Revenge On The City
June 24, 2005 11:02 AM   Subscribe

The Destruction of Medieval Boston - "Most people think of Boston as a dense city, and it is, especially by American standards. Today’s city is, however, a pale shadow of the medieval maze that was Boston before large-scale modern planning and spatial concepts entered the picture... Here is what Urban Renewal replaced."
posted by mrbula (44 comments total)
Boston still is a maze.
posted by ScottMorris at 11:13 AM on June 24, 2005

Fascinating, and depressing. Great link! I'll have to come back to it later when it's not getting so hammered - some of the photographs aren't loading.
posted by iconomy at 11:19 AM on June 24, 2005

I have a lot of small quibbles with the commentary -- in particular the photos he's showing are far more 'Victorian' than 'Medieval' but these are fabulous photographs. Good post, mrbula, thanks for sharing it with us.
posted by anastasiav at 11:23 AM on June 24, 2005

Remarkably, they managed to build an entire city while spending less than $7.46 on street signs.
posted by Kwantsar at 11:30 AM on June 24, 2005

I just love everything on Cyburbia; it's a complete timewaster for me. I've been in correspondence with one of its admins, Dan for several years (since we hail from the same area). I just wish he had the original source data from his old "Virtual Cheektowaga" website.

anastasiav- True, many of the buildings aren't medieval as such, but the point, I think, is that the nature of the city, owing to its settlement in the 1600s, is medieval. Very few cities in the U.S. have such a heritage.
posted by Doohickie at 11:31 AM on June 24, 2005

I have to agree with the Victorian conclusion, anything over five stories doesn't really strike me as Medieval. Edswardian maybe, but Medieval not so. Cool anyway. I would much rather give up my car and live 5 ft away from the next building. Fire codes and infectious disease be damned!
posted by geoff. at 11:32 AM on June 24, 2005

Although there's no commentary, this site has some old picture postcards of the Copley Sq area
posted by darsh at 11:38 AM on June 24, 2005

Medieval is not quite right for these but the pictures are pretty amazing to look at and think that I've walked over many of those places.

I'm forwarding the link on to some of my east coast family that grew up in Beantown. They should get a good kick out of the imagery. Thanks for the post!
posted by fenriq at 11:39 AM on June 24, 2005

Great post - the before and after pics of Scollay Square/Government Center really drive home the differences. Thanks.
posted by Staggering Jack at 11:43 AM on June 24, 2005

I feel violently ill at what has been lost, and has taken its place.
posted by keswick at 11:43 AM on June 24, 2005

Just thinking about driving in Boston gives me the chills...
posted by merc at 11:45 AM on June 24, 2005

I used to live in Beacon Hill just a few blocks south of the old West End. I went up into the area soon after moving because had the closest grocery store to my home, but walking up Cambridge Street, across several concrete plazas and then through the huge open parking lot to the store was unsettling and depressing. I never went back, and in five years of living in that apartment I did not once go to the West End again, for any reason, because there is no reason to go.
posted by nev at 11:59 AM on June 24, 2005

"Medieval" doesn't refer to the buildings, but how they're arranged. Basically, no planning, build streets as you go.
posted by LionIndex at 12:03 PM on June 24, 2005

I think "medieval" in this case refers to the urban morphology of Boston, the physical form of the city, which consists of street patterns, density and building sizes, as well as building shapes and architecture.
The buildings themselves may have reflected a Victorian era architectural sensibility, but they existed in a medieval urban landscape.
I just spent a delightful long weekend in Boston, and walked from Back Bay to Fenway and all the way to the North End and the harbor. In my experience it's a delightful, friendly, and quite accessible city for a pedestrian. It looks like a lot has been lost, though. And I'd never want to drive there.
posted by Floydd at 12:04 PM on June 24, 2005

I live doors away from the location of John Winthrop's homestead...and across the street from John Harvard's. The streets - and area, Town Hill - were laid out by engineer Thomas Graves in 1629 - one year prior to the founding of Beacon Hill by Reverend William Blackstone in 1630.

On April 18, 1775, Paul Revere borrowed a horse from Deacon John Larkin - whose 1790 home still stands just around the corner.

It was during the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775) that the homes on Town Hill were destroyed by the British. My current home was rebuilt in the 1780s.

It is this rich history that attracted me to this area. It's a pity that a lot of it has been lost over the centuries. mrbula - thanks for the link.

Be sure to check out The Boston Historical Society website and search their photographic collection.
posted by ericb at 12:05 PM on June 24, 2005

The Massachusetts Historical Society website is also worth visiting.
posted by ericb at 12:09 PM on June 24, 2005

I'm with keswick. So much was lost.
posted by mania at 12:16 PM on June 24, 2005

Ugh. It's so depressing to see what people allowed to happen to American cities.
posted by deafmute at 12:17 PM on June 24, 2005

Ugh. It's so depressing to see what people allowed to happen to American cities.

It's a shame what's been lost, but Boston's managed to hold on to more than many places. I work in the remnants of the "West End" (on Canal Street) and now that the elevated tracks have come down, the neighborhood's looking up. And thank goodness we still have the North End, along with a whole lot of park space being created that was ugly elevated highway for 50 years.

And some aren't as nostalgic for the old days. Read the comments from the guy in the post below the one linked: Being born in 1929 it brought back many memories. Some good and some bad. I left Boston in 1950 thinking Boston was an old, dirty and corrupt city (AKA Curley) with no future. I was right for the time.... The only thing I remember with any fondness at the time was arriving at South Station and seeing the trains. Quincy market (see picture) was a dirty mess with lots of flies and more horse crap and garbage....
posted by jalexei at 12:39 PM on June 24, 2005

Yeah, hate to be a pedant, but the oldest bits of Boston are around the 1600s, about 100 years after the mediaevalperiod ended. Early modern is more like it. Still interesting post - a lot of it looks much like London. Which also has loads of nasty new stuff (urban planning and WW2).
posted by rhymer at 12:50 PM on June 24, 2005

what was lost? go visit lowell or lawrence or parts of methuen (all just a small drive from boston) and see what happens when you don't renovate. those cure little brick buildings are now hollowed out shells skulking all over the landscape and crowding in on the crappy low-income tenements. i'll give you that I've always thought that they sure looked neat and castle-esque, but the cities have suffered for them.
posted by es_de_bah at 12:56 PM on June 24, 2005

what a post! thanks!
posted by matteo at 1:01 PM on June 24, 2005

Just thinking about driving in Boston gives me the chills...

I drive in Boston every day. You get used to it. Flipping the bird becomes a reflex after a while :-)
posted by WaterSprite at 1:04 PM on June 24, 2005

es_de_bah, well, by all means, let's tear 'em down and build a wal-mart there or some dystopian urban center like albany! idiot.
posted by keswick at 1:26 PM on June 24, 2005

Best post I've seen in a long time. Many thanks, mrbula. The photos remind me of Atget's Paris; I could look at them all day. Let's not get caught up in the "medieval" thing; yeah, the guy makes too much of it, and literally it's nonsense (there's nothing medieval in the Americas), but as LionIndex and Floydd said, it's a useful metaphor for the old-fashioned nature of the building stock and street layout. It's a tragedy to see the destruction of irreplaceable history in favor of interchangeable modernity (which starts to look tacky and regrettable almost instantly).

To those of you pointing out that life wasn't a bowl of cherries in the old parts of town: well, of course not. Two choices: improve the existing stock and make occasional replacements with due regard for the existing environment, or rip the sucker out and start over. The latter was decided on, but it wasn't the only choice.

This sent chills up my spine:
Every single thing in this photograph has now vanished.
posted by languagehat at 2:00 PM on June 24, 2005

Absolutely great post. And yet -- I have to confess a certain fondness for the Government Center plaza, especially in an empty, windswept moment with some dirty old snow scattered around. Am I crazy?
posted by escabeche at 3:45 PM on June 24, 2005

Not to worry. When that sliding mountain island over by Africa falls into the ocean, Boston will be wiped clean and we can start it all over again.
posted by five fresh fish at 4:02 PM on June 24, 2005

Great post -- particularly compelling for those of us who reside here, and are familiar with the urban geography that has replaced the lost neighborhoods.

Personally, I have always been particularly appalled by the alien spacecraft of the Boston City Hall building, surrounded as it is by so much barren brick. In the past couple of years the city has attempted to make the plaza more inviting by planting trees, erecting some sculptural elements, and subdividing it into more pedestrian-friendly zones. Good efforts but not really successful.
posted by killdevil at 4:14 PM on June 24, 2005

And it won't be until they get rid of the upside-down ziggurat.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:28 PM on June 24, 2005

"Lost Boston" is a fantastic book by Jane Holtz Kay showing the growth and regrowth of Boston, along with photography and stories of buildings that have long since been torn down or have burned. Highly recommended.
posted by kahboom at 5:11 PM on June 24, 2005

Here's a nice online version of the 1722 Bonner map (which I believe is the oldest map of the city); I got it at this obsessively detailed "Where Was the Actual Boston Tea Party Site?" page—if you have any interest in Boston history, there are a lot of maps, photos, and historical information there.
posted by languagehat at 5:20 PM on June 24, 2005

boston is great city. don't think i've seen the walmart there. seen a lot of good shows and art exhibits, eaten a lot of good food and met a lot of wonderful people and a lot of my friends go to school there.
you don't *have* to use land badly once you free it up.
posted by es_de_bah at 6:16 PM on June 24, 2005

i say this because, currently, those towns are tenenaments, strip malls, and miles of low-priced lawyers built on what used to be great cities. that's where your walmart goes: in a now-poor city adjacent to the "nicer" suburbs.
posted by es_de_bah at 6:20 PM on June 24, 2005

Every time I pass that building, Civil_Disobedient, I assume they're conducting human sacrifices somewhere in its bowels.
posted by ubersturm at 6:38 PM on June 24, 2005

Medieval could be interpreted in a pejorative sense, "backwardness". Cities were laid out the same from time immortal, why not "Ancient Boston"? Also the 1600s is not Medieval, Medieval traditionally ends in 1500. The author chose the name based on one of the pictures which shows a building from the 1600s with the classic overhanging upper-floors which characterized some Medieval buildings.
posted by stbalbach at 7:02 PM on June 24, 2005

Boston City Hall - of the Brutalist Modern style. What were they thinking? Today, a vast wasteland!
"If the graceless expanse of City Hall seems like an eyesore in comparison with the colonial coziness of Faneuil Hall, it's not for lack of architectural ambition. When Boston resolved to replace Scollay Square (a seedy "sailor's paradise" teeming with gambling dens, tattoo parlors, shooting galleries and strip clubs) with a professional complex called Government Center, the city hired the celebrated firm of I.M. Pei and Associates to engineer the transformation. A disciple of Walter Gropius, Pei was inspired by the challenge of harmonizing gargantuan new structures with the comparatively quaint historic buildings of the neighborhood. Though City Hall was to be the centerpiece of Pei's vision, its design was delegated to the firm of Kallman, McKimmel and Knowles, who won a national competition with their plans for a monumental structure, to be built in a style aptly known as Brutalist Modern.

While some welcomed the new City Hall on its 1968 debut, its contemporary critics include Thomas Menino, who regularly refers to his workplace as "ugly") and erstwhile former mayor John Collins (under whose administration the contracts were awarded), who once admitted to a reporter that "a few light bulbs and some soap and water would help." Despite the Kafka-esque oppressiveness of its appearance, City Hall Plaza is the center of Boston's celebration calendar, hosting concerts, festivals and a farmer's market in summer, and the ever-popular Enchanted Village during the winter holidays. "-- Julia Clinger
posted by ericb at 7:10 PM on June 24, 2005

Every time I pass that building, Civil_Disobedient, I assume they're conducting human sacrifices somewhere in its bowels.

Yes ... along the lines of this.
posted by ericb at 7:12 PM on June 24, 2005

Project for Public Spaces - Worst Squares and Plazas - City Hall Plaza ranked "Worst in the World".

Whatever happened to the architectural redesign contest for City Hall Plaza?
posted by ericb at 7:22 PM on June 24, 2005

Also the 1600s is not Medieval, Medieval traditionally ends in 1500

By all means, let's repeat this over and over, because some people might not have grasped it the first few dozen times.

That City Hall is scary—it belongs in Unrealized Moscow.
posted by languagehat at 6:11 AM on June 25, 2005

Beautiful... Can the plans to use the land above the buried Central Artery help at all to unsunder the city?
posted by Zurishaddai at 9:17 AM on June 25, 2005

And in today's Boston Globe ...

Menino Threatens Fan Pier Permits
"Mayor Thomas M. Menino yesterday threatened to challenge the valuable city approvals the owners of Fan Pier have been granted on their property, and even their ability to continue making millions parking cars on the land, unless they move quickly to spur development on what has long been considered the jewel of the South Boston Waterfront."

Fan Pier project plans.
posted by ericb at 9:31 AM on June 25, 2005

Coming in waaaay late, the bowels of City Hall is the Traffic & Parking division. Which, if you owe on some tickets, is as close to human sacrifice as I've ever come. And re: the driving in Boston, I drive a cab there. Believe me, it's not that hard. Read the signs. Yes, there are signs. Many, many signs. Read them. Follow them. And get the *hell* out of my way. ;)
posted by Banky_Edwards at 4:53 PM on June 26, 2005

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