Friday, January 30, 2015

Book Review: Between Two Worlds How the English Became Americans

My grasp on early Boston history is probably representative of that of many people: the Puritans arrive in 1630, and then the Tea Party happens. I've often wanted to take the time to increase my knowledge on the subject, and this book gave me the opportunity to do so. The author covers New England, Virginia and the British Caribbean islands, but New England gets the greater amount of content.

Malcolm Gaskill emphasizes the connections between New England and Old England - the religious and political controversies shared across the Atlantic. And in New England, the conflict between English and Natives is well laid out. And finally, at the end of the time period covered, the Salem Witch Trials are put into context.

This book gets one of my rare 'Buy' recommendations - it's one for the bookshelf.

Between Two Worlds

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Book Review: The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America's First Subway

A book about the building of Boston's subway? Sounds cool. Unfortunately, this book isn't the one we've been waiting for. When three of five praising blurbs on the back cover are from Boston Globe colleagues, you have reason to be skeptical. And sure enough, this book does not pay off it's title.

The 'race' - between New York and Boston to build the first subway in the country - turns out never to have happened. Both cities saw the benefits of getting streetcars off their gridlocked roads. The author does try to connect the two efforts by virtue of the efforts of the Whitney brothers, one in each city. Except that they seem to have had little contact during the relevant period. And more importantly because Henry - Boston's Whitney - ended up retiring from his West End Railway Company before Boston build it's subway.

There is a photo section in this book, but you can see much more today on the Internet with a few keystrokes. I was surprised by the absence of streetcar line maps - one would have made the need for a subway clearer in one view.

I get the sense that this book started as an effort to write about the opening of Boston's first subway, and got extended to the New York/Boston thing by an editor wanting a larger possible market for sales. As the author points out, there are already books about the New York system, so it's a shame that this effort didn't end up Boston-centric.

If you know nothing of the building of Boston's subway, or at least the opening of the first section, which is all that's covered here, this book is worth a look. I'd get it at the library.

The Race Underground

Monday, September 29, 2014

Book Review: Rogues and Redeemers - When Politics Was King in Irish Boston

Gerard O'Neill does a very good job in this look at some of the leading Irish politicians of 20th century Boston. This is less a general history than a story of prominent individuals, chapter by chapter. It would be a story of Irish mayors, but for the chapters on Ed Logue, the BRA Bulldozer, and Judge W. Arthur Garrity. While I would have preferred footnotes, the 'Notes' section at the back does give sources for each chapter.

What I liked about Rogues and Redeemers was that it provided the full sweep of Irish leadership in Boston politics, from Honey Fitz to Ray Flynn. At 375 pages, you get enough information on each era to make sense of the changes that occurred over time. Both John F. Fitzgerald and James Michael Curley have been dealt with in other books, so it's nice to see John Hynes and John Collins get their due here. Collins was the first mayor I remember, and lived a block away from us along Centre street in Jamaica Plain.

Now for the Quibble Department. I was surprised to see Gerard O'Neill get a famous quote wrong. Somehow, Martin Lomasney's   much-quoted "Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink" becomes "never write it down if you can talk, and never talk if you can nod." Maybe he knows something I don't, but I've never seen his version of the Lomasney wisdom.

Next, in a very common mistake, more than once he refers to Scollay Square's Cornhill as Cornhill street. Why did Cornhill lack the Street appellation? I dunno - it's just one of those accidents of history that students of Boston history have to know.

Finally, in a puzzler, is this quote: "In a contemptuous slight by the Yankee authorities, the El overshadowed the Holy Cross Cathedral's grand portico while providing nary a stop in the South End." The truth is that the choice of the South End for the Archdiocese's Cathedral was recognized as a poor one long before the Elevated line was erected. If there was going to be an elevated line through the South End, it was going to go down Washington street, as it runs under Washington street downtown. And as to 'nary a stop,' it was a rapid transit line. Too many stops would have made it a not-so-rapid transit line. And in fact, both the south and north sides of the South End were covered, with Northhampton and Dover streets receiving stations.

No, wait... another definite quibble. The treatment of Louise Day Hicks is typical of what we get today - knee-jerk distaste, but I have to call out O'Neill for his language. When Hillary Clinton is criticized for her wardrobe, the Sexist Alarm goes off, but O'Neill feels free to refer to Louise Hicks as 'frumpy.' And feel safe from criticism because, you know, SHE'S RACIST! While there's barely a word on Kevin White's late term scandals. Cause he Had A Vision.

My quibbles took longer to cover here than my praise, but Rogues and Redeemers is definitely a book to read.

Rogues and Redeemers

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Portland Gale

I usually feature buildings and sites lost to current memory, but Boston's long life as a seaport (as opposed to the non-seaport 'Seaport District') leaves us a remarkable history of lost ships to explore. The Portland Gale of 1898 - named for an eponymous lost passenger steamer - was one of the great Nor'easters of Boston's history. The great Perfect Storm of its day came up the coast, reaching New England on November 26. Warned to stay in port, the Captain of the Portland decided to go to sea, confident that he could outrun the storm. Somewhere off Cape Cod, the Portland went down, with the loss of 192 lives.

One hundred and fifty ships were wrecked along the New England coast, and four hundred lives were lost. Please note: As a result of the recent Superstorm Sandy, an estimated two hundred and sixty eight people died.

I was reminded of the Portland Gale by a mention in David Traxel's 1898: The Birth of the American Century. He describes how, while at the Boston dock,  a mother cat carried her kittens one by one off the Portland and into a shed.  Hmmm....

The Portland Gale Blog


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Book Review: Cityscapes of Boston

Cityscapes of Boston is a classic Then and Now photography book of Boston's buildings and street scenes. The content comes from photo-essays that were originally featured in the Boston Globe magazine. Architectural critic Robert Campbell and photographer/archivist Peter Vanderwarker do a good job of showing changes over time. The emphasis here is on architecture, so the text features that Voice of Architecture style that will please some and send others turning the page for the next photo. You'll know which side you're on when you consider whether the word 'suburban' is geographic locator or an epithet.

The collection of old photos is a good one, with quite a few new to me. The book was published in 1992, so there have already been quite a few changes in downtown Boston that aren't covered here, including the removal of the Central Artery.

Minor quibbles/major rant: when they leave downtown Boston and look at surrounding communities, things start going wrong. Jamaica Plain's Centre street is featured in a pair of then-and-now photos. Here, we get the following text: " In the 1950s when everybody began to have cars, it was exciting to abandon the screechy, slow sociable streetcar - and, sometimes, to abandon the old corner merchant as well - and instead drive to the new supermarket or the Mall."  I was born in 1954, and in fact, my father rode the streetcar to work every day through the 1960s, my mother brought me shopping downtown on the streetcar, and I went to school on the streetcar or a bus or the elevated train throughout those years. We had a car, but saved it for when public transportation didn't get us where we wanted to go. And regarding the 'sociable' aspect of riding those old cars, I have to question  whether Mr Campbell ever rode them in those years. If sardines in a can are socializing with one another, then I socialized with my fellow riders. Campbell is referring here to the evolution of the nation in the post-war years, not, in any accurate sense, to 1950s Jamaica Plain.

A puzzling factual error is also thrown in. In the later photo, the second story of a storefront building is missing. Campbell says "The street wall is lower now because second-story uses on Main Street don't do well in a car culture." No, in fact, the street wall is lower because there was a fire in the bowling alley/pool hall that filled the second floor of the relevant building, and the cost of replacing it was prohibitive. This is what happens when you lead with your ideological chin.

All in all, a good coffee table book to impress your friends with.

 Cityscapes of Boston

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Book Review: The Boston Jazz Chronicles

This is a book I've been meaning to read for a while. While it may seem to be a book strictly for jazz fans, it actually fits the subject of this blog quite well. The years covered are mostly the 1930s through about 1960, and as is true of many locations featured here, most of the old clubs and bars and dance halls have been lost to urban renewal and the hazards of time. For anyone interested in mid-20th century Boston, there's much to learn in these pages.

Did you know that Huntington avenue was the home of big-band dancing in Boston? Or that strippers and gay bars existed in the Lower Washington street area before the closing of the Old Howard and the destruction of old Scollay Square? Or, (for the jazz lovers) that you could have seen Miles Davis with John Coltrane near Copley Square for no cover, no drink minimum?

The Boston Jazz Chronicles is full of historical nuggets, and tell of a time that some still alive remember, but has been totally lost to the New Boston. Definitely recommended.

The Boston Jazz Chronicles

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Book Review: Boston's Changeful Times: Origins of Preservation and Planning in America

I've just finished Michael Holleran's 1998 book on the evolution of the preservation movement in Boston and America. It started a bit dry and academic - no surprise there, given the subject - but it went on to be quite informative. Featured are the early battles over the old Brattle Square and Old South churches, the Old State House, and the loss of the Hancock house on Beacon Hill. Over time, we see questions of motivation arise - what is worth saving, and why? A chapter on parks and open spaces leads on to a exploration of the skyline and building height limits, with an emphasis on Copley Square and Beacon Hill and the State House. The book ends with the institution of zoning regulations around the time of the First World War.

All in all, an interesting entry in the story of Boston and how the past was integrated into the modern city.

Boston's Changeful Times: Origins Of Preservation and Planning in America, by Michael Holleran.