A Walk Through Boston with Brent Ryan and Garnette Cadogan
by Brent Ryan and Garnette Cadogan
May 2, 2018
Brent Ryan is Head of the City Design and Development Group and Associate Professor of Urban Design and Public Policy in MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Garnette Cadogan is an essayist and journalist and was the 2017-2018 MLK Visiting Scholar at MIT.
Above watch an excerpt from our walk through Boston, or read the full transcript, with maps and photos, below.
Brent: So we're going to walk along the southwest corridor, then we're going to take a left onto one of the South End streets. There, we'll see one of the little, kind of English imitation of London-style parks. We’ll end up in a social housing development, Villa Victoria.
Garnette: Oh, I love that development.
Brent: We'll end up in a place called Blackstone Square that's more in the sort of Grand Park Tradition of the 19th century. Let's go.
Garnette: Remind me of tent city and its history.
Brent: So the actual tent city happened here on this site in the late 1960s.There is a relationship between tent city and the construction of the southwest corridor park into the freeway rebellion. I think they were associated with each other. I think Tunney Lee was involved in both. The agreement to eventually construct social housing on the site,to construct the orange line underneath, and to construct this park on top.
We're seeing these great victories against the system. As you know, the 1960s was an anti-system time. Problem was, they forgot about gentrification.
They did indeed create a certain number of social housing units that created this pleasant amenity, but now it’s starting to show its age. It’s a bit dated. k. , they spurred the rebirth of the South End, and of course the South End has become some of the highest priced real estate in the city.
So it was a kind of unforeseen consequence. I'm not sure they ever imagined that the South End could gentrify to the extent that it has.
Garnette: It's incredible what makes it work: the relationship of brick with what some are now calling an “urban forest”.
Brent: At the southwest corridor, actually it's like a High Line before there was a High Line. It's an infrastructural project: a linear park. This means it's designed for linear passage, so it needs enough walking surface and, potentially, cycling surface to allow passage. And at the same time, it's setting you apart from the rest of the city. It actually physically resembles much more the Promenade Plantée in Paris than it does the High Line, because the High Line is so constrained.
Garnette: And the High Line in many ways treats us like a canvas, but a distant canvas that can walk and stare at from distance.
Brent: Yeah, but the High Line also was completely unable to control the development around it, so the High Line is now surrounded by what I call the ‘architectural zoo’. Here, you can see that they really disciplined the architects. I mean, all of these projects went through tremendous historic commission review, and as a result there's a kind of docility to the architecture that I find to be, not particularly stimulating. But I think as a place, it's very high quality.
Garnette: And the scale makes it feel very humane.
Brent: Extremely humane.
The High Line almost feels like it's a way of reminding of your finitude, rather than a reminder of your humanity. At least in the ways in which we are connected to the city, rather than feeling displaced from the city.
Brent: Absolutely. Here you see qualities of this park that you don't find in the High Line at all, like community gardens. Oh, this is actually a dog park. It probably used to be a playground. I think beyond it is a playground. So there's a mix of community facilities. It's a lot less monumental than the High Line, that's for sure. And it was definitely designed as a neighborhood space. Including a lot of space for cars, right? So you need to have space for cars to get into these parking places.
Garnette: It feels so much more like a landscape, you can zip in and out and intersect with neighborhoods, and the neighborhood in a way you can't in the High Line, you're still removed from it.
Brent: And you're absolutely unable to perceive the presence of the infrastructure underneath. So I think that that's something psychologically they really wanted to do, is get rid of the infrastructure. You don't see it, you don't see the grills, of course there has to be ventilation and everything. It’s all carefully hidden.
Garnette: Here's the thing I can never get over, in terms of my love for it: the stoop.
Brent: The Boston stoop.
Garnette: Yes, was that a Dutch invention, the stoop? From 'stoep', 's-t-o-e-p'? Separating the stoop ...
Brent: Yeah, I think New York has more of a historical origin from stoops than Boston. I'm not sure why Boston has them, and you notice that Boston's are not always a consistent height. Typologically, the housing of the South End in Back Bay is much less consistent. You also have the Bay windows, which are typical of Boston's 19th century.
Garnette: But it feels like a way of meeting a city rather than separating one from the city. A stoop initially was a way of giving you privacy, of setting you apart. But then it became transformed as a way of meeting the public, a way of ...
Brent: Of setting you above high water.
Yes, let's not forget that. The ways in which it becomes a place of community, of more open space, and more communal space: to meet your neighbors by sitting on the stoop or to meet those who are passing by. But also a way of, again, having eyes on a city.
Brent: And I suspect in this location, the neighbors will meet each other in the park as much as they will in their houses. Now the population of the South End is much lower than it was back in the time when it was poor. Now, the population is wealthier. But the streets are very, very high quality, so we'll walk along.
Garnette: When you say high quality, what do you mean by high quality street? Because when I use that term, I think of high quality in terms of encounters that one has.
Brent: That's true. I would say that formally they're high quality. The houses are extremely consistent, they're well-maintained, they're attractive 19th century homes. The street is isolated from traffic, so it's a quiet by-way. The street's well-planted.
There's a real sense of prosperous urbanity to it, although it's not a vibrant, active kind of urbanity.
It's very similar to the kind of urbanity that you might find in Park Slope or Fort Greene in New York City. Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia is also pretty similar.
Garnette: What I find remarkable here is how in Boston, you can have a yard but not far away is a subway. I remember Cassim Shepard saying, “you get to have a front yard and a subway system in Boston.” You're hard-pressed to find other cities in which you can make that observation. To have that level of public transportation ...
Brent: That's a very good point.
Garnette: While at the same time, have that domesticity.
When Sam Bass Warner wrote his book Streetcar Suburbs, he observed precisely that paradox of equality of Bostonian urbanism. He said Boston was never really able to give up on the ideal of the single family home, despite the pressures of urbanization.
He said the South End is illusory for another reason, because it's built of brick. But most of Boston is a city of wood, as you know.
Brent: Somerville is wood, Cambridge is wood. Rocksbury is wood, Dorchester is wood. Most of Boston is a city of wood. Sam Bass Warner said Bostonians maintain wood construction and they maintain separate houses. But Bostonian houses might be separated by two or three feet. So the South End, charming as it is, is actually not that representative of Bostonian urbanism. It's much more similar to Philadelphia and New York.
This is a very charming feature of a lot of streets in the South End, where the developers, in order to promote sales of the home on the block, would widen it slightly and put a little park in the middle.There are about ten or twelve of these in the South End. Sometimes they're a little bit wider, so you can actually enter into the park. Sometimes they're narrow, so that they're like viewing guards. This is directly derived from the Bloomsbury district of London, where they built a lot of these.
Garnette: Ah, yes.
I call this provincial builders emulating the great metropolis.
I don't know why I find this feature charming, but it gives the space and the street a special quality that I like.
Garnette: The middle of NYC feels like a reprieve from the city. It feels like a plaza, of sorts. Here, it's different because of the docility of the neighborhood. But in New York, it's a way to feel like you're at once deeply immersed in the city and removed from it.
Brent: That's right.
Garnette: So you sit on Upper West Side, for instance, on a bench and you have cars and horns and the entire metropolis is whizzing by you, but there's illusion that you're there in a park.
Brent: Well, Kevin Lynch said the most appealing quality of a city was when you can have one door with activity and vibrancy of the city, and at the back door you had peace and quiet. I think that the prosperous, lucky people who live in the South End get that, because you can live on a street like this, which exudes tranquility, and you can walk five minutes and you're in Copley Square.
Brent: Thus, the South End became extremely desirable.
So here we see a break. When you see a building like this, you realize that whatever was here was probably demolished in the 1960s or early 1970s. This was a first generation of social housing construction in the South End, and for the time this was a very sensitive development. Now of course, we look at it and we say, it's insensitive. It's very minimal housing, but
for people who were used to demolishing an entire neighborhood and then building the towers in the kind of geometrical patterns you see in New York (clearing out a block and actually putting the building up to the street and making it more or less the same height as the real houses) this was seen as a radically contextual gesture.
I think it even has some shops on the ground floor. So you can imagine them in 1967 saying, 'We're listening to the community activists, we're doing it, look! Isn't this okay?'. And this is what we got.
Now we're on one of the main radial roads of the South End, Columbus Avenue. To me, these streets are not as successful. What do you think Garnette? Why do you think the street's not very successful?
Garnette: The times I've been through, it lacks an energy. It lacks a vibrancy. It lacks the kind of encounters you think that draws one into a neighborhood and gives a neighborhood a kind of glue and sensibility that makes you feel at one, at home in a neighborhood, but also connected to the larger city.
Brent: It has surprisingly little commercial development on it. Actually shockingly little, for the number of people that live around here. I contrast it with Brooklyn where, if you're in Park Slope or Forte Green and you come out onto DeKalb Avenue or onto Fulton Street, or Seventh Avenue, the streets are lined with shops the whole way. When you come out here you say, “this is it?” In fact, if you've ever tried to entertain yourself on the South End, these places are oversubscribed, they're expensive, and they're packed. They're not very interesting, and there's not very many of them.
Garnette: And it has the whiff of trespass. One of the indexes I use for a neighborhood, does it have the whiff of trespass? Do I feel like I'm trespassing when I'm there?
Brent: Trespassing here? Yeah.
That quiet, secluded feeling, it shouldn't extend out to this street. This street should be really a space for everybody, but it doesn't really feel that way.
Garnette: Yeah. It's one of the great ironies that what made it attractive in the first place was scale, and scale seems to be part of what makes it off-putting now.
Brent: It's become a kind of a handicap, I think. I think also the fact that the whole place is a historic district -- it hasn't operated in its favor in that sense, because actually what you need to do is convert a lot of these into shops. This is a natural location for cafe's and active uses, and it doesn't manage to have any.
Garnette: I think of the comparative places in New York that I love, part of the attraction is the corners. The way in which the corners because centers of activities, become as a locus of activity. The corners here feel bare, de- populated.
Brent: They're barren.
Garnette: Do you remember 'My Cousin Vinnie', that movie where Danny DeVito plays a lawyer who is in a small town in America to fight for his cousin, who is accused of a crime in which he is innocent? He can't sleep because it's too quiet, he gets put into prison one night and everybody is being rowdy and Vinnie goes, 'Yes! I can sleep.'
Yes, it reminds me of the beat in this neighborhood, it feels too quiet.
Brent: It's understimulating. Yes.
This is one of these really hard to articulate qualities, when people say the city's becoming like a suburb. There's something wrong about that, there's something wrong about transforming a city neighborhood into a suburb. You can imagine the South End thirty, forty, fifty years ago being loud, there were kids shouting, stuff out the windows, people playing in the streets.
Today look at it. You could say, it's a beautiful cemetery. It does have a suburban quality of 'Keeping up with the Joneses', right? Everybody's got a kind of image to maintain, so each house is cleaner and better prepared than the next. It's so ironic because it's the exact opposite problem that all the planners were worried about in the 60s when they said, 'Oh my god, the city's out of control. We need to upgrade neighborhoods.' Now we have luxury two-unit brownstone. The South End today is like a manuscript that records all of these different eras of urban interactions and urban durations. It will be made evident in the Villa Victoria, where we'll see a very different kind of scale. It’s lot more active.
I brought [my wife] here once or twice and she said, 'Oh, it's pretty but I'm kind of bored'.
Garnette: Of course. Compare this to Barcelona streets, in which, even the narrowest ones, there's a circuit of activity and interaction and encounter.
I think part of it is density, but I think part of it also is a willingness and a desire to have city-ness. I'm not sure that the South End is so comfortable with this city-ness.
If it was, I think the retail would be a lot more interesting. I mean, I find it ironic that I live in Coolidge Corner and I can go out onto Beaker Street, but I have a far better range of detail in a suburb. And by the way it's a lot cheaper, and it's a lot more useful for my daily needs. There's grocery stores. Where's the grocery store today? I can't find it.
Now we're on Tremont Street which is really the second radial road of the South End. We're moving east toward the area that we were in before, which is the old South Bay. The ‘social quality’, they would say, drops as we move further because these neighborhoods were poor, and they were closer to industrial neighborhoods. The housing, as a result, wasn't built to such a high standard when they were constructed, and the housing gentrified to the same extent.
We're about to walk into Villa Victoria, which is a Puerto Rican community development corporation (CDC) project from the 1970s, but it took until the 1980s to be developed. A very large stretch of the interior of this block was cleared and rebuilt as affordable housing. What's interesting about it is the housing, to some extent, reflects a hybrid between Bostonian urbanism, a kind of suburb Bostonian suburbanism, and what you might think of as a Latino attitude towards space. But I'll be interested in hearing your thoughts.
Garnette: I love the color that we are entering into. Literally and metaphorically.
Brent: Exactly. So you start to see the stucco panels - I think the color was extremely deliberate, and it's varied.
Garnette: And think, even aural quality of this neighborhood. I'm hearing music as we step in.
Brent: It's the first time!
Garnette: It's as if it's saying, 'Welcome!'.
Brent: Now we start to see also a breakdown in the kinds of spaces that the city has.
What I find really delightful about this development is, it trusts the city. This project trusts the city, and it trusts the city to allow a variety of spaces that are in-between strictly public and private to exist.
In the South End, you see it's a quite rigid boundary of the stern brick houses, the stoops which probably originally this frame between public and private, and then the public realm. Here, you have streets like this, I don't even know what I would call this. Is it a walkway? It's a kind of passage that you would find maybe in many cities elsewhere in the world, that allows for different range of encounters. Let's keep going.
Garnette: There's something also in which, even that space at the end of the stoop between there -- it's a liminal space, yes, but it also allows an encounter -- rather than ending right on the street where it is.
The purpose of the stoop is to separate the private and the public, whereas here there's this semi-public space at the end of the stoop that says, 'Stop. Have a conversation. Chat. Linger. Look.'
Brent: There's that space, there's this space, there's this space. Then there's this space. So all of a sudden,
it's much more fractal system of public and private than elsewhere in the South End.
Garnette: There's indeterminacy to it, which allows a lot more improvisation.
Brent: Exactly. And yet you also achieve the sense of restfulness and separation from the busy through traffic, right? Villa Victoria says, by getting away from buses and trucks and police cars, you don't have to retreat into a purely private realm, you just have a different kind of public realm.
Garnette: Yes. I mean this for example, as simple as this is, suggests that everyone coming to pick up their mail here and the possibilities of encounter.
Garnette: Apartment 11 and apartment 4 bumping into each other and having a conversation.
Brent: Homes built above and below each other, coming into a common exit. Reinterpretations of open spaces that don't necessarily read as purely Bostonian open spaces, but nor are they cartoonishly Latino public spaces. It's a kind of a plaza, but one that's dedicated clearly to play and non-monumental.
Brent: This is another interesting kind of space in here. By the way, I discovered this development through the book Housing and Modernity' by Peter Rowe, where he profiled three housing developments in the world, and this was one of them. I thought, 'You're kidding me.' I never thought that Boston had something worthy of that level of investigation. I think one was in Portugal, one was in Britain, and one was here. What do you think about this space?
Garnette: One thing that draws me more than anything else are the trees. Do you remember Auden's reflection, that a city or a culture is as good as its trees? I look around and I see all the trees and the kind of relationship between city and nature.
Brent: I like these trees, they're also less monumental than the typical Boston street trees. They're more like fruit trees. In Galicia, I say, as soon as you build a house, you remove every tree and then you plant three fruit trees. Because the Spanish love fruit trees, they love ornamental, they don't want a recollection of nature, they want strictly ornamental and productive landscapes.
Garnette: I also like because of the diversity of trees. Look at all the housing development, that all have the same tree, all have three or four species. Here there is a multiplicity. There is a gratuitousness about the housing and the trees that are interspersed.
Brent: Here's a quality in America we've regarded as suburban, but that's only because we've lost it to some extent from the urban, which is leaving your bicycle and baby stroller out in front of your house. In fact, in Spain and France that happens all the time. Right, people leave everything. In Brooklyn, we have a public park and people leave strollers in it. People leave bicycles in it, and children's toys in it, and they're gonna come back the next day to get them. Right?
Garnette: Well the New Yorkers are thinking, even when you have a chain inside your house, somebody's trying to come and get it.
Brent: If someone wants it, they're going to get it. So it must be that people know that nobody wants it.
Garnette: Or could it be a kind of eyes on the street? The ways in which the neighborhood looks out for itself.
Brent: No doubt about it.
Peter Rowe spends a lot of time talking about the houses themselves. He talks about this quality of being and becoming, where he says housing should not only exist within the space where it is and understand its relationship to that existing space, but housing should also embody, for its inhabitant, a kind of futurity, the ability of the inhabitant to grow, mature, to become someone else than they are, and also to convey an optimism about the future.
In the housing now being rehabilitated, he sees both a reference to the traditional row-house of old, but also an abstraction that conveys an optimism about the future. I think it's a debatable argument, but I love this dyad of being and becoming.
Garnette: What attracts me here more than being and becoming, is belonging: the way coming is a sense of belonging; the ways in which places are semi-private; the way in which there are so many pockets and room for public interaction and public encounter; the ways in which public space feels like an open space, feels like a pluralistic space, feels like an inviting space. We're walking and people are nodding to us and eye contact becomes an invitation to wave, it doesn't have the whiff of trespass the way we had before.
Brent: That's right. That's right.
Let's go up into this plaza, because this plaza is another kind of space which I think we're thinking about.
Garnette: But you find what happens also, the way in which a neighborhood imposes a kind of behavior on those who move through it, that the South End suggests privacy.
Garnette: Privacy and isolation. So it feels taboo to pass someone and say, hi, how are you doing? We are interrupting not only their space or peace of mind, but you are also interrupting the sensibility of the neighborhood.
Brent: You're breaking into their home.
Garnette: Whereas a neighborhood here seems to suggest, if you make eye contact, you say hi.
Brent: It's more urban. I mean, I like this space a lot, in part because it has a somewhat bleaker, modernist quality to it. It's more abstract. I think these are the first buildings constructed, and they became more domestic afterward, but they also add a completely different scale element to Villa Victoria. I think these are necessary pieces of the project, because this building is a visual centerpiece, it's a kind of anchor marking it.
It says, this project is part of the modern movement. This idea of the tower, the plaza, the low-rise building, this are all components of modernist urbanism, but most of the project actually is this humane, smaller landscape with the diversity of open spaces.
Garnette: I also like the use of the building, the new development and resident services, and center…
Brent: Oh yeah, exactly. This is a civic center. It's a civic center for the community.
Garnette: It invites a civic, the possibilities of rich civic culture. Also, possibilities of encounter.
Brent: I think it's one of the nicer spaces in Boston, actually. I think, even though the finishing of the plaza's not amazing, the kind of mix of activities around is actually pretty unique. Boston doesn't often see its open spaces as plazas, it sees them as secluded, either commons for recreational activity, if you think of Olmsted, the whole Olmsted project was a suburban project in Boston.
Garnette: It is.
Brent: This is an urban project.
Garnette: What, more than anything, draws you to this space? When you think of Boston and what you love about cities, and what makes a city a city, what draws you here more than anything else?
Brent: To this space?
Garnette: To this space.
Brent: It's not very Bostonian.
It's a space that sees human activity and open space being totally complimentary, without the overlay of pastoralism that so often you find in Boston. Every space in Boston is green because Boston derived from the English tradition of space. This is derived from the Latin tradition of space, which sees space as human, paved, active, supposed to be a focus of activity, and why not put important buildings around it and have them feed onto the space?
Copley Square actually achieves that to some extent, that's why it's one of the better Boston open spaces.
Garnette: I love this space also because something as seen in Copley, which is at a public library in front, it says 'Free for all', and this suggests that. Free for all.
It suggests that the bar of entry is low, that it's an invitation for encounter, it's an invitation for escape, it's an invitation for a kind of arrival in the city.
Garnette: Because when I think of cities, I think of a place in which you arrive. There is a sense of arrival that should suffuse a city that works.
Brent: I think that this space is fortunate that it has a busy street along it, so you've got passage along the way. Look, you even have a post office, so you've got some conventional markers of civic activity.
Garnette: I love it.
Brent: It's a nice space. It was nice to see you.
Garnette: Yes, let's go walking again soon.
Garnette: This space and many more.