City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Part of Boston/Cambridge Diary series

This is the bit where my ‘cursory glance’ at Boston and Cambridge gets less and less useful. Luckily the urban form of Boston is one of the classic examples detailed at length in two of the greatest books about cities ever, in my humble opinion: Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) [Amazon UK|US]; and Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City (1959) [Amazon UK|US]. Lynch’s book in particular contains all you ever needed to know. Based as he was across the Charles River at MIT, no one has a clearer view of, or written more clearly about, the city’s form. I encourage everyone to read both these books – especially Lynch in this context. So, given that, what follows is a personal ‘lite’ reflection and no more.

I’ve ambled around a few central neighbourhoods of Boston – Back Bay, Fenway, Beacon Hill – and likewise in Cambridge – Kendall Square/MIT, Central Square, Harvard Square, Puttnam Avenue. I’ve pored over maps, but only the interests of hapless wayfinding rather than an attempted overview of the city form. And I’m still using the book A Good City [UK|US] as my sole guide. However, even at that distance from ‘the truth’, the built fabric of the city’s streets is fascinating.

Sketches from Lynch's Image of the City

What’s immediately clear is that Boston hasn’t been thoroughly and regularly purged by fire, as say London, Chicago and Tokyo have been. Therefore, several of the layers of change are still evident in the city’s form, with different neighbourhoods possessing quite different shapes and structures of feeling. Again, The Image of the City has more on this specifically – in interviews with people on their sense of Boston neighbourhoods, one resident responded “Each part of Boston is different from the other. You can tell pretty much what area you’re in.”

Like Amsterdam perhaps, much of the centre of the city is reclaimed from the water, or the marshes and fens of the wild Shawmut Peninsula that loomed out of the mist to greet the 17th century sailors from the Old World. Jane Holtz Kay, writing in A Good City, provides in one excerpt all the initial influences on Boston’s form:

“Transformation and expansion have always characterized this historic city. The first Europeans to arrive on the Shawmut Peninsula saw a trio of hills – Beacon, Copps, and Fort. No sooner had John Winthrop and his flock arrived in 1630 than the acts of flattening his vaunted city upon a hill to fill and build began. The same missionary zeal characterized the actions of the later settlers, who would decapitate the hills to fill wetlands, making new lands for wharves, churches, and dwellings. By wharfing out and filling marsh (as they would for centuries), Bostonians tripled our city’s land mass – from 843 acres (about the size of Central Park) to 2,100 acres, according to tradition, though lately the estimate grows to 5,200 acres … As the population grew, the waterbound soil was sponged with still more earth. In the South End, some 570 acres of the former tidal flats were filled to allow the creation of the splendid oval-centred streets, modeled on those in England. Not long thereafter, the east-west axis from downtown to the setting sun became the more prosperous site for Back Bay builders. Importing Parisian design, this time from Baron Haussmann’s grand boulevard, and scooping Needham’s soil for landfill of the mudflats, builders gradually created the magnificent progression of row houses for city dwellers and their ecclesiastical and educational institutions.” [From ‘On Location: Place and Politics in a Changing City’ by Jane Holtz Kay, in A Good City]

Unlike Amsterdam, that relatively late reclaiming of land meant that the canal had been surpassed by the train and trolley-bus in terms of trade and urban movement. And subsequently the car. The ‘wet bit’ of Boston is contained within the Charles River now, and the odd ponds in the 19th century pleasure parks, aka the ‘Emerald Necklace’. Holtz Kay’s quote also makes clear that trade and industry were as much about the “ecclesiastical and educational institutions” as the emerging industrial giant of Cambridge, over the river. Informational economies. This lends a very different, perhaps more genteel, form to Boston than say to much of Amsterdam, London, Madrid, Rome or Paris – the Old World centres it would be drawing from. However, it is, in a sense, a confection of selected segments from those cities – the Georgian squares of London’s Bloomsbury; the Parisian boulevards rolled into place by Haussmann; the reclamation from nature evident in Amsterdam; and an attempt at the vibrant street life drawn from the Mediterranean centers, enabled by the warm weather. That’s the view as seen by an idealised urban planner – the city also has unfettered organic growth and neighbourhoods which were conjured out of thin air by people with no knowledge of the ‘European Grand Tour’.

It’s interesting, this mix of Old and New World influences here. And confusing. There are times when it feels quite different to other cities in this country – Boston is one of the most densely populated American cities – and yet it is still distinctly American.

“(It’s density) is thin compared to the rest of the world. Paris, for instance, has roughly the same area as Boston (we’re speaking of Paris proper and Boston proper, not the metro areas). But Paris packs in more than four times as many people as Boston. It does that with almost no high-rise buildings, and with lots of parks and boulevards.” [From ‘A Mixing Chamber’ by Robert Campbell, in A Good City]

Its traffic problems are apparently generally suburban, smongst the thinly populated towns along the Route 128 corridor – not in Boston central. So the sprawl effect common to US cities is also evident here. So overall, it is distinctly American in form, despite the areas I had first hand experience of – but not overwhelmingly different to an Old World city. Similar in this sense to New York, perhaps, but few other US cities.

Density, Back Bay

In terms of other transport networks, it was secretly satisfying to see a subway system which appeared to be even shabbier than London’s! The ‘T’ seems shambolic, confusing and old. Which it is, as America’s first subway system. The subway isn’t so ‘sub’ in places, crawling out of the ground to trundle through the city on a few lines. It’s a vaguely bewildering beast, with a fairly unintelligible map, which would seem to echo the occasionally contradictory layers of urban form above ground.

The 'T' Air conditioning on the T

However, despite this all this disorder, due to its relatively recent creation from the water, much of central Boston did get a chance to emulate the prevailing, highly-organised urban theory of the age – that of Haussmann’s Paris – and that gave the city one of its jewels: Commonwealth Avenue. “Comm Ave”, to the natives, seems an absolute masterpiece of urban form – perfect scale; a Haussmann-inspired series of boulevards; what A Good City terms ‘Boston’s Champs Elysees’.

Apartment entrance, Comm Ave

Rows of fine, tall terraces surround elongated grassy squares, with paths running through and around them. The largely residential building is varied but generally appears high-quality and attractive. Elegant elms, saved from Dutch Elm Disease by the attentions of local residents, define these promenades through the squares. It incorporates both the car and the pedestrian seemingly perfectly. It’s a very ordered city at this point – in fact, I didn’t clock till I read in A Good City that the street names even ascend in order. Genius.

“The street plan is a tidy grid. Commonwealth Avenue is the wide main boulevard, cross by a series of alphabetically named streets – Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, Fairfield, Gloucester, Hereford.” [From ‘An Intimate Geography: Boston Neighbourhoods’, by Lynda Morgenroth, in A Good City]

Sketch from Lynch's Image of the City on differentiating along a line with a series of distinct events

An earlier, equally delightful, aspect of Boston’s planned urban form is Beacon Hill. This is the section Holtz Kay describes as “modeled on England” – specifically, I would imagine, the squares of London and Bath.

The highlight of Beacon Hill is Mount Vernon Street, which Henry James said was the most beautiful in America. I must admit to not having personally checked all the other streets in the US, but it must be in with a shout. It is rather lovely – the old trees forming a dappled canopy and gently levering up the cobblestones. Presumably, litigious Bostonians overlook people tripping up at such a prestigious address.

Mount Vernon Street Sidewalk, Mount Vernon Street

John Kerry’s house is just off here, on a quite beautiful square which clearly draws from the Georgian style. Tall elegant terraces surrounding a private grassy oval, skirted with fine trees. Kerry’s house itself is surrounded by not-so-tall-and-elegant plain clothes secret servicemen.

Kerry house

Beacon Hill descends back down into the Back Bay district (it’s one of the few hills which weren’t flattened to create the Back Bay as far as I can see.) Comm Ave is here, as is Newbury Street, an altogether more familiar street, lined with shops both local and global. This is where the city felt vibrant and warm, where numerous restaurants line the street with chattering punters as the evening draws in. (It’s where I, er, chickened out of ordering Lobster Tikka Masala at a pretty good upscale Indian restaurant, ‘Saffron’. No doubt I missed a local fusion delicacy …)

The Back Bay, so named due to its reclamation from the water, has fine city form. The streets are ordered and navigable, but not to the point of becoming mundane. The scale of building is enjoyably variable – here is where the towers are, here also the triple-deckers of Newbury and Comm Ave. Lynch has more here:

“Boston’s Back Bay is an interesting path network. Its regularity is remarkable in contrast to the rest of the central city, an effect that would not occur in most American cities. But this is not a featureless regularity. The longitudinal streets were sharply differentiated from the cross streets in everyone’s mind, much as they are in Manhattan. The long streets all have individual character – Beacon Street, Marlboro Street, Commonwealth Avenue, Newbury Street – each one is different – while the cross streets act as measuring devices. The relative width of the streets, the block lengths, the building frontages, the naming system, the relative length and number of the two kinds of streets, their functional importance, all tend to reinforce this differentiation. Thus a regular pattern is given form and character.” [From Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City [UK|US]

Given the aforementioned ‘Comm Ave’ is here, this would seem to be something of a classic of urban form. However, the Back Bay is also site of one of the lowlights of 20th century city planning – Storrow Drive and the resulting destruction of the city centre’s vital link with the Charles River.

Essentially, Boston was cut off from the water by creation of Storrow Drive in the 1950s. This has the same effect suffered by central sections of the Thames and the Seine – freeways aping the river’s role as transportation artery but also cutting off the city’s inhabitants from the reason the city was there in the first place. As discussed previously, the Charles River had already been dammed and shaped many times, finally with an understanding that the once-filthy riverside could become a place for recreation.

“The result was a linear ‘water park’, an open green space with promenades and walkways that extended for nine miles along both banks of the river. In order to halt the natural flow of the tides and keep the stinking flats permanently drowned, the plans called for a dam near the mouth of the river at the base of Beacon Hill … (By) 1910 the dam was built and by 1930, thanks to a generous donation from Helen Storrow, the widow of one of the major backers of the project, James Jackson Storrow, the park was finally completed. There was a twist, however. The one condition of Mrs. Storrow’s gift, stated in her will, was that no road ever be constructed through the new park. Soon after Helen Storrow’s death in 1949, the state legislature voted to construct a highway along the river – and named their blasphemy Storrow Drive.” [From ‘An Eden of Sorts: An Unnatural History of the Shawmut Peninsula’, by John Hanson Mitchell, in A Good City]

Hateful. Of course, it was another time, another culture, another way of thinking – and difficult to connect to the rationale of those in power then. Having said that, Kevin Lynch writing in 1959 had alluded to the effects of Storrow Drive even then, in that the Charles River – which should surely define why Boston is even there – had already begun to fade out of interviewed citizen’s shared mental image of Boston:

“It was the Charles River, despite its role as the basic edge in the Boston image, which was curiously isolated from the detailed structure of the adjoining Back Bay. People were at loss as to how to move from one to the other. We can speculate that this was not true before Storrow Drive cut off pedestrian access at the foot of each cross street.” [From Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City [UK|US]

Boston and others were “eating themselves up with expressways” as Jane Jacobs put it 2 years later in 1961. This photo I took (below) from one of the few pedestrian footbridges across Storrow Drive doesn’t quite make clear the deep incision into the city – the river is just metres behind the thin strip of trees to the left; the Back Bay and Beacon Hill start on the right-hand side. Gaze up the multi-lane highway – see any ways to cross? I’m standing on one of them. I could only see one other pedestrian bridge looking in either direction. In terms of ‘imageability’ it’s no wonder the citizens Lynch interviewed had already begun to rub out the Charles from their mental map of Boston.

Storrow Drive, Boston

Sketches from Lynch's Image of the City on the edges at Boston's waterfront

Fast forward almost half a century and it’s amazing that even the few people I witnessed down by the riverside are there at all, thanks to Storrow Drive. As a result, even getting to the Charles is difficult and the riverside around the Back Bay is therefore pretty much disastrous – however, living things carve out brief opportunities none the less.

Signs of life by the Charles River More life on the riverside Riverside sunbather

It could have been even worse. The infamous Robert Moses – he of ‘cities are for traffic’ fame and responsible for grievous bodily harm on Manhattan and others – was also set to do his work on Boston. Thankfully, that project was abated somehow, and huge swathes of neighbourhood marked for eradication from the map survive and thrive today.

The classic account of the ironically-named ‘urban renewal’ era is in Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of American Cities (1961), and she mentions the disasters suffered on Boston throughout. Boston’s destruction of its West End was a primary exhibit in the book, presented as one of the more sobering examples of when urban renewal attacked. Its loss is still felt today, as noted in A Good City:

“For me and many others, the most painful experience was the loss of Boston’s West End, during the era of urban renewal in the 1950s. The West End was the site of my grandparents’ home, the neighbourhood where my father grew up, and a place of many memories … When the West End was demolished – despite the labors of my father and others to defend it – the city, our family, and seven thousand West Enders lost a beloved community. The lives of residents and storekeepers of many nationalities were destroyed in favor of luxury apartments and government buildings, as urban renewers played cozy with developers whose pickets were deeper than their values.” [From ‘On Location: Place and Politics in a Changing City’ by Jane Holtz Kay, in A Good City]

Jacobs, supported by the thinking of sociologist Herbert Gans, claimed that the West End was what she called an ‘unslumming slum’ – that its destruction could, and should, have been averted – that all the characteristics of the neighbourhood indicated that the West End was just fine. The worst it could be described as was “a stable, low-rent area”, as Gans saw it. He spoke of the “intense attachment of residents to the district, of its highly developed informal social control, of the fact that many residents had modernized or improved the interiors of their apartments – all typical characteristics of an unslumming slum”, according to Jacobs. All that was destroyed. (For a more hopeful, positive story of Boston’s neighbourhoods, Jacobs also details the successful organic resistance and recovery of the North End.)

But such was the scale of the actual interventions of that time, will our cities ever be able to reverse those mistakes? Will any future Boston see a demolition of Storrow Drive and reopening of walkable tributaries running from the city’s streets direct to the river? In terms of applying Stewart Brand’s notion of layers of change to an entire city, these are some fairly deeply set layers. I can’t see it. It seems unlikely that Boston will ever be able to usefully develop the waterfront here, as many other river/sea-based cities are doing around the world – in terms of bars, clubs, museums, small harbours, ad-hoc beaches, apartments and so on. This is a huge opportunity which can only be missed, as far as I can see.

The same goes for Cambridge, where the waterfront is generally faced up with industry, either thriving or derelict, save for some section of the waterfront paths out towards Harvard Square. Cambridge’s form itself is more haphazard and harder to engage with. The area around MIT just felt impossible to ‘get situated’ in [see earlier section on Cambridge for more].

Several local people I spent time with professed to being frequently confused and lost in Boston and Cambridge, even having lived there for years. On the one hand, I love this diversity of form – again, I live in London so am used to that feeling – on the other, it was no coincidence that the places I felt most able to explore were the relatively ordered streets of Back Bay and Beacon Hill. I did get enjoyably lost in Cambridge, heading down towards the river from Harvard Square (Puttnam Avenue, River Street, or Brookline Street, I think), but I’ve no idea what that neighbourhood really was.

This quality even appears in The Image of the City, when discussing how to pick apart different districts of Boston: “The clues were not only visual ones: noise was important as well. At times, indeed, confusion itself might be a clue, as it was for the woman who remarked that she knows she is in the North End as soon as she feels she is getting lost.”

But what could be more enjoyable, for an idle visitor, than getting lost in the city? Shifting between ordered streets and disordered streets provides the rich variation only a truly urban space is capable of.

All told, as with architecture, Boston and Cambridge’s urban form is endlessly fascinating, functioning almost as a petri dish for many of the key experiments of 19th and 20th century city planning. Equally, the organic growth outside of formal planning is equally interesting, and still visible throughout the cities. Read their past and present, via Lynch, Jacobs and A Good City, for an idea of where it could go next.


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