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

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