candidates have criticized perpetual-but-so-far-unannounced contender Mayor Tom Menino for his handling of the $700 million Filene’s project, which promised a hybrid hotel-retail-residence complex. That effort, which is central to the Downtown Crossing revitalization process, but has so far amounted to a universally scorned square-block hole in the ground, was suspended in November due to financial troubles after five months of demolition. Candidate and city councilor Sam Yoon called the halted project a “glaring failure”; fellow candidate and councilor Michael Flaherty blasted Hizzoner for letting control fall under the authority of — hold your nose — a New York–based company. Menino has defended himself by saying that Filene’s is a victim of the international economic tsunami, plain and simple.
Either way, Downtown Crossing has become a symbol of urban overreaching, and the gaping pit at its heart off Washington Street — the site of two partially demolished buildings (one of which was the flagship Filene’s building, a historic landmark) — has become a metaphorical vortex that even in good times blemishes the city, and in bad times creates conditions for further blight.
Parking at the end of the tunnel
The view from Davis Silver’s fifth-floor windows used to have a clear line of sight to Old City Hall. These days, he faces 45 Province Street — a three-years-in-the-making, pool-topped, 32-story bourgeois monument that will offer a “celebrity chef” restaurant and 150 luxury condo units. He doesn’t expect that many old-money families laden with antique silver will move into the sleek glass tower, but Davis does anticipate residual benefits from the aesthetic improvement nonetheless — even if construction was supposed to wrap in 2008. For one, its underground parking facilities could be a boon, since the new building replaced what was the largest garage in the area, and as such has inconvenienced customers for three years and counting.
“This was already a hard area to navigate,” says Davis, “and without that garage, there’s really nowhere to park. But it’s not just that — [merchants] around here would agree that Filene’s being gone is the biggest problem. It used to be that women would drive in, see me, see their jeweler, maybe have lunch, and go shopping. But without Filene’s, a lot of the time people just call me from downstairs so I can meet them in their cars.”