Monday, February 21, 2011

Book Club: Boston's Back Bay

Two Northeastern University faculty members have written a book focusing on the filling and building of the Boston's Back Bay. William A,. Newman and Wilfred F Holton tell the story from geology to architecture, with special attention to why this area of wetlands and mudflats was filled. The answer to that question is that there were multiple reasons to fill the Back Bay, each needing to be examined in its turn.

The first answer is obvious only if we keep the original Shawmut Peninsula in mind - the town of Boston was tiny. Even after hills had been leveled and coves filled, Boston was essentially an island, and a small one at that. As Boston grew from town to city, it needed more space to grow.

Second, an failed attempt to dam and use tidal power in the back bay area lead to a hygienic and aesthetic disaster. Sewers poured into the now-damed bay, and artificially permanent low tide conditions within the damed area caused the obvious problems. Boston - now filling with immigrants - sat beside a permanent sewer.

The third reason to reclaim the bay was not so obvious to me. The city wanted to keep its well-to-do Protestant population, and they needed new homes. Boston Neck was being filled to create the new South End, but it quickly turned into a district of boarding houses and working-class homes. If Boston wanted to keep her upper class - now with railroad access to suburban communities - it needed to have a new district dedicated to their interest. And so, the new Back Bay district was designed and zoned to attract and keep Boston's WASP population.

All in all, a good read, and at less than 200 pages, a quick one as well. The story of the actual filling work is told, with a steam shovel specially designed for the work devouring sand and gravel in Needhan, and trains carrying the loads twenty-four hours per day, every day of the year. Different street layouts were proposed, and different funding mechanisms attempted. In the end, the work was done with remarkable efficiency.

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