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This blog is a place for dialogue on issues and actions relating to Boston's unique built environment and the preservation and continuing evolution of historic resources within it. My goal, as the Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, is to post timely, relevant and thought-provoking intelligence, ideas, and insights that will engage conversations, inform our actions, and broaden perspectives on preservation.

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Greg Galer, Executive Director, Boston Preservation Alliance

Executive Director

AllianceViews Blog

With Historically Informed Eyes, The City Makes More Sense

September 21st, 2012  |  Posted by: Greg Galer

The Atlantic Avenue Elevated Outside South Station

One morning  last week I attended my first Boston Preservation Alliance Board of Trustees meeting, held in the North Station area. As the Alliance’s new Executive Director it was an exciting morning.  I eagerly made my way from South Station to North Station.  As I made the requisite, multiple changes on the T, I became a bit irritated by the convoluted route of what should be a simple connection. This is a frustration that Bostonians have shared and talked about for generations, and an issue over which city planners have endlessly wrought their hands.  My observation isn’t new.

So, the point of this entry?  Rather than let my mild frustration get to me I took a mental step back, chuckled, then felt awestruck.  Why?  I was living the very lessons that I have taught for years and will try to promote each day in my new position here at the Alliance: the past and present are intimately linked; what we experience today is contingent upon historic events; and decisions we make today are the determinants of the future – not just our personal future, not just the future of those with whom we are directly interacting, but the future of our community and its physical landscape.

Historical events and decisions, determined by social and political forces that existed long ago, shaped this city, and literally shaped my steps that morning.  My path from South Station to North Station was not a straight and simple route, due largely to the disjunction between the train lines entering opposite ends of the city.  Specific reasons, each both contingent and co-dependent include:

  • Competition between railroad companies and land and right-of way ownership issues.
  • Ridership patterns — most people came to, not through, the city.
  • The influence of street-conveyance businesses and laborers who relied upon the fairs and transport of luggage and cargo from one side of the city to the other.
  • Both a freight linkage (the Union Freight Railroad, 1872-1969) and an elevated passenger connection (the Atlantic Elevated Railroad, 1901-1938) did provide service between North and South station, although not fully integrated with north and south-running lines.  However, other economy-driven transportation changes such as the decline in ferry service (after the Sumner Tunnel was built) and shrinkage of maritime industries led to the elimination of service.  The above-grade el of the Atlantic was scrapped during WWII metal drives.

We all know that we can see the past in our historic buildings, but the story is far more complex and subtle — so much richer than only appreciating older styles and construction methods.  These lessons are just one reason why preservation is so important:   because these sites we work so hard to preserve have deep meaning and give rise to a variety of fascinating discussions that reveal how the past is truly relevant to us today.

So, the next time you walk the city streets or grumble about some seemingly nonsensical aspect of the city’s built environment, pause, take a deep breath and appreciate the moment as an opportunity to learn about the city’s history, about why it is the way it is, rather than the way you think it should be.

I’d be curious to hear if you’ve had similar experiences in Boston.

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One Response

  1. I live in Plymouth, MA but work in Charlestown, so I often have the same frustrations when I try to navigate the MBTA. I was glad to read through your post and learn how much of the city’s history is tied into the T!

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