The New Boston was a mix of good and bad
The concept of razing a city to save it
Seventh in a series
Writing of Boston in 1952, the author John Horne Burns began his last novel, A Cry of Children, with this observation: “It takes time and tiredness and tension to hate a city.” Burns was an expatriate who was expressing a generally shared view that the city was a spent force, a place rooted in the past, a place that generated tiredness and tension rather than optimism for the future. It would take time and energy and cooperation to turn things around.
John Hynes had his work cut out for him. Boston’s population between 1950 and 1954 grew by 1 per cent while the suburbs enjoyed a more robust 16 percent growth. Property values were at historic lows: two parcels of land purchased by Harvard University in the 1920s for $1.1 million were sold in 1950 for $180,000. The city was on the brink of a free fall, and a major shock to the system seemed necessary to wake the city from its lethargy.
Hynes found an important ally in W. Seavey Joyce, the dean of Boston College Business School. Seavey Joyce, who would later become president of Boston College, was a critical player in the process of building a consensus around the redevelopment and revitalization of the city. He helped convene the Boston College Citizen Seminars, a series of events that attracted key city and state political and business leaders. The BC Citizen Seminars offered those leaders an unprecedented opportunity to meet in an open forum to share ideas, test assumptions, speak candidly about the problems faced by the city, and develop consensus about how best to respond to them. This coming together of the business and political communities had never happened in Boston’s history, and the strife and confrontation marked by the long Curley era was coming to an end.
Mayor Hynes kicked off the first Citizen Seminar on October 26, 1954, asking: “Is Boston heading for the rough rocks of danger and despair, or are we heading for the happy harbor of safety and security?” Hynes addressed the chronic problems of inequitable property assessments and an inadequate tax base, and he addressed the need for an aggressive city parking garage program to accommodate the thousands of vehicles that came to Boston each day with no place to park. Other speakers pointed out the challenges facing the city. Alfred Neal, First Vice President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, declared that “Boston has missed the boat in the postwar period on more than $400 million in business construction.” Erwin D. Canham, the respected editor of the Christian Science Monitor, admonished his fellow civic leaders to “look the facts honestly in the face. . . . Boston is lagging disgracefully in the business expansion and re-building which is typical of every other first-class community in our nation.” John Hancock President Paul Clark identified four specific areas that needed to be dealt with by the city: high property taxes on business, inadequate transportation systems, urban blight, and “the lack of any really effective regional planning.”
The open and candid discourse enabled by the Citizen Seminars stripped the civic dialogue from all needless niceties, and laid bare for all the urgent necessity for bold action. This empowered Hynes to preside over crafting the strong policy platform that Boston would build upon in the 1960s and 1970s – the two decades that marked the true creation of a new, modern city. Hynes’s great contribution to the “New Boston” was to change the image of the city from that of a sleepy, anti-business backwater to one where business was welcome, ideas flourished, and opportunity for significant investment was at hand. The New Boston was shorthand for a variety of exciting initiatives – the 135-mile Massachusetts Turnpike, the Prudential Center, the construction of a second harbor tunnel. The original plans for what would become Government Center were developed during the Hynes administration.
Hynes set in motion a plan and a vision for the New Boston that was meant to be a model of 20th century progress. He pushed hard and successfully for legislation that would provide important tax breaks for businesses that wanted to build in blighted urban areas. Redevelopment was the order of the day. It seemed the right thing – the only thing – to do at the time, but in retrospect many of the initiatives and tactics of the urban renewal era had an unintended destructive impact on the confidence of many citizens that urban renewal would take their interests into account. The New Boston was, as it needed to be, about putting a new face on the city, about change and modernity. It was not about preserving historic places, restoring neighborhoods, or expanding recreational opportunities. Progress was defined as building new things – building a larger airport in East Boston at the expense of an Olmstead park and a quiet residential community; building a series of high-rise apartment buildings upon the wreckage of the historic West End; building an expressway along the Charles River basin and an interchange at Charlesgate that destroyed Olmstead’s elegant entrance to the Muddy River and the Fens, and building a massive elevated highway through the city’s downtown – the Central Artery that was designed to speed traffic through the city, unclog city streets, and push the city into the 20th century.
The automobile was embraced and enabled as the city invested in several downtown garages – garages generally located near Central Artery exit and entrance ramps, so people would be able to get in and out of the city quickly. Large, impersonal housing projects were built as modern substitutes for substandard residences. In many ways, the city Hynes helped build was the city that we have since made every effort to move away from – an auto-centric city, a city where the poor were segregated into massive housing projects. The city that Hynes built may largely look to us as representing failed mid-century ideas about urban planning and development, but that city and those decisions were necessary for Boston to break out of its steep decline.
Hynes pushed forward two projects that would come to symbolize the dark side of redevelopment, where the poor and the middle class were summarily pushed aside in order to make way for “progress.” Two old and established residential communities – the West End, nestled between Beacon Hill and the North End, and the South End’s New York Streets neighborhood – were demolished in their entirety by wrecking crews helping fashion the New Boston. The New York Streets community and the West End were integrated neighborhoods where people from many different backgrounds lived in relative harmony. They shared similar experiences, experiences of the immigrants and the outcast and the stranger in society, of the poor and lower middle class eking out a living but providing as best they could for families crowded into small sub-standard apartments with few modern amenities. These neighborhoods worked well enough for the people who inhabited them, but city planners considered them slums, blighted areas, and places not worthy of human habitation. In many respects, these assessments were correct, but the solution of mid-20th century planners was akin to destroying the city to save it.
Kane Simonian, who led the urban redevelopment division of the Boston Housing Authority (and would later become the first director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority) spoke matter-of-factly as he described what would happen to the old residential New York Streets neighborhood: “Everything in the area will be demolished except for seven non-residential structures. . . after clearance, the site will be prepared with a new street layout and utilities and will be sold to private enterprise for redevelopment for light industrial re-use.” This notion of demolishing large tracts of the old city to build from a clean slate was encouraged by many who saw opportunity from the devastation of European cities during World War II. The architect William Roger Greeley spoke of the advantage that London would have rebuilding itself into a more modern city as a consequence of the ravages caused by the German Luftwaffe during the war. Greeley said that Boston needed to “destroy our own diseased tissue and by heroic willpower rebuild our community as a worthy competitor of the newer type of city.” The quick and brutal displacement of thousands of people from their homes, without any meaningful provision for fair treatment and relocation, was the ineluctable outcome of such thinking, and it left a bitter taste that would last for decades.
Jim Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation. His most recent book is The Vidal Lecture.