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The history and future of the Hub of the Universe
on June 17, 2002
Boston has a reputation for being something of a Puritanical stick-in-the-mud. It is surprising, then, that it has experimented so vigorously and persistently with its urban design. Some of those experiments - the Back Bay and the Emerald Necklace - we recognize as glittering successes, while others - the creation of Government Center and the Fitzgerald Expressway - are festering failures that the city is only beginning to address today. Of the numerous histories and narratives that this tremendously fertile subject has produced (many of which I've read), the most wide-ranging, elegantly written and well illustrated that I have found is Jane Holtz Kay's Lost Boston. It works equally well as a coffee table book and a curl-up-on-the-couch book.
The creation and evolution of Boston is arranged here chronologically, starting with the first settlements in 1630 and concluding with an epilogue on urban renewal and it's ramifications at the close of the 20th century. Even though it is an accurate history, it tells a great story without becoming dry or academic. The language is descriptive and accessible, introducing major players in the Boston scene, from Charles Bulfinch to James Michael Curley. You also get a wonderful feel not just for the power brokers, but the neighborhoods, people and places that made the city a vibrant place. There is a warmth to Kay's writing, without delving into sentimentality. Because the background history - the day-to-day development that made Boston the Hub of the Universe - is so readable, it helped me understand the context of major events in the city's history: filling of Back Bay, the Great Fire of November 1872 and the razing of the West End in the 1960's. Instead of examining these as isolated events, they are knit together to show the city as a living, evolving organism. It was fascinating to see how Boston reinvented itself after the Fire, to see the creation of Frederick Law Olmstead's Emerald Necklace, only to lose its way, lured by the siren song of renewal.
And throughout are some of the best photographs and period illustrations of old Boston you're likely to ever see. There are the bustling wharfs on Atlantic Avenue, the original Museum of Fine Arts (where the Hancock Tower now stands), and the graceful mansions of Roxbury. There are dozens of examples of the Boston Granite style that dominated the city's architecture before the Great Fire. For me, the most moving photographs were the ones of Adams and Scollay Square and the West End, all of which fell victim to the wrecking ball to make way for Government Center and urban renewal. They themselves serve as simple, eloquent statements for common sense and reason when it comes to grand urban experiments.
And yet, it's an unfinished history. The Big Dig - the largest public works project in American history - is nearing completion, which will bring down the despised Fitzgerald Expressway. The land cleared for that highway will yet again be developed into inhabitable space and add another major chapter in the history of the city's evolution. So as history loops back on itself in Boston, it does so in new and unforeseen ways. In that, Lost Boston serves us well as a history and a speculation on the future of the city.