Thursday, April 22, 2010

Reading Earth Moves

Reading Cache's Earth Moves got me thinking about how similar historical geographic and geologic readings could tell the story of the processes by which the cities we know and live in came to be as they are. Certainly each story would be unique as the life and particular qualities of each locale are generated by tendencies and events forever tied to a particular historical process of becoming. And, while each of these histories may be very telling of a city's character, the concepts and technologies effecting specific projects are informed by an increasingly global awareness. As a result, I predict that a collection of such exegeses would add a great deal to current studies on the homogenizing effects of globalization and regional efforts to maintain local identity.

Of course, such a comparative global history would be a wonderful project for, say, an entire generation of scholars, but what occurred to me to look at (as a possible term project) came from a much more homegrown sensibility. Growing up around Boston and its suburbs and moving directly to New York, I've been especially aware of the importance of hills (especially as gradients of social and economic exclusivity) and flat or flattened areas as common grounds in which socio-economic boundaries must be more artificially enforced. As a teenager, I lived on a hill on which the size and extravagance of a house varied in strict proportion to its elevation. As land was cleared further up the hill and the top was reached, I noticed the houses tended toward a new, more vertical architecture. For undergrad, I went to Tufts, a university in a town bordering Boston, with a historical narrative also centered firmly on its location at the top of a hill. In this case, the symbolism of the hill, ringed by buildings of administration and the classic liberal arts departments, had to do with the spiritual ideals of the Unitarian Universalists who founded the school and 19th century concepts of the higher learning (the ivory tower).

Reading Cache, it soon occurred to me that Boston, an old town with an ever-expanding shoreline might have something to add. In short, Boston's history, government, and symbolic social elite are centered around Beacon Hill. At the foot of this hill, the city extends in all directions, flatly, built up on reclaimed land. Boston originally had three distinct hills, but two were removed, the earth being used for landfill to expand the city. The third, Beacon Hill, reduced by half, is the only remaining hill in Boston proper. It is the site of the State House as well as some of the most expensive and exclusive property in the state. The dome of the State House, visible down the sloping central park (Boston Commons), is gilded in 23k gold. Many other structures in this densely packed area establish their status not only by the usual means of wealth and association, but by law as they have become historical landmarks. Immediately beyond the hill are architectural works of the 20th century, founded, of course, strictly on landfill.

The solidification of this citadel of Bostonian identity, power, and wealth and the expansion of Boston's landmass by land reclamation came about over centuries of economic trends, social movements, and pure accidents. For instance, the Great Boston Fire of 1872 destroyed 65 acres of the small city, allowing an effort of contemporary urban planning to reorganize parts of the city. The debris from the fire was used to further the ongoing landfill project, beginning in earnest circa 1795, continuing to fill in the harbor immediately surrounding Old Boston. [Time-lapse of the landfill] While the fishing industry has long since been pushed to surrounding suburbs, the coastline nearest the hill has become populated largely with elegant hotels and restaurants and elite marinas and yacht clubs. With the harbor filled and the entrance to the Charles River nearly choked off, the population of Boston working in the fishing and lumber industries that once supported the city are now well below 1% of the laborforce.

The more I dig, the more I find the task of constructing a compelling or complete Cache-style narrative of Boston unattainable. For instance, I've yet to get into the impact of the city's subway system, the oldest in the nation. Nor have I broached many critical periods in the life of the hill. (For instance, leading up to the civil war, the hill was divided with the social elite living on the south slope and many prominent african american leaders living on the north slope, also known as "Black Beacon Hill".) And most recently, the largest landfill yet, Logan Airport (1971-2000). While this project still appeals to me, there have simply been too many meanings and purposes applied to the use of the hill, the flattening of its surroundings, and the expansion into the bay. And none of this goes so far as to touch on defining aesthetics of the area, such as driving down Storrow Drive, beneath sea level onto Soldiers Field Road, watching joggers pass the riverside park, itself only inches above the Charles, as crew teams pass by. As much as it is perpetually in flux, there is a precise sense of what it is to be in and travel through Boston that my few hours of work can only begin to sketch. And I still haven't mentioned the Big Dig.

Brian Johnson

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