Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-3: Kevin White's passing...

...points to a shocking factoid from Boston's urban fabric past

Kevin H. White, Mayor of Boston from 1968 to 1984, died a week ago last Friday. For the old towne, it was a really big deal. Not only was Kevin White a four-term Mayor (which I believe was the record until Tom Menino's election in 2009 to a fifth term, which he is currently enjoying), those 16 years when he was mayor constitute the fulcrum on which the city's recent history pivoted.

Old Boston was the city before Kevin White.The New Boston is what we've had since. From a societal perspective, court-ordered busing of public school students to remedy past de facto segregation was the big game-changing event. It resulted in riots across Boston on a close to daily basis in the mid-1970s that made national news. By all accounts, busing hit the mayor and the city he ran like a ton of bricks. From a physical and built environment perspective, White's 16 years were equally critical. Many of the landmarks of today's central Boston took shape and/or assumed their current forms during White's mayoralty. Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market is probably the best known, but there are many others.
One pair of projects that I did know about (and which has even appeared in one of this weblog's prior entries (see Blog Post 2009-7)), but whose significance I hadn't quite understood until now, was the Four Seasons Hotel and Heritage on the Garden -- effectively occupying two full blocks on the section of Boylston Street directly across from the Public Garden. The projects were planned toward the end of White's tenure and completed in the mid-late 1980s under the aegis of the Park Plaza Urban Renewal Plan. While both buildings are of red brick, the Four Seasons is a somewhat modernist take on the idea, while Heritage on the Common is more historicist in its treatment of the context.

Four Seasons Hotel, 200 Boylston Street, Boston, MA
Photo Credit: startle.com

300 Boylston Street (a.k.a, Heritage on the Garden) - 300 Boylston Street, Boston, MA
Photo Credit: Heritage on the Garden.

But what is truly interesting about the project, at least to me and at least now, is what it replaced. I hadn't quite realized what it replaced until Brian McGrory wrote an excellent piece about Kevin White's legacy in the Boston Globe last week -- The Loner and the City He Loved. Here's how McGrory opened his piece:

It’s virtually impossible to imagine that the rarefied streets of the Back Bay were ever home to flophouses, or to grasp that outsiders ventured into the South End at their own risk after dark, or to realize that a McDonald’s, a gas station, and a lounge called the Hillbilly Ranch ever fronted the Public Garden in the space where the Four Seasons Hotel and the Heritage now proudly stand.

This is how it was when Kevin White arrived to the Boston mayoralty in 1968. Sixteen always fascinating, often tumultuous, and invariably controversial years later, he left behind a city that was profoundly and permanently changed.

Read that first paragraph again. Fronting the Public Garden in the era just before the Four Seasons and Heritage on the Garden were built: a McDonald's, a gas station, and the Hillbilly Lounge? Really? How was that even possible? Even granting that the Hillbilly Lounge seems to have had a level of character and authenticity as well as irony (hillbillies in Boston?) that is virtually irreplaceable, on what planet would a city with the civic pride of Boston allow a block with the symbolic importance of Boylston Street between Charles and Arlington to become the equivalent of a section of suburban arterial? If you are searching for a metaphor for the profoundly anti-urban quarter century that followed the Second World War in this country, you could do worse. Boston Common and the Public Garden are critical image-making public spaces, but their huge combined importance can make you forget how small they really are, the Public Garden in particular. It's just four blocks long by two blocks wide. There is simply no space to waste. That Kevin White presided over a city that healed that particular piece of espeically egregious urban fabric violation in such an enduring and permanent-feeling way is to his profound credit. Right place, right time, right guy.

RTUF Note: This post was revised after its initial posting to reverse the order of the photos and to improve readability. - MJL.

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