Most of my rambles around Boston have been in the ‘neighborhoods’, the areas added to the original town on the Shawmut peninsula over the course of the century after the creation of the United States of America. This is not in any way a rejection of ‘ye olde towne’; in fact, the profound historical complexity of the winding lanes and streets of the Shawmut peninsula from the old gate on Boston Neck to the North End ferry landings and from the edge of Boston Common and the Tri-Mountain where the Back Bay began to the wharves along the waterfront of Boston Harbor is one of the reasons I became interested in writing these articles in the first place. I have deliberately devoted more time and energy to the ‘neighborhoods’ precisely because I have had such a long-standing interest in colonial Boston I felt that I neglected the hinterlands surrounding the older town.
When I returned to Boston after an absence of almost four years I got a job with the National Park Service working for Boston National Historical Park. My very first job was to photograph every aspect of two buildings from the colonial era, the Old State House and Faneuil Hall, before and after a renovation of both buildings in the early 1990s to have photographic records of each architectural detail of the buildings in order to document the progress and quality of the restoration. One of the best parts of the job was that I had access to every part of both buildings and so I spent my days wandering through dusty rooms that had not seen a human being for who knows how long as well as visiting the darkest bowels and the highest points of each building, normally closed to pretty much everybody. I also was able to see the buildings as they were taken apart and put back together, with expert historical architects at my side to explain the intricacies of building material and the strengths and weaknesses of the design and construction decisions made by builders from the colonial period as well as those who performed restorations and reconstructions in the subsequent two centuries. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the layers of history hidden in these buildings was of great interest to me. Thus did my interest in historic Boston begin.
Subsequently, as a park ranger for Boston National Historical Park, I gave tours of the Freedom Trail, the famous red line that passes through the city linking a series of historically significant buildings from the Colonial era, including the Old State House and Faneuil Hall. Overall, I spent almost two years studying the history of the oldest parts of the city of Boston and trying to convey my enthusiasm for the subject to visitors. If anything I am more interested in the oldest parts of Boston than in any other area since incorporated into the larger Boston of today.
Other reasons I have given so little attention to this part of town have more to do with the sheer complexity of the history of Boston and the fact that the main stories of old Boston have been told so many times I am not sure the world needs another version of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, or my version of the Boston Tea party. However, when it comes to the roads of old Boston I am more than interested in relating the history and evolution of its many winding streets, alleys, and lanes especially those roads leading in and out of town.
I have spent a great deal of time and energy describing the terrestrial routes out of Colonial Boston along the Shawmut Peninsula and the progressive splitting of these roads into a web of connected roads leading in all directions away from the city. I have most recently described the two roads leading west out of the old town through Roxbury and eventually into the western parts of Massachusetts and have explained that these two principal roads diverged in Brookline and converged again in Watertown.
There was also a third way to leave Boston in the Colonial era although this route required a ferry across the mouth of the Charles River from the North End to Charlestown. From Charlestown, the traveler could continue in an arc north and west to Cambridge, connecting with the road from Boston in Harvard Square. The route continued west from Cambridge and converged with the second road from Roxbury at Watertown Square.
Alternatively, rather than heading to Cambridge once across the ferry in Charlestown, the traveler could take another ferry to what is today Chelsea and continue north to Salem, Newburyport, Portsmouth, New Hampshire or even York, Maine as the physician Alexander Hamilton did in 1744 and as George Washington did in 1789. Or one could continue through Charlestown to what is now Arlington and on to Lexington, as Paul Revere did in 1775. Enticing as these roads seem, a walk on them must be deferred to another day.
This entry and subsequent entries aim to retrace the steps of the colonial traveler to Cambridge and Watertown via the the ferry landing in Charlestown. This route commences at the Old State House, the historic center of Boston, from where I will follow the original route through the North End of Boston to the site of the ferry landing. I will then continue through Charlestown until I reach Sullivan Square. At this point the road turns west onto Cambridge Street, which continues today as Washington Street through Somerville to what is now Union Square, where the road continues to Cambridge and becomes Kirkland Street until it reaches the campus of Harvard University and Cambridge Common. From Cambridge Common the ‘Charlestown’ road meets the road from what is now Allston and continues west as Brattle Street to the entrance of the Mount Auburn Cemetery where it becomes Mount Auburn Street until it joins the road from Brighton in Watertown Square. At this point all the main roads from the town of Boston in the colonial period will have been described in this project and I will turn my attention to other roads. One of these projects will involve following the road west out of Watertown. Another project involves describing the early efforts at creating shorter and straighter roads out of the city, particularly the early nineteenth century craze for turnpike building.
Many times have I stood in this spot, in front of the Old State House looking down State Street to Long Wharf and Boston Harbor. Called King Street prior to the Revolution, State Street has long been the most important street in Boston as it connected the seat of government directly to the sea, the principal focal point of trade, travel, and communication for much of Boston’s history. As a center for trade and as a culturally and politically important destination in the colonies it would be hard to understate the importance of the town on the Shawmut Peninsula. As the ‘Hub’ of colonial Massachusetts, New England, and even of the American Colonies, spokes leading from the hub of the wheel were necessary to bring products to and from the market and Boston Harbor. These spokes, the roads leading out of Boston have been the subject of many of these entries.
Although the phrase ‘Hub of the Universe’ dates only from the late nineteenth century, Boston was the principal city in the colonies for most of the first century and a half of English settlement, remaining the largest city until surpassed first by Philadelphia and then by New York by the time of the first census of the United States in 1790. In 1690 Boston had a population of roughly 7,000 inhabitants compared to approximately 4,000 residents in Philadelphia and slightly under 4,000 people in New York (Bridenbaugh, p. 6). By 1720 Boston had grown to 12,000 inhabitants while Philadelphia remained the second largest town with 10,000 residents and New York the third largest town with about 7,000 people (Bridenbaugh p. 143). As late as 1742 Boston was the largest town in the colonies with 16,382 inhabitants and again Philadelphia was second (13,000) while New York continued to hold third place with 11,000 people. By the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775, Philadelphia had taken over the top spot with 40,000 inhabitants and New York had moved into the second spot with 25,000 residents as Boston, suffering from years of economic hardship as a result of its difficult relationship with the royal government, lagged in third with essentially the same population (approximately 16,000) it had in the 1740s. In the first Census of the United States of America in 1790, New York had taken the top spot with 33,131 residents, Philadelphia was second with 28,522 people and Boston maintained its hold on the third position with 18,320 inhabitants. Incidentally, two areas adjacent to Philadelphia, Northern Liberties and Southwark, took the sixth and the tenth position respectively and combined to add nearly 16,000 more inhabitants to an area that is entirely within the borders of contemporary Philadelphia. Finally, for those of you who are curious, Charleston, South Carolina was fourth at 16,359 while Baltimore took the fifth spot with 13,503. Other towns in the top 15 included Salem, Gloucester, Newburyport, Marblehead, and the town of Nantucket in Massachusetts, Newport and Providence in Rhode Island, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Note that all of these towns are in coastal New England, an indication of the importance of the sea to New England and of New England to early America.
Even though Boston was the principal city in the colonies, there were still large numbers of people who inhabited the smaller towns and villages of New England, and not all of them could be visited by boat. The population of Massachusetts in 1790 according to the figures from the first census was 387,787 residents; many small towns of 2,000 or fewer inhabitants dotted the landscape of the interior of Massachusetts. Hence at the time of the earliest settlement roads were constructed to connect the disparate settlements of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as well as roads connecting the colonies themselves. While it is true that most trade was between the individual colonies and the motherland across the Atlantic, trade and travel between the colonies did happen and roads were necessary to make many of these journeys. It is these various roads that are the subject of these essays.
Thus, although it gives me great pleasure to look down State Street at the harbor, the removal of the ugly elevated Central Artery which for many years blocked the view being one of the most beneficial aspects of the ‘Big Dig’, I turn away from the sea and from the maritime aspect of the history of Boston to follow instead the course of the old roads to the hinterlands of Boston. To reach the ferry landing to cross over the mouth of the Charles River to Charlestown, I head down Congress Street, following the line of the Freedom Trail towards the North End of Boston. This walk takes us past some of the most historically interesting buildings in Boston as well as through one of its most atmospheric neighborhoods. Much has been written about the area through which I walk, so I shall confine myself to the points of interest to me and perhaps a few anecdotes to accompany my description of the contemporary street-scape and its connection to the original road.
Directly beneath my feet as I stand in front of the Old State House are a number of granite stones set in a pattern of concentric rings which mark the site of the infamous Boston Massacre. Paul Revere’s famous illustration of the events of March 5, 1770 in which the leering Redcoats gleefully open fire on unarmed and men, women, children, and even dogs (!) in front of what is easily recognizable as the Old State House, set an early standard in the ongoing battle over ‘fake news’, with its distorted version of events that even as illustrious a Patriot as John Adams argued, in his defense of the soldiers charged with the ‘massacre’, were unrepresentative of the facts. Our misguided notions that there was a simpler time when right was right can clearly be shown to be on a shaky foundation as we recall these seminal events which played a major role in making the case for Revolution.
But many others have made these arguments more persuasively before me and I merely mention this widely known event to illustrate that walking and talking about history can be an enterprise fraught with peril if even the most sacred cows of the American Story can be shown to be more complicated so easily. The reader is thus forewarned that, although my descriptions of the physical remnants of Boston’s past are as accurate as I can make them, my interpretation of their significance might not be the only possible point of view. Facts may be stubborn things, to borrow a phrase from Adams, but historical memory is more ephemeral and fungible.
It is a fact that that I have been in the tower of the Old State House, as the photo above illustrates, a place visited by few people. It is also a fact, although I have no evidence except the testimony of witnesses, that I was able to lay some gold leaf on the lion and some silver leaf on the unicorn perched on the east-facing facade of the building. Whenever I see these famous animals perched at the head of State Street I recall that period of my time in Boston as an era where there was more interest in the actual history of the city and the country, an era that has degenerated into what I can only describe as today’s uninformed cacophony, best exemplified by the absolutely ignorant and misguided ravings of the so-called ‘Tea Party’. A few years ago, I was walking along Washington Street, in the vicinity of the Old South Meeting House, at the very beginning of this project. On the same day an early Tea Party rally was taking place on Boston Common, mere steps away from the Old South Meeting House. I have it on very good authority that not a single member of the ‘illustrious’ speakers at the rally bothered to visit the building where the original Boston Tea Party began. The reason is simple; they don’t care about actual history, only the misuse of a reconstructed false version of American history that can be used to sell their absurd product, namely the dissolution of government in the interest of ‘liberating’ the animal spirits of American business to ‘make America great again.’ Facts are stubborn things, but sometimes they lie buried beneath a mountain of garbage.
It is also possible that, although the facts I have related above are true, my memory of a time when there was a greater respect for history might be exaggerated. I have seen a great deal of change in ‘old’ Boston in the last forty years and much of it does not seem to be for the better, which might go some way to explaining my somewhat declensionist world view. On the other hand many changes, improved biking infrastructure, better quality restaurants, farmer’s markets, and so on, have made Boston a much better place to live and work. How I feel about change depends on the subject I choose to discuss. To take just one or two examples: As I walk past Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market I reflect that I very rarely visit the shops and restaurants in the lovely buildings of the complex. To me, most of the stores are just outposts of the same soulless corporate chains one sees in any mall in America, while the restaurants and stalls purvey a cliched version of what passes for Boston cuisine. Durgin Park, for example, a Boston ‘institution’ which twenty years ago I visited regularly for their standard New England fare of Clam Chowder, Broiled Scrod, or Yankee Pot Roast served up by cranky waitresses who made a show of being indifferent or even hostile to their customers, is now owned by a murky corporate consortium that has it roots in New York City and serves the same bland food found anywhere in the country with little of the atmosphere the old place once had. The last meal I ate there was with an old friend and, although we enjoyed each other’s company, the meal was one of the dreariest I can recall ever having. The food was poor, the beer glasses were not even full and the beer was flat, the tables had those generic photo ads of food one finds in Chili’s or Outback Steak House, the place was one third full, the staff seemed as though they were extraterrestrial aliens in disguise, pretending to be ‘HEW-MAHNN”. On the other hand, to be honest, the food was never great to start with, but the package feels wrong these days, lacking in any ‘authenticity’: at least in the old days the food was mediocre but the atmosphere was genuine: when a waitress crabbed at you to hurry up in a grating Boston accent, you felt she meant it and it was part of the ‘charm’ of the place. Our waiter, whose accent was assuredly not from anywhere in New England, was as friendly as an anodyne inert robot can be and certainly did not have the energy or the inclination to bark at us.
As fake as Durgin Park feels, this pales in comparison to a truly abominable excrescence that has risen from the murk in recent years, the Clam Chowder in a bread bowl that is now ubiquitous in ‘tourist’ Boston. I can’t even begin to describe it so you will have to look at the putrid object yourself below. Are you kidding me? This has NEVER, I repeat NEVER, been a Boston tradition and when I recently saw it being sold as a ‘New England’ specialty in San Francisco I wanted to throw up into one of those ‘bowls’, although the contents already look…. never mind. What is going on here? The invention of tradition is one thought that comes to mind. Thank you corporate America, but we already have plenty of ‘New England Traditions’.
Faneuil Hall Marketplace has, in short, become a tourist trap, and the absence of actual Bostonians in the Marketplace is a red flag to me, a sign that the area has become a depressingly ‘disneyfied’ version of Boston. One potential consequence might be that the buildings steadily lose their meaning to the very residents of the city responsible for maintaining and preserving the unique culture and historical memory of the city, as they seldom visit the very buildings that define Boston. As it stands the area around Faneuil Hall increasingly seems to be shaped and sold as merely a variant on a corporate theme found anywhere in the country, a sort of ‘Boston Heritage Park’, an easy place to get your Boston experience in a nice convenient package without too much effort.
Other cities face the same dilemma. New York is no different: a good friend of mine lived adjacent to Times Square for years, a place infamous for sleaze but also redolent of memories of an older, more complicated, and more interesting New York, and he bemoaned the ‘disneyfication’ of the area under then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, before quitting New York altogether and decamping to Italy. Not everyone is a fan of the new Times Square, but it sure brings in the visitors. If New Yorker’s do not go there however, is it still New York? Similarly, if Bostonians are absent from a place that purports to represent Boston, is it actually Boston anymore?
Boston, too, had areas that were run-down but had that elusive quality known as ‘character.’ One of my earliest Boston memories is of driving to the North End with my family to shop, and parking under the ‘other Green Monster’, the Central Artery, which cut off the North End of Boston from the rest of the city for decades after it’s construction in the 1950s. The monstrous highway overhead was ugly, the parking lot was crowded and chaotic, and I am glad it is gone, replaced by a lovely park. With the removal of the Central Artery the unpleasant barrier between the North End and the rest of the city was broken down, but there was undeniably a certain quality that was lost in the process, a quality which began in the parking lot and reached its apogee on the streets of the North End.
To me as a teenager, the North End seemed to be full of people screaming at each other in Italian, while every other store I remember to be a butcher shop with carcasses of large dead animals hanging in the window. I read in George Weston’s walking guide from the 1950s, Boston Ways, that in his North End “a few days before Christmas, metal-lined pushcarts appeared on the streets. These are full of sea water–and eels.” (Weston, p. 165). I don’t recall live eels in the streets of the North End of the late 1970s, but the crowds and the hectic market-like atmosphere he describes ring true. Nothing was slick: most of the merchants operated out of dingy stores that probably had not changed appreciably since the buildings in which they were housed were erected, mostly in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Most importantly, it felt like a neighborhood unto itself, seemingly unconcerned with events on the other side of the ‘Great Wall’.
The North End was later a place I went, in an era before anything in the world could easily be watched without shifting from the living room couch, to watch soccer games, especially Serie A, as the Italian first division is known in Italian, but also to watch what in those days was called the European Cup, now known in its current incarnation as the Champion’s League. Early on a Sunday morning, I would trudge over from my apartment in the South End to the smoke-filled Caffe Paradiso on Hanover Street to down an espresso or three and to watch the intermittent satellite feed showing grainy figures in the black and white jerseys of Juventus battle the Rossoneri of Milan. My Italian is excellent if the conversation revolves primarily around calcio, as soccer is known in Italy.
The cafe remains, slicker than in the old days and thankfully free of the stench of cigarette smoke, still showing soccer games, and serving good espresso, but the frisson of trekking under the hulking Central Artery essentially to spend a few hours in Italy is long gone, replaced by the ubiquity of on-demand culture, available anytime, anyplace, mix and match, whatever. It strikes me that in a pre-wired world, when I was forced to get up and make an effort, especially in the winter, to watch a game few others saw or even cared about, there was an extra element of engagement that gave the whole activity something of the feeling of belonging to a secret society. When I see a ten year old kid walking down my street with an AC Milan shirt who knows not the first thing about Baresi, Maldini, or van Basten, or when I can flip on my TV any time of day or night and watch Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Barcelona, or Juventus, the intensity I once felt dissipates like water into sand. When everything is in easy reach nothing is valuable.
We often experimented with tourists coming into the visitor center when I worked at Boston National Historical Park. The information pamphlets the park distributed are excellent and free, and some argued that the park should charge a nominal fee to give them value; people would have to consider whether it was worth spending a nominal fee to get the pamphlet and perhaps might actually pay more attention to what was written on it. To examine whether people valued the pamphlets, ‘we’ would sometimes cut up squares of blank paper and stack them next to the pamphlets or ‘unigrids’ as they are known to the rangers. Invariably the stack of blank paper would be taken automatically and unquestioningly by visitors at essentially the same rate that the unigrids were taken.
I worry that a similar thing is happening to the cultural legacy of Boston. The sheer ubiquity of information, along with the lack of filters to screen out the garbage-filled historically inaccurate narratives from more consequential and rigorous interpretations devalues the ‘product’ that is Boston’s unique history. Tourists come to see ‘old’ Boston and wander the city with a brochure they picked up at a tourist center or the front desk of their hotel that has more stores listed than historical sites or perhaps the visitors take a tour on a Duck Boat, which cannot even reach many of the most interesting sites owing to the narrow streets of the old town. However, visitors on a duck-boat tour can multitask: they can check off sites to see, get a ride on the river (who knew spending ten minutes in a car/boat on the dirty water of the Charles would be so interesting to visitors?), and still have time for one of those old-timey clam chowder bread bowls, or a beer at one of the twenty or thirty ‘authentic’ Irish pubs that dot the area, followed by a visit to the many uniquely local Boston stores in Faneuil Hall Marketplace such as Victoria’s Secret or Urban Outfitters, all while keeping abreast of their Facebook world.
Meanwhile, the almost continual war against government by conservative America, by the so-called Tea Party group that claims to represent America and its heritage, has taken a heavy toll on the National Park Service. The quantity and quality of the free tours of the Freedom Trail given by the rangers at Boston National Historical Park has declined dramatically in the last thirty years. Full-time rangers who had worked at the park for decades and were engaged and interested in the history of Boston have retired or departed and have been replaced by college kids working for a few weeks in the summer. One could instead take one of the many tours offered by people dressed as Ben Franklin or Paul Revere and their ilk, but you can probably guess my opinion of the quality of those tours. One could use a guide book and follow the Freedom Trail but, in an admittedly unscientific survey of the scores of people I encountered on the Freedom Trail, I saw exactly zero people holding a book or any sort of guide as they meandered along the narrow lanes of the Blackstone block. Unless you count me: I have been repeatedly accosted by people trying to give me ‘helpful’ information whilst perusing one of the many books about Boston I often bring with me on my perambulations. They often appear confused when I mention that I live in Boston. At least that goes some way to dispel the reputation of Bostonians as rude.
On the other hand, many of the buildings from the Colonial era of Boston are still standing, as are countless buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth century; thus there are still ‘stubborn facts’ that are concrete (or at least brick) and tangible. Many have been provided with informative green plaques from the Bostonian Society to inform the passersby of their significance. It is my mission in these essays to add to the record my impressions of what remains and to at least paint a picture of the current landscape along the historic roads, streets, and alleys of Boston.
The landscape from the Old State House to Faneuil Hall, a distance of no more than 300 yards, has changed dramatically since the Colonial era despite the continuing presence of two of the most important buildings of that era. The massive modern buildings that take up entire blocks coupled with the single most destructive architectural project ever foisted upon the city, the Government Center project, of which the singularly ugly City Hall is the most conspicuously obnoxious element, conspire to make the short walk along Congress Street uninspiring to say the least. The less said about the monstrosities between The Old State House and Faneuil Hall the better. Martin Filler, in a recent article about Brutalist architecture in the New York Review of Books (December 22, 2016), put it succinctly: “None of the New Boston projects won as much critical praise as Boston City Hall, which was widely hailed upon its completion as the finest American public building of the postwar period. But this top-heavy citadel, on the former site of the raffish Scollay Square nightlife quarter, came to be seen by the public as forbidding and indeed hostile, and in recent years there have been repeated calls for its demolition and replacement with a more welcoming symbol of civic engagement.” Mr. Walsh, tear down this building!
However, just as Maupassant was said to have eaten lunch at the Eiffel Tower in order to avoid looking at it, I stand on the steps leading up to City Hall with my back to it to at least enjoy the perch from which to admire Faneuil Hall and the nearby buildings of the Quincy Marketplace and of the Blackstone Block. On the plaza in front of Faneuil Hall, Samuel Adams bravely guards the old building from the bully across the street.
Faneuil Hall in many ways represents the best of two important periods in the history of Boston. The original building by John Smibert constructed in 1742 along what was then the edge of the docks served as a market as well as a meeting hall, as it does today, although the quality of both the speeches and the goods sold below the hall has markedly declined from the days of John Hancock, Daniel Webster, and Frederick Douglass. Later expanded by Charles Bulfinch in 1806, the building has elements of the earliest burst of American Federal Style architecture. Inside the hall upstairs, Webster can still be seen in his grandest oratorical pose in the painting by George P.A. Healy commissioned by none other than Louis Philippe, King of the French. Its presence in Faneuil Hall is a historical anomaly, as it is not a representation of Faneuil Hall at all, but rather Webster’s reply to Hayne in the old Senate Chamber in the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., and was meant for display in a court building in Paris. However, the reign of the French King came to an abrupt end in 1848 and the painting was orphaned before finding its final home very near to the one-time residence of Louis Philippe himself during his time of exile in Boston, of which more momentarily.
In the aforementioned era when I rambled through the bowels and attics of this building as well as the Old State House I had a desk in an office in the basement that served as my base of operations. Above me, in the hall, the large painting of Healy lay on floor of the otherwise empty room, undergoing restoration. From time to time I would wander into the hall on my rounds and observe the artists doing the restoration work. What impressed me the most was that rather than adding to the painting, they were primarily removing paint from earlier restorations as well as dirt and old varnish. The art of restoration I learned is at least as much about getting rid of extraneous accretions as it is about adding new detail. I try to keep this in mind as I walk the streets of Boston, trying to peel away some varnish so that the older city underneath is visible while trying not to add too much new paint to the picture.
On one corner of Dock Square, so-called as this area once marked the shoreline of old Boston and the town dock was located here (as can be seen in the map below), a massive striding Mayor Kevin White, first occupant of City Hall, seems to be as intent on reaching the North End as I am. I have lived in Boston on and off for forty years and there have been only four mayors in that time: Kevin White (1968-1984), Ray Flynn (1984-1993), Tom Menino (1993-2014), and the incumbent mayor, Marty Walsh (since 2014). Both a standing and a sitting James Michael Curley welcome me as I cross North Street to reach Union Street. Curley, mayor of Boston on four separate occasions, Governor of Massachusetts, Congressman for Boston on two occasions thirty years apart, and general ‘character’ of Boston has been written about extensively and I have nothing to add. These statues I pass merely serve as symbols to illustrate that there is far more to be said about the city than a mere essay on a 1200 yard walk across old Boston can possibly convey.
Union Street and the buildings of the Blackstone Block through which I now pass are probably the area which come closest to giving the visitor a sense of how Boston might have appeared in centuries past. Although the distance across the entire block is a mere two hundred yards, there is likely more of architectural and historical interest in this small collection of buildings in the center of modern Boston that time somehow passed by and left relatively intact than there is in most cities in North America. It would be easy for me to write about each building in this block for pages, but this entry would never be finished and the main purpose here is to get us to the ferry landing at the end of Prince Street. Therefore I will leave most of the descriptive element of this block to others (I particularly like the Boston Globe Historic Walks in Old Boston by John Harris (1982), but there are many other books that cover this neighborhood with varying degrees of success. I myself will likely return to this block at some point in the future to write a more detailed entry on one of my favorite areas.
I cannot resist passing the Union Oyster House without at least returning to the subject of Daniel Webster and Louis Philippe, which I first mentioned in reference to the painting in Faneuil Hall. Part of the building which makes up the Union Oyster House dates from as early as 1714, but the restaurant itself was not established until 1826. Before that time it served as a dry goods store and had rooms above, one of which is reputed to have been used by Louis Philippe while in exile from during the Reign of Terror and subsequent reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. Among the many often repeated anecdotes concerns Louis Philippe teaching French to young girls while here in 1797, others concern the alcoholic escapades of the future king of the French with Daniel Webster in tow, and all are sadly, probably wishful thinking, as Louis Philippe stayed in Boston for only a few weeks as part of a wider visit of the United States, and Daniel Webster was 15 years old at the time and living in New Hampshire. Windsor’s Memorial History of Boston, in four volumes (1880), an almost 3,000 page tome full of interesting anecdotes mentions Louis Philippe exactly once briefly, in connection with Talleyrand, as visiting Boston. No young school girls, or drinking, I am afraid. Nor is more than a passing reference made to his visit to Boston in a biographical essay in an 1839 edition of the Boston Weekly, a magazine one would expect to make something of a lengthy stay in Boston by the then French King.
Perhaps there is a deeper story, but I am afraid that more likely, in the words of Hemingway “isn’t it pretty to think so.” I came across an article in the Boston Globe in 2011 about the Union Oyster House and it’s history in which the owner, Joseph Milano unwittingly gives away the game in a quote which I think was meant to convey how historic the building is: “It’s a working piece of nostalgia,’’ said Milano, who calls himself “a steward of history.’’ Quite.
The painting of Webster is real, and was commissioned by King Louis-Philippe I as a companion piece to a painting of Benjamin Franklin (Peterson, pp. 390-1). Healy did complete it in Paris but events conspired to make the painting an orphan until Healy found an interested audience in Boston in 1851, where the painting remains. The rest seems to me to be conjecture or perhaps, ‘nostalgia’.
More nostalgia awaits just a few yards along Marshall Street, where the Green Dragon Tavern is found, supposedly hailed by Daniel Webster as “Headquarters of the Revolution” as the gathering place of the Sons of Liberty and other important groups. However, the Green Dragon was actually on Union Street on the other side of Hanover Street, roughly where the Haymarket T station is today. This tavern is a modern construction; I know this for a fact because I remember when it was being constructed as I passed it frequently in my aforementioned Park Service days. The original tavern was lost in 1854, the new one is a completely artificial construct designed to pass as a ‘historic’ tavern. This absurd website purporting to ‘help’ you ‘discover’ Boston’s‘ historic bars has this gem in it’s description of the fake tavern: “In case you’re wondering if the Green Dragon is now just a tourist trap, capitalizing on its historic past, it’s not. It’s on a small side street – almost an alley – and despite being almost next to Faneuil Marketplace, lots of tourists don’t even realize this slice of history exists.”
It’s a tourist trap. It has no historic past because it is not historic, it’s presence on an ‘alley’ does not make it hidden, the damn Freedom Trail line passes right by it, and one final thing, almost ALL the other bars nearby (and sadly, the Blackstone Block is comprised principally of bars these days) are owned by the same consortium. Go there on a Friday night in October after a Bruin’s game and see how ‘historic’ it feels to be surrounded by lunkheads from Saugus and Braintree fighting and throwing up on the historic cobblestones.
Incidentally, The Bell in Hand Tavern across the way is also a fake historic bar.
Another almost certainly apocryphal anecdote concerns the ‘Boston Stone’ , a round stone stuck in the side of a building in Creek Square, a few yards along from the Union Oyster House to the right along Marshall Street. This stone is often cited as being the zero stone, from which all distances in Boston are measured. The fact that a stone in a back alley on a building of no bureaucratic or religious significance half a mile away from the Old State House (The actual place from which distances were measured in Colonial Boston) might be considered the ‘center’ of Boston is of course illogical, but again it makes a good story.
The Ebeneeezer Hancock House is an interesting historic remnant of the era however, and the layout of the streets is nearly the same as the original, as can be seen on the 1722 Bonner map.
Turning on to the short stretch of Hanover Street that is all that remains on this side of the old Central Artery of the street that formerly ran from near the old Scollay Square until I.M. Pei got his mitts on the area, the vista opens up as we reach Blackstone Street. On the left is the new Boston Public Market, probably the most authentically Bostonian artifact in the area despite the fact that it came into existence only last year, as I will discuss a little later. This building, which contains a large collection of local vendors selling locally produced food and other products, extends along Hanover Street from Congress Street to Blackstone Street, adjacent to the sight of the Haymarket, the outdoor food market that takes place along Blackstone Street and Hanover Street every Friday and Saturday. Here the atmosphere does indeed resemble the chaotic markets of yore, although it must be pointed out that the produce is not local, and my long experience with the market has taught me that some vendors seem to relish the opportunity to give you the worst possible produce they can sneak into your bag. Still, caveat emptor and all that, there is at least a nice cross section of the residents of Boston to be found there and the prices are pretty good even if you end up throwing out half of what you bought.
Blackstone Street is built over what for many years was the Mill Creek, a canal connecting the Mill Pond (shown on the Bonner Map) with the waters of Boston Harbor, thus technically making the North End an island. Indeed, the Central Artery performed the same function for fifty years, blocking the North End from the rest of the city. In the days of ranger tours, we were obliged to walk down an unsanitary tunnel underneath the highway to reach the North End.
Today the unsightly structure has been removed underground and the Rose Kennedy Greenway has taken its place. Here the designers have thoughtfully reproduced the line of the original street to the ferry, shown as Back Street on Bonner’s map as it splits from what was then called Middle Street but today is known as Hanover Street. I will come back to Hanover Street another day, but now I follow the footpath across the park and cross the aptly named Cross Street to reach the North End proper.
The North End is probably the sole remaining downtown ‘neighborhood’ as the South End became today’s Downtown Crossing shopping district and the West End was infamously razed by the same morons who thought Government Center was a good idea. The North End remains a primarily residential neighborhood, once the home of Paul Revere, son of a French immigrant, whose house still stands in North Square. A succession of new immigrants have populated the neighborhood over the years from the Irish to Jews from Eastern Europe to Italians from the early twentieth century to today, although even that group is slowly being replaced by a new generation of urban acolytes keen to live where they work.
Back Street is today known as Salem Street, where some remnants of the older North End remain even as a newer generation of Italian restaurants has appeared alongside more ‘hip’ places such as the Neptune Oyster Bar. Salem Street appears as a canyon of five and six story red brick buildings as it slowly heads uphill to the Old North Church; some of the buildings have the name of the builder and the year inscribed on the facade; the oldest buildings have Irish names, most of the newer ones are Italian. A few of the very newest buildings are scarily reminiscent of some of the monstrosities I have seen being put up in medieval villages in Liguria in recent years, a strange combination of concrete and wrought iron that passes for modernity.
Fortunately, some cornerstones remain the same, as I reach the reassuring Polcari’s sign at the corner of Salem and Prince Street. Across the street is Bova bakery, not great but a longtime resident. Around the corner on Prince Street is Parziale bakery, where for years I bought my bread, until a new generation of bakers, such as the excellent Clearflour in Brookline, brought a higher quality of bread to Boston. Perhaps some of the ‘nostalgia’ I feel for the North End reflects a time when my taste buds were not as sensitive, or perhaps the bread really was better in the old days; these are not facts, just impressions and so are subject to revision and exaggeration.
Prince Street too is comprised of large residential apartment buildings which give the impression of walking along a narrow canyon floor. Halfway down the street I get a glimpse of Pizzeria Regina down a side street, still pretty decent pizza but always a line, thus a place I rarely visit anymore. To the right the steep incline leads up to Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, one of the single most interesting graveyards to be found anywhere but less-visited than its more famous brethren as it sits at the top of a steep hill at the tail end of the Freedom Trail after one of the big ticket stops, the Old North Church.
Along the right side of Prince as I reach Commercial Street is a large nondescript parking garage where the largest bank robbery of the time was committed in 1950. Known popularly as the Brinks Job, the meticulously planned robbery netted over $1.2 million in cash, most of which was never recovered. The robbery was big news in the 1950s, often cited as the ‘crime of the century’, and a number of movies have been made about the subject; the one I remember starred Peter Falk.
I emerge from the canyon of Prince Street onto Commercial Street, the busy road that rings the North End along the water. Across the street is the Charlestown Bridge leading across the mouth of the Charles River to the neighborhood of the same name. Here too was the ferry landing which was the only way across the river until 1786. I will return to the bridge in the next entry and continue on into Charlestown.
As I walk through my old rambling haunts in the Blackstone Block, the North End, Charlestown, and start to pay close attention to what has remained and what has changed in the past twenty five years it begins to dawn on me that I may have neglected not only the neighborhoods but also the heart of the city. Many landmarks remain, including some of the oldest buildings in America, but many have disappeared and still others have been transformed into something completely different. More importantly, although there is a vibrancy to these historic areas of the city, it strikes me as ephemeral and lacking any depth; it is comprised chiefly of visitors buying trinkets in junky shops and eating at overpriced restaurants serving mediocre food purporting to be ‘local’. What perhaps in the past might have appeared as decay and the last vestiges of a way of life rapidly disappearing as residents of the city departed for the suburbs, in hindsight appears to have been an authentic vibrancy, replaced with corporate facsimile’s of ‘authentic local tradition’. Gone are most of the butcher shops, gone is the old pastificio where an elderly gentleman made fresh pasta on an antique contraption in an old store with sawdust and flour on the floor (this actually existed into the 1990s!), and most certainly gone are the eel vendors. Even places which remain, such as the Union Oyster House, have changed (here is a very recent review in the Globe I found just before finishing this article). Once upon a time I would walk in to the restaurant and grab a quick dozen oysters and a beer at the famous curved bar, but now the place has become part of the ‘heritage industry’ and caters to visitors who want a taste of an ‘authentic’ Boston, complete with oyster’s at $3.50 a pop and thirty-something dollar main courses (by the way, Red’s, a fish market inside the Boston Public Market a mere 50 yards away, will shuck lovely fresh local oysters for you for $2.00 each, or you can buy them to take home for $1.50 per oyster. Granted there is no wooden bar but with my $9 or $15 in savings, I can buy a four-pack of excellent, locally made Spencer Trappist Ale from the Hopster’s Alley in the market, peer in the window at the bar in the Union Oyster House as I head home, and enjoy a better version of what they serve). Quincy Market, a lovely building dating to 1826, has vendors selling not just the aforementioned clam chowder in a bread bowl (retch!) but also a New York Deli, a Philadelphia Hoagie stall, a sushi stall, a southern BBQ stall, the list goes on.
I get it. Nobody buys live eels anymore, and people shop at grocery stores instead of markets. But instead of evolving into charming neighborhoods with lots of local restaurants and shops selling locally made food and products of use to residents, the historic areas of Boston have been transformed into little more than a tacky shopping mall for tourists and a series of television-filled trashy bars catering to college kids and people going to what people still insist on calling the Garden (I knew the Boston Garden and this is NOT the Boston Garden!). Ironically, my walks in the ‘neighborhoods’ have, in many ways, given me a more solid sense of the ‘real’ Boston than has my walk through the historic heart of Boston.
There are a few bright spots in this dystopian picture of Disney Boston. The structural integrity of many of the historic buildings remain intact, the city government has tried to pedestrianize or at least make the area more pedestrian friendly, and there are still a few small places in the North End trying to stay true to their roots such as Polcari’s in the photo at left, Galleria Umberto, where the same guy who sold me a slice and an arancini ball in 1990 still smiles and shakes my hand and says hi every time I visit and the prices still seem absurdly low (“you want salt and pepper packets, napkins?”), or the vegetable vendor on Parmenter Street, old Rosario now gone but the store still going in younger hands.
The biggest and most promising new addition to the scene is the Boston Public Market at the corner of Congress and Hanover Street, a new hall housing a fantastic collection of local vendors selling local products from wool to beer to fish to prosciutto. This market is a genuine attempt to have a central indoor location for local vendors to sell their wares year round to complement the welcome surge in local outdoors farmer’s markets in the city over the last two decades. The vendors, such as the aforementioned Red’s, often sell prepared foods as well so that one might buy lunch or an ice cream, and sit at one of the tables provided. It is EXACTLY what Quincy Market should be but definitely is not!
Perhaps the Public Market and places like Umberto’s can serve as the foundation of a movement to take back the city from the corporations who have seized much of historic Boston and transformed it into a heritage park to soak visitors. I encourage all visitors to Boston, as well as residents, to visit the fantastic architectural legacy of Bulfinch and Parris and admire the historical legacy of Adams and Revere. However, I also encourage visitors, as well as residents, to have some delicately fried clams or great clam chowder at Reds, where one can learn the name of the person who caught the fish, the name of the boat and the time and location of the catch, or to buy some local cheese from Appleton Farms rather than waste your money on a disgustingly starchy mess of ‘chowder’ poured into a hole in loaf of bread. There is even a stall in the Public Market producing fresh pasta right in front of you, albeit with more modern methods. Local food goes better with local history and will leave you with pleasant memories of old Boston.
This Ramble: 0.77 miles
Carl Bridenbaugh, Cities in The Wilderness: The First Century of Urban Life in America, 1625-1742. London: Oxford University Press, 1954.
John Harris, Historic Walks in Old Boston. Chester, CT: Globe Pequot, 1982.
Merrill D. Peterson, The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, Calhoun. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Edward Weston, Boston Ways: High, By, and Folk, 3rd edition. Boston: Beacon Press, 1974.