A Personal Journey to Understanding Space, Race, and Environmental Justice in Boston

Photo courtesy of Snell Library, Northeastern University, United South End Settlements Collection

Scroll this

In 1983, at five years old, my family and I moved closer to the town square in a suburb just outside of Boston. An older boy stalking the street looking for the “n-word” comprised one of my first memories at my new house. The African-American man had violated racial etiquette by daring to appear in the square. When I entered the local elementary school, I had only one African-American classmate despite the fact that African-Americans comprised a sizeable portion of the town’s population. The older kids warned us that middle school, where the local elementary schools mixed, was a battleground. The community would ostracize the Irish boy who became a “wigger”. The reasoning for this racial hatred boiled down to several misguided notions: African-American people did not care about where they lived, ruining the environment around them. As a result, if African-Americans moved into the community property prices inevitably fell. Local real estate agents supported the spatial segregation that resulted. I never understood it while growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, but I was experiencing the aftershocks of the urban renewal process.

My personal journey to understand the situations that shaped my childhood experience will culminate, I hope, when I write my dissertation. The process begins this spring semester when I will produce the first chapter. My working hypothesis is that the built environment is the object of social and economic struggle in Boston. It is the nexus where the dominant ideologies and human action interact with the condition of land, air, water, and technology. Put simply, the struggle for control of land, housing, and the community institutions that support it show in a concrete fashion how racism “works.” By extension it also illustrates the issues that face Boston and urban areas in general. As such, the responses of social and environmental justice groups that take these problems head on are worthy of a substantial research project.

This is an example of a mixed use neighborhood in Boston prior to urban renewal. Although Scollay Square was not in the South End it was also razed due to its proximity to downtown and its reputation as an immigrant vice district. In its place stands the brutalist-inspired Government Center.
This is an example of a mixed use neighborhood in Boston prior to urban renewal.  Scollay Square was not in the South End, but it was also razed due to its proximity to downtown and its reputation as an immigrant vice district. In its place stands the brutalist-inspired Government Center.
The New York Streets were named for the towns on the route to Albany after the two cities connected via rial. A commercial district developed in the mid 1800s due to the neighborhood's location next to the train depot. In the 1950s it was a prime piece of real estate in Boston, close to the downtown financial district, and the emerging commercial center associated with the Hancock Buildings and Prudential Center in the Back Bay.  In this map the New York Streets are on the right hand side of the map, west of the Broadway Bridge. The Boston Common is visible in the far right of the and the Back Bay in the upper left hand corner. After the New York Street's destruction, the junction of the two major highways running through Boston became the principle feature of this former "mixed-use neighborhood." (Photo courtesy of Snell Library, Northeastern University, United South End Settlements Collection)
The New York Streets were named for the towns on the route to Albany after the two cities connected via rial. A commercial district developed in the mid 1800s due to the neighborhood’s location next to the train depot. In the 1950s it was a prime piece of real estate in Boston, close to the downtown financial district, and the emerging commercial center associated with the Hancock Buildings and Prudential Center in the Back Bay. In this map the New York Streets are on the right hand side of the map, west of the Broadway Bridge. The Boston Common is visible in the far right of the and the Back Bay in the upper left hand corner. After the New York Street’s destruction, the junction of the two major highways running through Boston became the principle feature of this former “mixed-use neighborhood.”
(Photo courtesy of Snell Library, Northeastern University, United South End Settlements Collection)

During the urban renewal process, Boston’s political and financial elite gained control of space, altered the built environment, and shaped the discourse about the urban environment. Boston’s South End had been a vibrant African-American and immigrant neighborhood during the 1940s. Malcolm X took residence in the neighborhood, transforming from a wide-eyed country boy to a member of the neighborhood’s jazz scene. These accounts portray the South End as the type of “mixed use neighborhood” that eminent urban theorist Jane Jacobs touted. Here a variety of establishments combined with residences kept a constant flow of people and created a network of mutual responsibility and safety. Games of stickball and other sports in the street were common and weddings often spilled outdoors, bringing the party to the street.

This map from 1846 illustrates the prominence of the New York Streets in Boston's emerging commercial enterprises. A few blocks north stood the railroad depot. To the south, the Fort Point channel appears to have played a more prominent role in the city's commerce because of its many wharfs. In addition, it travelled a further distance west into Boston, connecting to more neighborhoods. Compare this map with the channel's terminus in the 2015 Google Map.
This map from 1846 illustrates the prominence of the New York Streets in Boston’s emerging commercial enterprises. They are in the blocks just north of the bridge.  A few blocks north stood the railroad depot. To the south, the Fort Point channel appears to have played a more prominent role in the city’s commerce because of its many wharfs. In addition, it travelled a further distance west into Boston, connecting to more neighborhoods. Compare the channel’s terminus in the 2015 Google Map.

 

Yet, when light industry targeted the neighborhood as a site of development given its prime location near the Prudential Center, the new expressways, and downtown, the Boston Herald-Traveler ran a story about the South End titled, “Boston’s Skid Row.” The story swayed public opinion toward the “renewal” of the neighborhood. As a result, the potential factory owners were able to channel federal funds to the bulldozing of the seven streets and its residents were dislocated in 1955. In the 1960s, when city officials and the local gas utility wanted low income renters out and middle class residents and businesses in, the city turned a blind eye as landlords shut off heat in the winter, causing pipes to freeze and ice to form on floors. Residents had to flee with only their essential possessions. African-Americans were funneled towards the neighborhood of Roxbury where critics charged a “Bantustan” had been formed (a Bantustan was the segregated community where black South-African’s lived under apartheid, deprived of resources and control of neighborhood organizations).

 

 

African-Americans relocated from the South End had several obstacles to overcome. First, was the dominant ideology: that African-Americans were detrimental to and/or uncaring about their environment. While this mindset allowed city officials and the middle class that moved into the South End to justify their actions, it also proved harmful to the self-image of African-Americans in the affected communities. Second, in their new neighborhoods, expressways and four-lane roads often cordoned off residents from adjacent districts, leading to social isolation. Finally, housing projects and other “political programs” kept control of the community away from its residents. These issues all compounded one another making potential solutions more difficult to achieve.

Albany and Harrison Streets, visible from the arial view in the above picture run north to south from the bottom of the screenshot. The two streets run somewhat parallel to Route One and then into Interstate Ninety. The reader can also trace the Fort Point Chanel from the mid-right of the screen southwest to its terminus next to Albany Street.
The former New York Streets stood to the south and west of the junction of US 90 and Rt 1. There is a pin drop on the location of the image above.

Many residents were devoted to developing community organizations that could solve the problems urban renewal had generated. The organizations attempted to control the land and housing stock in a neighborhood. From that point larger and more powerful groups could develop. For example, in the 1960s the Boston Tenant’s Association went door to door to inspect the condition of each residence, record any issues, helping residents file complaints to landlords if needed. This group developed into the Community Assembly for a United South End. It operated as a “vehicle for self-control and self-expression” that would “involve the residents of the community in the decision-making process” of the community, often wrestling with the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

By the 1970s, the Lower Roxbury Community Corporation redeveloped some of the community on its residents’ own terms. In the 1980s these organizations grew into a movement to have a section of Roxbury and Dorchester secede from the city and form its own municipality called Mandela. In the 1990s the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative worked to create a mixed-use neighborhood along the lines of Jane Jacobs.

 

Government designed housing projects in the South End, like elsewhere, feature architectural styles that were isolating. Cathedral Project in the South End is a combination of housing towers and two-story residences that face inward toward one another.
Government designed housing projects in the South End, like elsewhere, feature architectural styles that were isolating. Cathedral Project in the South End is a combination of housing towers and two-story residences that face inward toward one another.

 

My hope is that an environmental analysis of Boston and the efforts of environmental and social justice groups will serve several purposes. First, that control of land and the built environment reveals the struggle for power between city elites and minority groups. It may be as simple as examining environmental conditions and who is in control of the things that make a community. In doing so I intend to emphasize minority groups’ environmental stewardship, a fact that runs counter to the received wisdom in the US. Furthermore, I intend to ascertain if the struggle for civil rights and environmental justice in Boston is essentially the same thing. The environmental justice movement is widely recognized as having developed in the late 1970s in the US. But I wonder if the discourse and actions of civil rights leaders and social justice groups is environmental in its focus. Maybe the roots of environmental justice run deeper than has previously been argued.

This map illustrates Cathedral Project's isolation within the South End. Industrial zones, schools, and parks keep residents separated from the larger community. In this map, Cathedral Projects is in the lower left hand corner.
This map illustrates Cathedral Project’s isolation within the South End. Industrial zones, schools, and parks keep residents separated from the larger community. In this map, Cathedral Projects is in the lower left hand corner.

The experiences of my childhood and my graduate training have led me to think about environmental history through the lens of “active history.” I am hopeful that the potential of environmental perspectives can enable us to understand and explain the human condition. The old social historians of the 1970s and 1980s asked questions that they thought would help to unlock human potential and create a vision for a more promising future. This seems like it is something environmental historians should embrace. In the twenty-first century the struggle for social justice across the globe is, in many respects, an effort for environmental justice. I am hoping that documenting how a group of people approached this process in Boston will show readers more about the past and let them plan for the future.

Sixty years later a car drive down one one of the former New York Streets reveals its tumultuous path. Despite its proximity to the highway and its associated traffic, light industry has been scrapped in much of the neighborhood in favor of new residential developments, as seen in the left of the photo.
Sixty years later a car drive down one one of the former New York Streets reveals its tumultuous path. Despite its proximity to the highway and its associated traffic, light industry has been scrapped in much of the neighborhood in favor of new residential developments, as seen in the left of the photo.

 

The following two tabs change content below.

Mike Brennan

Grad Student, Social Studies Teacher and Department Head
I am a part-time PhD student in the environmental history program at the University of Maine Orono. I am still completing my coursework, but I plan on researching the Environmental Justice Movement in Boston, Massachusetts for my dissertation. When not at work on grad studies, I teach social studies at a high school in Maine. I enjoy exercise and guitar playing in moments left over.

2 Comments

Leave a Reply