Virgil Abloh and Harbor Views, a BlackBook Weekend at the Boston Seaport
Above: Virgil Abloh at the ICA
For anyone who drove a car through Boston from the ‘90s into the early Oughts, we hope you’ve recovered from the trauma by now, as it was surely a harrowing experience. It was the time of the Big Dig, the most expensive public works project ever, one that was plagued with billions in cost overruns, corruption, and even a death or two. (Ed. note – It was four.) However, when at last finished on New Year’s Eve of 2007, almost a decade later than originally planned, it not only created a much more user-friendly roadway system through one of America’s most appealing cities, but opened up development for the construction of modern architecture, green spaces, and a whole new area along the city’s waterfront.
To be sure, what was once vacant lots and the detritus of 200 years of nautical commerce, the new Seaport, officially now the South Boston Waterfront, has in less than a decade become the fastest growing area of Boston – and by 2014 it was hottest real estate market in the country, with New York developer envy surely felt from 190 miles away. So recently with the Delta Variant wreaking a whole new kind of viral havoc – causing us to self-ground again for the time being – and a much buzzed about Virgil Abloh exhibition at the ICA museum, we decided to trade our Paris plans for Beantown, and keep it regional for now.
Our base was the exceedingly stylish Envoy Hotel, sitting right along the waterfront, where we were immediately taken with the phalanx of floor-to-ceiling windows framing our room’s stunning harbor views. On our first evening we stayed local, traversing the surrounding streets, which by dusk were already teeming with well-turned-out millennial types on the prowl. Back at the hotel, we tucked into crispy fish tacos and a devilish Seaport Sangria at lobby pop-up Para Maria, and then made for the teeming Cisco Brewers beer garden, settling on a Whale’s Tale English style pale ale. Returning to the hotel we attempted to bridge the insanely popular Lookout Rooftop bar, but weren’t quite ready to battle the considerable crowds for a nightcap. Still, we were encouraged to see nightlife returning to its former energy, even as we worried a bit about the third (Fourth? Fifth?) wave of the virus.
We took to the streets early the next day, Boston being without question one of the easiest American urban centers for walking; we’d soon crossed over the Fort Point Channel to the downtown waterfront area, with its magnificent 19th Century industrial buildings, which have of course been turned into modern lofts / living spaces. Breakfast called, and we parked ourselves for a smoked salmon and egg tartine at one of the local fave Tatte Bakeries before heading to our ultimate destination, the architecturally fascinating Institute of Contemporary Art, for which we had finagled tickets to the very sold out Virgil Abloh Figures of Speech exhibit, his first ever at a major museum. It’s hard not to envy Abloh’s resume (we’ve given up trying actually): he’s got a master’s in architecture, launched the cult-to-wildly-successful fashion label Off-White in 2012, and is now creative director at Louis Vuitton menswear. (He’s also best friends with Kanye West, but no one is perfect.)
The show vividly explicated his inimitable talent for provocation and self-promotion, though he nevertheless seems to have retained an admirable humility through it all. Over 70 pieces informed how his cultural purview had come to include film, fashion, furniture design, street art – often times with a focus on Black history and the socio-political. The thorough overview of his already considerable oeuvre ranged from his custom sneaker designs for Nike to his specially designed turntables. And seriously, the cantilevered Diller Scofidio + Renfro building is a destination unto itself, if you’re into that sort of thing (we are).
Looking to extend our culture fix, we took the 10-minute shuttle across the harbor to visit the ICA Watershed, an annex of the main museum. Its East Boston location was noticeably more diverse and funkier than the Seaport, perhaps best described as the New England version of New York’s Queens. The Watershed is a cavernous old repurposed shipyard warehouse, in what was once a major point of entry for immigrants. Its current exhibition, a monumental, immersive sculpture – dramatically titled To breathe full and free: a declaration, a re-visioning, a correction (19°36′16.9″N 72°13′07.0″W, 42° 21′48.762″ N 71°1′59.628″ W) – by provocative Dominican artist Firelei Baez, is a fantastical interpretation of the ruins Haiti’s baroque Sans-Souci Palace, first built in 1813 for King Henry I.
Before heading back to the mainland, we stopped for a liquid fix at Boston local Downeast Cider House, whose main distillery and shop is conveniently located next to the ICA. They even had a pop-up bar off a parking lot by the water.
Back at the Seaport, we took a patio table for lunch at the nouveau Mexican spot Lolita, where a deft DJ team were already getting the young and comely crowd pumped for the anything-goes evening ahead. We admit we were intrigued to return after dark, to immerse in the gothy, Middle Ages dungeon vibe inside – maybe a Halloween visit?
On the way back to the Envoy we made stops to take in some of the local commissioned street art exhibits, including a new-ish muralized version of North Boston native Frank Stella’s Damascus Gate (Stretch Variation, I). It was hard not to wonder just how many of the coming and going citizenry were aware actually of what an artistic masterpiece sat dangling just above their heads every day.
Of course, Bostonians love their Italian food – and dinner that night was at Il Giardino by Tuscan Kitchen, just a couple of blocks from the hotel. We sat in the block-long outdoor space snacking on assorted crudo and people-watched the energetic goings on of the Seaport’s increasingly animated nightowls, wondering at how not so long ago this was a mostly neglected area known more for its eyesore parking lots.
On our final morning, after a couple of sublime coffees at Philadelphia export La Colombe, and another visually inspiring stroll along the waterfront, we stopped for brunch at Row 34, a stylish modern bistro with an industrial chic interior and hearty seafood dishes like smoked steelhead trout w/ deviled egg spread, and lobster fettuccine. The place was buzzing with young creative types, pretty much typical of everywhere one goes in the Seaport these days. And frankly, after seventeen months of lockdowns and isolation, it was exactly the sort of buzz we needed.
Top two images: Virgil Abloh at the ICA; Bottom image: Lookout Rooftop Bar at the Envoy Hotel