The Primacy and Endurance of the Urban: An Introductory Essay to Down the Street
"Under the seeming disorder of the old city is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city . . . The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations." -Jane Jacobs
Streets are the veins of cities–pulsing, spreading outward, necessary for life. They form patterns and anchor neighborhoods, giving buildings a reason for being. They offer the tantalizing possibility of urban adventure.
Boston's streets can be grand or humble. The city's major thoroughfare is legend–Massachusetts Avenue with its grand edifices and teeming sidewalks. But more obscure streets contain architecture and urbanistic qualities of no less civic importance.
Boston streets are experienced sequentially–a church here, a triple decker there, a rowhouse off in the distance. They can be as flat as Kansas and as hilly as Pittsburgh. They are full of what architecture Robert Venturi calls "a messy vitality," not rational and bland urban utopias but places redolent with human use, ingenuity and ambition. Abbe Laugier, the great 18th Century Jesuit and architectural theorist, put it this way: "In the city, there must be regularity and fantasy, relationships and oppositions, and casual and unexpected elements that vary the scene."
The charms of Boston's streets, big and small, yield themselves slowly. Artist Bruce T. Martin's multimedia project Down the Street, Random Views of Boston Neighborhoods, with its intimate representation of place, challenges traditional you-can't-get-there-from-here Yankee coldness by inviting the viewer to take an insider's glimpse into the city and its quirky delights. Down the Street, Random Views of Boston Neighborhoods presents diverse neighborhoods, from wealthy to emerging, and in doing so compares neighborhood to neighborhood to give us a taste of architectural and human richness commensurate with Boston's history and importance.
A Pattern Language
In his brilliant tome, A Pattern Language, Architect Christopher Alexander pleads eloquently for a people–centered architecture: "At the core . . . is the idea people should design their homes, streets, and communities. This idea . . . comes from the observation most of the wonderful places of the world were not made by architects, but by the people."
Call it the anti-utopian instinct, the desire for people to have a say in and even craft the environments in which they live. Stern European modernism had no time for individuals to shape their surroundings--all would be under a grand master architect like Le Corbusier, who sought, in one historian's summation, "to set the world in order."
And yet, nonetheless, there is a human quest for order in a seemingly disordered world. The gridded street pattern provides an overlay of logic–one finds a Parisian-like grid in the Back Bay as contrasted with a random street arrangement in downtown Boston and the Financial District. "Old Boston with its zigzag streets and multitudinous angles," wrote Walt Whitman. His fellow poet William Blake was kinder: "Improvements make straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are roads of genius." Genius indeed--the seemingly arbitrary cow paths of the Financial District actually make for splendid cityscapes of curved buildings and pointed skyscraper edges.
But beyond downtown, the patterns of Boston rowhouses, commercial districts, and triple-deckers are all signed with the imprints of people–owners and tenants alike. This habitation goes beyond the legal concepts of title and lease; a deep human/architecture connection emerges, making buildings the spiritual property of those who occupy them.
The Street/Building/Sidewalk Triad
Pacific Street in South Boston, chronicled in Down the Street, is appropriately named–indeed it resembles a hilly street in San Francisco. The steep slope doesn't hinder residents from engaging in quotidian tasks–moving furniture, disposing of trash, or just enjoying a quiet evening on a stoop watching the world go by. The massing and basic design of the street's row houses is quite similar, but down through the decades human touches have given them new siding, colorful front doors and other stamps of the neighborhood and its people's aesthetic preferences.
The photo construction titled Bayside Street, Savin Hill, Dorchester, features five triple decker houses that reflect the same kind of human intervention. Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan, by contrast, is a vibrant commercial strip. This is the modern day "agora," a marketplace where national chains and strictly local businesses announce themselves with signage that is assertive but not obnoxious.
Huntington Avenue in Mission Hill has rows of townhouses with a Boston signature architectural feature: the bay window. This is an architectural pattern, a leitmotif threaded throughout every Boston neighborhood. The bay window and its sibling the bow-front window offer Bostonian apartment dwellers the chance to see the city from a wider angle–protecting his or her privacy while metaphorically engaging with the city by moving closer to its busy sidewalks.
Perhaps more than any neighborhood in Boston, East Boston is undergoing dramatic change. The waterfront, with its stunning harbor views, is being transformed with luxury waterfront residences. The neighborhoods around the Maverick T stop are also metamorphizing into more upscale demographics.
The Sumner Street montage in East Boston evokes a classic Boston urban condition: it is flanked by a civic building, a fire station, at one end and a house of worship at the other. Handsome brick townhouses are interspersed with stores and food joints. It is the type of urban assemblage that is ideal for walking and exploring.
The Esplanade in the Back Bay is the aristocrat of Boston urban spaces. Its French-inspired pronunciation, Espli-NAHD, indicates its continental aspirations. A handsome concrete balustrade serves as a boundary between a walking and jogging path and the river beyond. Here, all Bostonians are meant to be equal, be they residents of a Beacon Street townhouse or a walk-up in Allston. Perfectly spaced and manicured trees provide a respite from urban pavement and vehicular noise.
The Still and Moving Image
The British essayist David Campany describes the relationship of architecture to photography: "It may not be possible to 'get hold of' a building, at least not in the way that it might be possible to get hold of a painting or a sculpture. But through photography one might be able to get hold of architecture . . . while a physical building is owned and used, a photograph of it is able to isolate, define, interpret, exaggerate or even invent a cultural value for it. We might even go so far as to say that the cultural value of buildings is what we call 'architecture' and that it is inseparable from photography."
Down the Street, Random Views of Boston Neighborhoods animates still photography with movement and sound to create a common visual and aural language between neighborhoods that summons the staccato backdrop of people living their lives on and amid the streets.
An Urban Tale
Every street tells a story. And every street is a stage set, an artery of adventure. In 19th Century France, there emerged the concept of the flãneur, which translates roughly as "stroller, lounger, saunterer and loafer." This is the modern man or woman overwhelmed with a love of urban life, who strolls the rues of Paris, lost in the crowd, delirious with the possibilities the city offers. Charles Baudelaire: "For the perfect flãneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite . . . the spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito."
To Build in Boston
Building in Boston is contentious and always has been. As captured in a 1929 New York Times article describing the proposed Charles River Esplanade: "In no city is unification of public sentiment more difficult to obtain . . . In none more numerous or more various plans offered . . . Will the thing be done? Who can tell? This is Boston."
But build they do. For the past two generations, the soaring crane has been ubiquitous throughout the city. Indeed Boston is like a palimpsest--a tablet used by the ancients wherein earlier writing is erased while leaving diverse layers apparent beneath the surface. Layer upon layer, the Boston urban scene changes and evolves, but there is always a captivating glimpse of the original beneath.
The Urban Imperative
Cities are among mankind's greatest inventions. They are vibrant, sustainable and conducive to the greatest in art and architecture. They help shape many Bostons: the gleaming towers of the Financial District, the French-inspired Back Bay and Public Garden, the finger-snap energy of the South End and the Leather District, the ascendant neighborhoods of Dorchester and Mattapan. That flãneur so drunk with excitement of urban life has his or her work cut out for them in a city that is so lively and varied.
The photography in Bruce T. Martin's Down the Street, Random Views of Boston Neighborhoods seeks to present the whole of Boston in all its rich glory. More than that, it is also an historical remnant that could benefit generations and generations hence by presenting discrete moments as they unfold along the city streets and avenues. With its booming 21st Century economy and breakneck growth, Boston is creating plenty of artifacts to stimulate pride, excitement, and a sense of wonder among its future citizens and other urban adventurers. Down the Street communicates this timeless endeavor.
James McCown is a Boston-based architectural journalist and writer. His byline appears regularly in Metropolis, Architect's Newspaper, Architectural Digest and other national and regional publications. He studied journalism at Loyola University New Orleans and earned an ALM (master's degree) in the history of art and architecture from Harvard University, where his thesis on modern Brazilian architecture received an honorable mention, Best ALM Thesis, 2007. A native of Mobile, Alabama, James is currently working on an autobiography entitled Rising: A Southern Architectural Memoir, to be published by the University of Alabama Press in fall, 2022. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts. He can be reached at www.jamesmccown.com