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Posts Tagged ‘back bay’

A new role for the BRA?

I think we need to take a new look at how Boston and how the many neighborhoods work together and develop. As it is now it seems that the process is very confrontational: A developer comes in and wants to build something big and the local citizens flip out and scream until they get what they want. This is a childish and asinine way to build the city. It also usually ends with a crappy building that does nothing to enhance the quailty of the neighborhood.

Most of us in the pro-development pool think that community groups have too much power but I think that is a very one sided view. Why is it that these people think they need to get together in the first place? I think that it is because they see the city fighting against them and they feel threatened. If we could have a system where all three parties, the city, the developers, and the citizens, had equal say in development then I think we might be better off; a checks and balances system if you will.

Obviously the role of the government is to speak and fight for the citizens but as we all know this many times isn’t the case.

The BRA used to work along the top-down approach. They were the educated elite and their new plans for the city would fix all its problems. As time has proved over and over this is the wrong way to do things. We need a bottom up approach. But can a massive bureaucracy work bottom-up? I think it can and it has to if we are going to seriously start fixing the problems of the city.

I firmly believe that a city is only as strong as it’s weakest neighborhood. Sure New York has Midtown, the Upper East Side, and Park Slope, but it also has the South Bronx, Bed-Sty, and East New York. I think it is an Utopian dream to think that a city will never have slums or ghettos; I believe that they are inevitable. But what I don’t think is inevitable is that they have to be places where people are beaten down, places that are broken with broken people begetting more generations of broken people. I think that we need to see neighborhoods as not just real estate but as functioning organisms, much like the organs of a body. If you had healthy lungs but a dieing liver, sure you could breath but you would still be dieing. I think low income neighborhoods should be places where the weakest in society can go and survive, and where they can even bring themselves up and eventually move out. This was the vision of Jane Jacobs and I think that it is a noble and attainable one.

What I think the BRA needs to be is the agent that regulates the neighborhoods of Boston to make sure each is working correctly. You might think that most neighborhoods won’t need much help but just look at how much stink the Back Bay or Beacon Hill makes when a new building is proposed. The BRA needs to have representatives in every neighborhood that are on the ground and can talk to community groups, and so that community groups and citizens know who they are (perhaps they are elected?) so that people don’t have to feel so powerless. The fact that there are so many community groups in Boston should be a good thing, it should show that the people there actually care about the future of their communities, that they want them to be better places with good transportation, good schools, and safe streets. If developers had no walls against them then Boston would look like Houston.

Back in Boston: Conclusion

So what are my final thoughts on my trip to Boston? I left the city with a mix of feelings. On one hand I am happy the city looks so good, lots of new buildings and stores, neighborhoods cleaning up. Most of the people I met weren’t cold mass holes like I thought they would be. The T seems to be getting on the right track, finally. But something didn’t feel right. Maybe I am too used to New York, though, interestingly I didn’t miss New York at all while in Boston. Coming home didn’t feel like coming home, just like I was moving from point A to point B.

Boston was described by a geography friend of mine as a “baby city”. I’m sure no one in Boston would feel that way but coming from New York it is easy to see how you could look at Boston like a baby city. Boston was comfortable. It wasn’t noisy, the streets weren’t filled with a sea of people (in some places they were but it wasn’t a rush, more like a slow crawl where people were stopping to see the sights.) It was also clean, which I don’t think I would ever say had I not lived in New York. Or maybe that just speaks to how dirty New York is (it is, but that’s how we like it, isn’t it?)

I came up for the Geography Conference but only went to a couple of seminars and blew the whole thing off for most of the week. I really came up to hang out and walk around and that’s what I did. But I came to Boston with the idea in my head that I knew what I was doing with my life, that I had a path and I could see the end of it. I come back to New York questioning what it is I really want to do. I still want to do Urban Planning, I think, but the closer I come to graduation the less I know what that means. Maybe I just got a giant dose of academia and realized that that wasn’t what I wanted, though I think I already knew that.

I remember when I was a kid, I was totally obsessed with dinosaurs and I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist when I grew up. Soon that passed and what I wanted was to be was an astronaut. Space was my life. But then I grew out of that too. When I first went to college I went for Industrial Design, and though I don’t think I ever wanted to do that professionally, I knew design would play a big part in my life. I remember the day a professor recommended urban planning as a major, since I was very interested in the city and very much not interested in designing products. The more I learned about it the more I liked the idea. But always in the back of my head I remembered the times when I was truly passionate about something else, only to wake up one day and lose total interest. It scared me that this would happen again some day when it would actually matter. As a kid you can think you want to be whatever but when you grow up and need to find a job, having fleeting passions isn’t going to work out when you need to pay the bills.

But perhaps that was the problem, that Boston was my passion all along. I kept up the T website and would look longingly at maps of Boston, remembering the great times I had there and remembering how it sparked my interest in cities. Maybe going back was what I needed to realize that that was the wrong direction, that I left the city because there wasn’t anything there for me and there still isn’t. Maybe this is the city telling me to move forward, to focus on the new possibilities in New York and in greater cities still. Perhaps the reason I am so conflicted is because I was looking for something that wasn’t there, something that I only remember, and that may have not even really existed in the first place. I think I finally saw Boston as an outsider and it shook me up. Maybe this was the world’s way of saying keep your eye on the prize and don’t look back.

I remember walking down Centre St in JP to the Orange Line to get to Back Bay and I thought I heard someone call my name. I looked back but I didn’t see anyone, but as I was doing this an image of Lot’s wife flashed in front of my eyes as she looked back on her burning home, only to be instantly turned into a pillar of salt. I turned back around, thinking that if I kept looking back I too would transform into a pillar, a monument to all that I have left behind. I think that is the fatal flaw of Boston, that it recognizes and fetishists it’s past, looking back longingly to an era that was perceived as being greater, but in reality wasn’t. The city cannot get past the past, and that is something I cannot do.

Here is a map of all the places I walked last week, some with links to images I took on my Flickr page.


View Larger Map

Back in Boston: Part 4

Back Bay and Beacon Hill

I am not an early riser. This, combined with going out every night, means that I have been missing a number of presentations I wanted to see, but I’m not concerned with this since I’m finding this whole conference a bit too academic for my tastes. I met up with my geographer friend Stef at the official conference party, complete with open bar and 80s cover band. When I got there everyone was standing around the dance floor, not dancing. At one point the singer said “Do geographers know how to party?” From the response the answer to that question is a definitive no.

I want to give a shout out to CJ Bright and Rebecca Alper. CJ did his presentation on the Silver Line BUS and seemed quite surprised when I dropped the bomb by telling him who I was. Rebecca did her presentation on property values in relation to the E branch street car of the Green Line verses the #39 bus. She found that property values were unaffected whether the transportation was via streetcar or bus. Interesting findings that may make people reevaluate the fight to bring back the Arborway trolley.

I left the conference and was about to go home when I realized it was an absolutely beautiful day out so I just started to wander. I checked out the construction site for the Columbus Center. What a clusterfuck that has been. I’m not going to go into now but lets just say they just dug everything up and it looks like it is going to stay dug up with nothing being built for a while. I wandered around the Back Bay, not really having any real place to go. I made my way into the Public Gardens and onto the Common. This was one of the first warm days this spring in Boston and everybody was out.

I met up with Stef and we got some food and ate it on the monument on the top of the hill in the Common. We were hemmed in on both sides by two separate groups of kids smoking pot so we left. I showed her Beacon Hill and where John Kerry lives. She is short so we took a bunch of pictures inside those crazy tiny doorways they used for coal deliveries back in the day and took pictures inside those Dickensian alleyways that are all over the Hill.

We then went to check out the Hurley Building, a Paul Rudolph building where parts of The Departed were filmed. This is one of the most amazing buildings in the world but lack of respect and investment are showing their signs. The concrete is falling apart and the plazas, which are used as parking, are in terrible shape. We got lost walking down a set of stairs that go nowhere and ran into a guy rolling a joint who gave us directions on how to get out of there. If weed is illegal you wouldn’t know it here.

We ended our trip through the Bulfinch Triangle. I love the old warehouses here. This area could totally be Boston’s TriBeCa (think about it, it is literally the Triangle Below Canal St, more so than TriBeCa in NYC) but its proximity to the Garden will probably forever relegate it to the domain of drunken Celtics and Bruins fans.

Back in Boston: Part 2

I came back to Boston to walk around and let no man say that I did not fulfill my wantings.
I walked in three sections and you can see my routes by clicking on the section titles.

Part 1: JP to Back Bay

I started by walking back up South Huntington Ave and Huntington Ave to get some pictures of some interesting buildings I had seen the day before. The sun was shining bright but was ducking behind clouds now and then which was frustrating when trying to line up a shot only to have the sun move behind a cloud when I took the picture.

Off Brigham Circle there are two streets I used to love walking down when I went to WIT, Wigglesworth St and Worthington St (word to awesome British names). Most of the housing around Mission Hill are either ugly modern high rises or tired old triple-deckers. These two streets, and only these two streets, are lined with stately and handsome townhouses that look like they were picked up from the South End and planted down on the other end of town.

Further down Huntington Ave I walked around the campus of WIT. I cannot believe I went there, not because it was a bad school but because I could never see myself fitting into the townie-frat boy crowd there (I have changed since I went there but I still cannot see my past self there). I guess that’s why I left. I have seen a lot of change and a lot of places in the 4 years since I left WIT but the place and the people look timeless (about 2001).

I turned down Ruggles St to check out a new dorm being built by Northeastern next to the Ruggles Orange Line station on Columbus Ave, a stretch of highway with a park on one side and an empty lot on the other. This area was where acres of land was cleared in the 1960s to build a gigantic interchange for two highways that thankfully were never built. The new Orange Line and Southwest Corridor park system were supposed to help bring back the area, but the basic laws of real estate still applied (location, location, location) and the “neighborhood” is now only comprised of housing projects and a large police station.
The new dorm is horrendous. It is completely out of scale with the area, though when the area only has a couple of short buildings surrounded by fields being out of scale isn’t much of an issue. The main problem is the use of precast concrete panels that are painted to look like brick and already suffering from water damage despite the building being nowhere near complete. The projects across the street are literally nicer and in better condition. Northeastern has been building new dorms on the Huntington Ave side of the tracks for years and they have always been attractive and well built. I guess this shows what the university thinks of it’s poor neighbors.

I next walked down Tremont St heading north. The South End has two parts; the area above Mass Ave (the gentrified area full of artists and gays), and the land south of Mass Ave (projects, abandoned lots, a highway, and then what’s left of Dudley Sq.) If you stand at Mass Ave you can see the difference clearly when you look north and then south. I had never ventured south of Mass Ave so walking up Tremont St seemed like something I needed to do to get the full South End experience.
What I found is an area that shows signs of life despite extreme social issues. Tremont St is lined with old walk ups next to new or newish affordable housing. The side streets are a mix of old school low-rise projects next to new affordable housing that you probably wouldn’t think where projects unless someone told you. The streets where still sterile and devoid of life since it seemed that this was new housing, though I think this is the result of the new approach to dealing with failed projects; rip them down and put up mixed income housing. Will it work? Time will tell.

Up on Mass Ave you come to the area where the wealthy elite of Boston first built their mansions and townhouses, only to abandon them for the even more luxurious Back Bay. I made a quick detour up Mass Ave to inspect an infill project I had read about. It was very nice, contextual with red brick but modern in form. I especially liked the tall thin windows it used. I have a huge issues with most windows used in standard housing construction nowadays. I find them short and fat, not unlike the average American. This building, along with the new housing I had just seen, proved that you can work within the urban row house context and still be modern and interesting.

I made my way up Columbus Ave, which at this point is lined with stately brownstones that look straight out of Fort Green or Park Slope in Brooklyn. Most have first floor additions that are now funky retail stores, signs that I am now in YUPy territory. I weaved my way down side streets between Tremont and Columbus, admiring the variety of houses along quiet streets designed along the lines of London Squares; a median of elegant trees and rainbows of flowers running down the center of the street.
I walked down Warren Ave and turned on to Dartmouth St. Here I took another detour to explore Tent City. Tent City is an affordable housing development built after some Boston residents protested the lack of affordable housing in the city by setting up a tent city on cleared land across the street from Back Bay Station. The development is notable because it gracefully transitions from the low rise South End to the skyscraper canyons on the Back Bay. It also was one of the first post-modern housing developments that used contextual architectural elements instead of being just another brick box (a number of these bring boxes line Tremont St and Cloumbus Ave which seriously clash with the highly detailed townhouses.)

I walked down to the Prudential Center to see the new Mandarin Oriental hotel going up. I still don’t know how I feel about it. The massing is nice but I think the details are far too sparse for a building in such a prominent location. I think something like the Hotel Chelsea in Manhattan would be more appropriate; Gothic elements or perhaps a darker colored brick.

I hopped on the Green Line at Hynes and made my way to Park St for lunch. I never realized how spacious the Green Line stations are in the Back Bay. The arched ceilings give them the feeling of an asp in a modest cathedral. I don’t think a Bostonian would ever, EVER, think of a T station like a cathedral but seeing them after being used to New York station with their low ceilings and dark interiors makes the T stations feel much less oppressive.

Part 2: Downtown Crossing, Government Center, and the North End Parks

One of the most exciting areas in Boston, IMO, is Downtown Crossing. Once the Herald Sq of Boston (Macy’s and Gimbels vs Filene’s and Jordan Mash), DTX fell on hard times when people began to move out to the suburbs and the retail followed. In the 1970s and 80s the area was known as the Combat Zone, high crime and a flourishing sex industry pushed out anyone who hadn’t left for the suburbs. Through intense community activism and help from City Hall the area was slowly cleaned up and became a bustling retail crossroads once again. But when a number of key anchor tenants, Barns & Noble and HMV, left the area started to falter. Then Macy’s bought Filene’s and decided to close the original Filene’s (which just happened to be across the street from Macy’s).

Over the last 7 years the city has pushed to revitalize the area. A number of new condo towers have gone up, along with new hotels and office towers, which has helped bring more street life to the area. Suffolk University and Emmerson College have begun fixing up old theaters and converting abandoned buildings into dorms. Two buildings currently under construction, 45 Province St and One Franklin, a new tower going up on the site of the former Filene’s building (though incorporating the historic building in the new tower) has me most fired up for the revitalization of DTX.

From here I explored the area a little bit, not knowing where I really wanted to go. I made my way up to City Hall and realizing I had never actually been inside, decided to check it out. The metal detector guy noticed my camera in my bag going through the machine and commented on how nice it was. The first thing that struck me was how open the building was. From the outside it looks like a huge bunker but inside it is light and airy with natural light coming in all over the place. No wonder it is a bitch to heat and cool. The doors to the courtyard were closed and the security check point gave the building even more of a fortress like feeling than the building already has. Still I think it is gorgeous and in desperate need for a modern makeover.
I had heard there was a giant model of downtown Boston up in the Boston Redevelopment Authority office so I went up to see if I could get in to see it. The receptionist told me I needed to have someone open the room for me but she couldn’t find the person with the key so she just sent me down the hall (seriously, I think they are far too trusting to send a scruffy hipster kid down through their offices unescorted). The door to the model room was closed but if you’ve ever seen Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, it kinda looked like that room Indy goes into to find the real burial spot of the Ark. The lights weren’t on so the models of the towers were back lit by the sunlight coming in from the window. Mayor Menino has proposed building a 1,000 ft tall tower in the Financial District and the model for the tower commands the entire room (which is saying a lot when you have a room sized model of every building in downtown Boston). I immediately realized that if this building was ever constructed it would be the Prudential Building 2.0 and we would all regret it. The tower fails for the same reason all modern buildings do, it looks great as a conceptual model that an architect can show a person powerful enough to get it built. I went back down the hall, picked up some info on the BRA and internships and headed out.

I next headed to see the new North End Parks built after the Big Dig. I had seen the Chinatown and Financial District Parks (not very inspiring) but hadn’t seen these. Right off the bat I noticed a huge design flaw; the parks where elevated (due to the presence of highway off ramps below them) which blocks a pedestrians ability to see users of the parks. All you see walking down the street is a wall of shrubbery. Above, on the parks, there are nice lawns where you can sunbathe or play games, along with a promenade under a pergola which will actually be very nice in the summer time.

The old Central Artery was described as a giant gash cutting though the city. To take the analogy further, the new parks are very much like a giant scar. The newly planted grass and trees represent a scab. The area still feels disconnected from the rest of the city, but like all wounds, will heal in time. Buildings will be built around the parks to connect the city and bring in people, and the plantings will evolve and mature. The scar will remain but the wound will heal.

Up at North Station you can just start to see the wound healing. A new mixed use apartment building is going up where once an elevated train track ran. The lots next to it are barren, awaiting brighter economic conditions, but the streets are laid and the lamps are in. The Bullfinch Triangle will soon be repaired.

I hopped on the T to head over to Lechmere and on to Kendall Sq.

Part 3 and the rest of my journey tomorrow.