Back in Boston: Part 5

Back in Boston: Part 5

Jamaica Plain

The only time I’ve been through JP was when I rode my bike along the Emerald Necklace and ended up in Mattapan. I don’t remember much of the area other than the parks so I figured if I was staying here I should explore it a bit.

JP isn’t as big as I thought it was. It was a streetcar suburb and as such is very walkable. It is mostly residential, even along the commercial areas. What I like about JP is the variety of housing. There are streets with single family houses, duplexes, triple-deckers, apartment buildings, and even a mansion thrown in here and there. Parts reminded me of Arlington, where I grew up.

There are sections of Jamaica Plain that are very hilly and this is where some of the older, more interesting buildings are. There are hills with large lots on the top with a single mansion, usually painted some dark green color, with mansard roofs and dark windows, surrounded by very large and very old trees. This is the type of neighborhood where horror stories are set, street after street of Houses of Usher.

Like I said, this is in the older section of JP. When you come down off the hills there are smaller houses, but just as odd. The area was home to a number of factories and workers homes since this was one of the first areas in Boston to gain a railroad. Most of the factories are gone, though some buildings remain, usually on the other side of the tracks, the Roxbury side.

Today the Orange Line makes all the stops the B&P used to while the commuter rail whizzes by to serve communities further out. Because land was originally cleared for a highway up this way there are still some abandoned lots near the Orange Line along with the parks of the Southwest Corridor. This gives commuting to and from JP an interesting feel. Living in New York, when you get off a subway station, you get off in a city, a dense neighborhood with retail and residences all mixed in. When you get off the Orange Line stations you get off into a suburb. There is a large park and across the street are wooden houses, with a small shop but not much else. Because there is also no parking you don’t get the sense that you are in a modern park-&-ride facility far out in the suburbs, but that you are in a real place.

On the other side of Centre St are more houses, though because this is the area of Jamaica Plain that is actually flat, the streets are straighter and the houses are more similar, though just as interesting. If the last section of JP reminded me of Arlington Heights then this reminds me of East Arlington. I realize that most people reading this will not understand what I mean so I will explain:

Geographically, Boston lies in an area known as the Boston Depression, a low area surrounded on 3 sides by large hills. This was created when a massive glacier sat atop the area now known as Boston, literally depressing the land. If you go to the observation deck in the Prudential Building and look at the horizon you will see hills on three sides, with the ocean on the fourth. This geographical phenomenon is most responsible for shaping the growth of the city. It defines where the roads and railroads where built and where the poorer areas and wealthier areas were built (poorer areas are typically in low lying areas while wealthier areas are built on high ground, though this isn’t always the case).

Arlington is a town that is built with one side on the escarpment that rings Boston and the other inside the depression. Because of this, the area known as Arlington Heights has a more natural road pattern (winding roads that follow the contours of the hills) while East Arlington has your standard grid pattern. The houses on the Heights are usually bigger and more expensive while the houses in the East are more uniform and less expensive. I see the same pattern in JP, with the exception of larger houses along the edge of the neighborhood along the Jamaicaway, the section of the Emerald Necklace home to Jamaica Pond.

Another thing I noticed walking around the older section is that the streets are very narrow, as are the sidewalks. This gives the feeling of walking in the North End or a European village. It’s a nice change of pace.

At the very end of JP lies the Arborway, a landscaped parkway running from Jamaica Pond to the Arnold Arboretum, a tree museum. The Arborway is a fantastic example of a time when cars were only owned by the rich and only went 20mph. There are giant tree lined rotaries that feed into a parkway with 8 lanes, 2 side lanes with large tree lined medians and a 4 lane road in the middle. It is a prime example of how engineering and landscape architecture can come together and make an simple infrastructure project a work of art.
I didn’t get to go into the Arboretum this time around, though I’ve been in there once before and it is a magical place. The old saying is “You can’t see the forest for the trees” but here is a place that is designed to address that.

Running down the center of JP is Centre St. The first thing one notices is the old trolley tracks that still run in parts of the street. The E branch used to run all the way through JP to Forest Hills but was scaled back to Heath St in the 1980s when the Southwest Corridor Orange Line opened up. Various community groups had been pushing for the restoration of service, now handled by the #39 bus, but resistance from city hall and the pull out from one of the more important backers, the Conservation Law Foundation, had made it very unlikely that service will ever return.