How urban renewal drives Boston’s 21st century feel

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BOSTON – From the razing of the West End in the 1950s to the more recent Big Dig, Boston’s urban renewal projects aren’t points of universal pride among local residents.

Yet today’s Boston, the city people know and love, owes its current look and feel to some of those projects. Even some of the less-positive developments can be seen as part of the evolution that made Boston the city it is today.

“I don’t think you can think of it any other way than as along a continuum, where you see this redevelopment of the redevelopment, and that’s taking place right now,” Anthony Flint, a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, said in an interview.

“The big example is the New York streets area, where there was a lot of bulldozing of ‘blight’ along to the north of Albany Street, where the old Boston Herald was,” said Flint, a former Boston Globe reporter and the author of books about Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses and Le Corbusier.

“There were a bunch of streets down there that had New York associations for names,” Flint said, referring to street names like Oneida, Troy and Rochester that were taken from Empire state cities. Before the infamous razing of much of the city’s West End, the New York streets area was leveled to create industrial space in the 1950s.

Many people weren’t pleased with the end result, which included a broadened Harrison Avenue, a commercial bakery, a mid-rise office building and the Boston Herald, with its giant printing presses and a fleet of delivery trucks. The area went from densely packed residential streets to a light industrial zone with few residents.

Today, the area is being transformed yet again, led by a project called the Ink Block. The Herald site now hosts luxury condominiums. Over a 60-year period, the area has been transformed twice, and what began as a neighborhood tied to a rail line to Albany, New York, has become an area of upscale residences.

Like the New York streets section, much of Boston’s West End was also leveled in the 1950s.

“I would probably be one of the few people who wouldn’t count West End as among five least successful urban renewal projects in Boston, only in the sense that you need to understand the context,” Charlie Chieppo, a senior fellow at the Pioneer Institute, a conservative policy research organization in Boston, said in an interview.

“We live in a booming city right now,” said Chieppo, who is also a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center. “In the 40s and the 50s, Boston was the Detroit of its day – it was in really, really bad shape.”

The razing of the West End’s rundown residential section, inhabited by lower-income families, is generally considered one of Boston’s most insensitive urban renewal projects. It forced thousands out of their homes. Essentially, the city destroyed a neighborhood. Brian Golden, the current Boston Redevelopment Authority chief, apologized for the razing last year.

But Chieppo argues for a more nuanced assessment.

“It was really a project about the city’s survival,” he said. “It had gotten to the point where the decision was fix it then, or Boston was a city that had no future.”

But he acknowledged the impact displacement had on those who lived in the neighborhood.

“This was one of the first projects in the wake of the Federal Housing Act of 1949, so we didn’t know a lot about urban renewal,” he said. “This whole thing of the massive and very serious emotional toll it took on people who were moved, it was something that just wasn’t understood.”

“I don’t want to minimize that ­– that was a very bad thing for a lot of people,” Chieppo said.

However, Chieppo added, the project “succeeded at what it was supposed to do” by creating a more hospitable neighborhood that caused more affluent people to return to the city from the suburbs and spurred a turnaround. He noted that the West End razing was closely followed by financial services giant Prudential’s decision to construct the 749-foot Prudential tower, which was completed in 1964. It was one of the tallest buildings in America at the time.

Prudential’s decision to build in Boston had a huge impact, according to Jim Aloisi, a lawyer and principal at the Pemberton Square Group, a consulting firm in Boston. A former state transportation secretary and board member of the Massachusetts Port Authority and the old Turnpike Authority, Aloisi is also the author of three books about Boston’s history.

“The sense that Boston was a modern city would never happen until the new City Hall, Government Center, and the Pru were built,” Aloisi said in an interview. “Before the Pru, there were no tall buildings in Boston. It was a symbol that Boston was going to be a modern city.”

While some longtime Bostonians lament the erasure of Scollay Square, a seedy entertainment district uphill from Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, in the 1960s to make way for Government Center, Aloisi said it was necessary for the future of Boston.

“People living in those days had certain tools available to them, and they used them,” he said. Had they not done so, he said, the city could well have stagnated.

“The West End is appalling and we can say that today because we know that – it’s difficult to be critical of people 50 or 60 years ago who had very limited tools in their toolbox to deal with a crisis,” Aloisi added.

When it comes to the Big Dig, which buried the old elevated Central Artery highway and opened a new tunnel to the seaport area and Logan International Airport, Aloisi described it as “a mobility renewal plan” rather than one focused on urban redevelopment.

“The Big Dig was an effort to fix” traffic congestion, he said, “and improve access to Logan Airport.” While Logan access has improved, Aloisi, the co-author of “The Big Dig,” said Interstates 93 and 90 (the Pike) remain clogged at rush hour.

“If you travel on the interstate system after 3 in the afternoon, we’re back at square one,” he said.

But he said the Big Dig played a key role in opening up South Boston’s Seaport District to development, by creating links to the interstates, to Logan and the city’s mass transit system.

“I would argue strongly if it was not for the improvement in mobility to the Seaport District, the explosion of private-sector growth and investment we have seen in the past 10 years would never have happened,” Aloisi said. At the same time, he noted, the massive, nearly two-decade project never shut down access to the city from the Southeast Expressway and no one was forced out of their home, like people were in the West End.

“The one thing it did not do was cause the relocation of one single home anywhere – that lesson was learned,” he said.