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.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Taverns of Boston Town.

Lamb Tavern - site of the later Adams House, Washington street. First stage coach to Providence started there in 1767. Present during the Siege of Boston, pulled down in 1845 for the Adams House.

City Hotel, Brattle street, ca. 1860.

A stage coach terminus, the building was taken down in about 1868. It is reported that for almost 100 years, a cannon ball fired by Washington's troops sat lodged in it's wall.

The Province House

King's Head Tavern, North and Lewis (or Fleet) streets. Erected in 1691, This etching was drawn from an 1855 photograph. 

Green Dragon Tavern.

One of Boston's most famous tavern, frequented by patriots during the run-up to the Revolutionary War. Also the first Boston headquarters of the Freemasons, Joseph Warren being the Grand Master. The building was torn down when the street was widened in 1828. 

The Sun Tavern was built in 1690, opposite what would be Faneuil Hall. A James Day kept a tavern in the building in the 1750s, and the Portsmouth stage coach stopped there.

Hancock Tavern.

Province house, 1679, 1864 fire - residence of Royal Governors, Inn and boarding house, Mr T. Wait.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Great Roxbury Fire of 1894

Boston baseball grounds before the fire (BPL Leventhal Map Center).

Boston has suffered many disasters in her history, but most, putting aside a single big earthquake and the odd hurricane (and the molasses flood), have been fires. Colonial Boston was a city of wood frame buildings, and was swept repeatedly by fire. While the memory of these events are lost to all but the specialist, most Bostonians are familiar with the great fire of 1873, which left much of the warehouse district in ruins.  But gone from popular memory is the city's second largest fire, the great Roxbury fire of 1894.

The Heart Of The Fire From The Corner Of Tremont and Cabot Streets (From the Boston Globe, May 6, 1894).

The Boston Beaneaters were playing the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday, May 15, 1894. The ball park had been built in 1871, and rebuilt and enlarged with new stands in 1888. After the end of the third inning, smoke was noticed coming from under the right field bleachers. Reports after the fire said that a small group of men saw the fire, and could easily have stomped it out, but a policeman told them to leave it alone, and that he would take care of it. When Beaneater right fielder Jimmy Bannon saw flames through the stands, he ran to put it out. A gust of wind fed the flames, and Bannon was driven back. Soon, the right field bleachers caught fire. From there, the outfield fence caught fire, and ran to the left field bleachers, engulfing them as well. Fans stood in the middle of the field to avoid the flames.

1890 map showing where the fire would occur.

 Observers later said that district fire chief Sawyer, present at the game, refused to call in the alarm until it was too late to prevent the spread of the fire from the bleachers to the grandstand and out into the surrounding neighborhood. The buildings that backed on Berlin street were soon burning. In an hour, twelve acres had burned, 200 buildings had been destroyed, and 1900 people were homeless. 

1895, showing lost buildings in the burned district.

From Berlin street, the fire spread to Burke, Cunard, Coventry and Walpole streets. driving people from their homes so fast that they didn't have time to save any of their property.

Looking At The Fire From Rear Of Ball Grounds.

Three Abandoned Engines on Tremont Street

The Burned District.

Scene At The Ruggles Street Church.