Friday, November 25, 2011

Blog Post No. 2011-19: The Boston Massacre Site Marker finally gets some respect...

...and we all get a much better intersection at State, Court, Washington, Devonshire, and Congress Streets.

1. Looking toward Dock Square, across the site marker and State St.

2. The restored site marker, indicating the date of the massacre.

3. Looking up Devonshire St., corner of the Old State House at right.

4. Looking from the opposite vantage point, across Congres and down State St.

The Location: State, Court, Washington, Devonshire, and Congress Streets, Boston, MA (Map).

Year of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2011.

The Story: We last focused on the positive influence of thoughtful intersection improvements early last year in discussing Alexander the Great Square in Roslindale, a place admittedly somewhat on the periphery of the city. We're now looking at the very heart of Boston - directly in front of the Old State House (built on the site of the original Town House) at the intersection of five different streets - and near the site of the Boston Massacre, one of the defining moments in the run-up to open hostilities in the American War for Independence. The Wikipedia entry linked here recounts the devolution of a relatively routine encounter in the street into calling out a small contingent of armed troops, to taunts and snowball/rock throwing by the frustrated local citizenry at the symbols of imperial power to the climax of the event - the undisciplined firing of weapons by the provoked soldiers into an unarmed crowd, resulting in the death of 5 Bostonians. It never ceases to amaze me that John Adams led the defendse of the 8 British soldiers who, after an investigation by the colonial authorities, were charged with murder - and managed to get 6 of them (including the corporal in charge, who had never ordered his contingent to fire) acquitted and 2 convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter.

The site marker's location is somewhat inaccurate - it seems clear from the available record that the incident itself took place in front of the colonial-era custom house, which was down State Street (then King Street), closer to the harbor. But there is no doubt that the recent improvements at this intersection make it both a more fitting setting for the marker (which has itself been given a typically understated old school-Boston upgrade with the date and title information around the outside) and a much better pedestrian environment. I'm not sure when the area took on the God-awful street design that pushed a direct access lane from Congress Street to Devonshire Street within just a couple of feet from the Old State House's corner, though based on the Bromley Atlas plates available online, it was definitely after 1938. That seems about right to me. Most of the really bad street design/traffic engineering in the country took place in the immediate postwar period, when it seems the thought was that everything should be made easier for automobiles, flying cars were just around the corner and we certainly weren't going to be needing much in the way of walkable urban areas - at least at the ground level - in our bright, Jetsons-like future. So, what was the big deal if you isolated the Boston Massacre site marker and utterly stripped it of its context by sticking it in the middle of a pork-chop shaped traffic island? It wasn't long for this world anyway.

Credit: The Boston Globe.

And as is the way with capital improvements, this bad decision-making proved long-lasting. It's been several decades now since Boston embraced its long and storied history as something that was important, worth preserving, and (above all) marketable. Even so, it wasn't until the MBTA decided to renovate State Street station, which underlies much of the intersection, about 5 years ago that the City was able to find the right opportunity to right this particular wrong and give everyone the opportunity to stop and reflect on this historic event without the fear of being run over at any minute. As someone who works in the building that looms, Vader-like, above the Old State House and thus comes through this particular part of Boston quite often, there is no question that this is a great improvement over the old layout, rationalizing the vehicular traffic pattern and expressing a clear preference for the huge volume of pedestrians - both residents and workers in Boston as well as our tourist friends from around the country and the world - who pass through here on a daily basis. It's just another example of small changes that are running in the right direction for a better experience for everyone who comes into contact with this city. More of this please.

RTUF sketch of the restored urban fabric: You'll have to forgive your correspondent for failing to property title the sketch. I've discovered since doing and scanning this sketch that the actual Boston Massacre Memorial is on Boston Common. This is only the site marker. - MJL

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Blog Post No. 2011-18: Anthony Flint fairly accurately summarizes the dilemma that is Jane Jacobs...

...and a challenge for us all

And so, the Jane Jacobs debate continues half a century on. And Anthony Flint makes a point in yesterday's Globe that reveals the running battle over her intellectual and practical legacy that looks more and more like the fight over the remains of a medieval saint than a 20th century author and activist. Your devoted RTUF correspondent has blogged here in the past about the planning and design professions' difficulty in deciding what her impact on the urban scene really was and whether it was good or bad. [For example: the post earlier this year on Frank Gruber's analysis.]

Anthony's latest piece - An urban legacy in need of renewal - brings the debate down to the level of the urban street, where the weapons of extreme skepticism and public involvement that Jacobs used to stop the disastrous, nested policies of urban renewal, "Get Things Done" Robert Moses-ism, untrammeled freeway expansion, and automobile-oriented "urban" planning have been turned, in a kind of twisted irony, on projects such as thoughtful infill developjment designed to advance the urban condition in ways that Jacobs would almost certainly favor. Thus, as Anthony notes, we have been recently treated to the depressing spectacle of women donning Jacobs wigs and glasses to oppose good urban infill in Brooklyn (and your correspondent's birthplace, to boot). Anthony is correct to observe that Jacobs' fundamentally anti-planning approach accordingly lives on, even when the profession is earnestly trying to do the right thing. It is undeniably distressing.

All of that said, I don't think for a second that we need more of the Moses way of doing things to balance out the universe. Being from a city so intimately shaped by the man that you literally can't go more than a couple of miles in any direction before coming across something he built or, more often, destroyed, I can emphatically state that unilateral, bureaucratic planning is best left dead and buried in this country. The real project is to help our fellow citizens be discerning observers and actors in both public and private development efforts. Given how awfully the built environment was treated in this country for more than half a century, it should surprise no one that there is virtually no faith that the next project is going to make things better. The first few rounds of this discussion will feel like a monologue. All we can hope is that eventually the message gets through and we demonstrate, through improved urban fabric, that there really is hope for something better.