Boston Rambles

Boston Rambles

A Rambler Walks and Talks About the Hub of the Universe

A City Upon a Hill: A Charlestown Walk

 

View of Charlestown from Phipps Street Burial Ground. The Bunker Hill Monument can be seen in the background.

“Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.”

King James Bible, Matthew 5:14.

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”

John Winthrop, A Model of Christian Charity, 1630.

 “Here’s what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat. His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president. And his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.

       Mitt Romney, Speech at the University of Utah, March 2, 2016.

“Charlestown is pretty large and a country town scituate upon a peninsula between Mistick river and Charles river and is called the Mother of Boston being settled before it and parted from Boston only by Charles river over which there is a ferry very well attended and the river here is as broad as the Thames at London. This town has two large streets that come down towards the ferry, and the handsome large Meeting House and good market place. It has but little trade as Boston is so near it most people in trade choose to live there”

James Birket, Some Cursory Remarks made in his Voyage to North America, 1750-51, September 8, 1750, p.17.

 

Charlestown is the only neighborhood of Boston located north of the Charles River. East Boston, the only other neighborhood of Boston not contiguous with the rest of the city, is across Boston Harbor, to the (you guessed it!) east of the historic center. A separate town from its first permanent settlement by English immigrants in 1629, Charlestown was annexed to the city of Boston in 1873, part of the wave of annexations of adjacent towns by the City of Boston in the period following the Civil War, a subject discussed in previous entries.

The other distinction Charlestown holds is that it was the first place settled by the migrants from England under the leadership of John Winthrop that was located in ‘Massachusetts’, the term by which the area around Boston Harbor was known (as distinct from the earlier settlement of ‘Naumkeag’, or Salem). Indeed, Charlestown became known as the ‘mother of towns’ as people who initially settled on the ‘Mishawum’ peninsula spread around today’s Boston metropolitan area. Although there were already Englishmen on what became known as Charlestown peninsula as early as 1622 and there were populations of Algonquin-speaking Native Americans present for a very long time, Charlestown was initially settled by large numbers of English settlers in the summer of 1629. From here, the main population of the initial settlement moved across the river to Boston in 1630, principally owing to the presence of superior fresh water. Other places settled by people initially based in Charlestown included Dorchester, Roxbury, and Watertown in 1630, and ‘Newtown’, or Cambridge in 1631.

Charlestown originally occupied a much larger area, but over time, as was the case for Cambridge, Dorchester, and other towns, distant sections of the town sought to become separate towns in their own right. Thus, in Hale’s 1829 map of the area north of the Charles River, Charlestown appears as a ‘comet’, with the head being the peninsula which comprises the contemporary neighborhood annexed to Boston in 1873, while the long tail today is mostly the town of Somerville, which separated from the ‘mother town’ in 1842.

Thus a walk from the North End, across the bridge first built across the Charles River in 1786 (a topic I discussed in detail in the previous entry ), to Harvard Square in Cambridge along the old road passes through territory that, in the colonial era, was principally Charlestown. The total distance from the end of Prince Street in the North End to the ‘Eight Mile’ stone across from Cambridge Common is 4 miles.  Of this distance, 3.2 miles passes through land formerly part of Charlestown.

British Army Surveyor and engineer John Montresor produced this map of rebel entrenchments around the town of Boston in 1775. This portion of the map shows the road from Charlestown Ferry to Cambridge. This road is today’s Main Street in Charlestown, then turning left at Sullivan Square becomes Cambridge Street to Somerville where the name changes to Washington Street, which continues through Union Square to Cambridge, where the street changes name again to Kirkland Street to the campus of Harvard University.

The route from the Old State House to Cambridge Common along the old land route was about eight miles, so the construction of the bridge greatly facilitated the ease of travel in this direction, as can be seen in the above map of 1775. The bridge and other bridges built shortly thereafter led to a substantial increase in the population of the three ‘towns’ through which this road passes, Charlestown, Somerville, and Cambridge. Together the communities on the north bank of the Charles River today make up a significant portion of the Greater Boston area. Below is some data about the area under discussion in this entry.

population of Cambridge 105,162 (2010 census), 110,651 (2016 est.) 6.4 mi² density=17,290/mi²

population of Somerville 75,754 (2010 census), 81,322 (2016 est.) 4.1 mi² density=19,835/mi²

population of Charlestown 16,439 (2010 census), 18,058 (2015 est.) 1.4 mi² density=12,900/mi²

Total Population 197,355 (2010), 210,031 (2015/6 est.) 11.9 mi²  density=17,650 inhabitants/mi²

population of  Boston 617,668 (2010 census), 673,184 (2016 est.) 48.4 mi² density=13,910/mi²

As can be seen from the above data both Cambridge and Somerville are, like Boston, growing rapidly, and both have a higher population density than Boston!  I have previously mused about the potential size of Boston had more annexations taken place in my What is Boston? entry. All I will add here is that it was not at all beyond the realm of possibility that Somerville and Cambridge could have been annexed by Boston in the same wave as discussed above. It is actually closer to Harvard Square from the Old State House than it is to my house in Jamaica Plain, one of the annexed towns now a neighborhood of Boston. Adding these two towns to the population of Boston (Charlestown is already part of Boston) brings the population of the ‘bigger’ Boston to 865,157 while adding 10.5 mi² to the existing 48.3 mi², for a total of 58.8 mi², a more dense city than the current city, and a city smaller in area than every city ranked higher in population than Boston according to the US Census Bureau with the exception of San Francisco (46.9 mi²). Boston, currently the 22nd largest city in the country on the aforementioned list, would jump eight places to 14th on the list, just behind San Francisco (870,887 inhabitants, 2016 est.). These areas are firmly within what I think of as Boston for the purpose of these rambles.

Hale Map of 1829 Detail showing the towns of Charlestown and Cambridge. Most of the northern part of Charlestown is now the City of Somerville. The southern part of Charlestown (roughly the area below the ‘W’) is now a neighborhood of Boston. For contemporary context, Tufts University is just above the ‘Powder House’ and Porter Square is in the little blue rectangle of Cambridge protruding into the yellow Charlestown. Union Square is visible as the intersection of roads above the ‘t’ in University, while Sullivan Station on the MBTA is roughly where the Malden Bridge road intersects the other roads at Charlestown Neck.

*****

I  mentioned in a previous entry that I was once employed by the National Park Service. For most of my time at Boston National Historical Park I was stationed principally at the Charlestown Navy Yard where I gave tours of the historic yard, including the World War II era Fletcher Class Destroyer, USS Cassin Young (DD-793). I also gave talks about the history of the battle of Bunker Hill up at the Bunker Hill Monument where occasionally I was also involved in performing historically informed musket-firing demonstrations at the site of the first major battle of the American Revolution.  All of those activities were interesting and a great deal of fun, but they were a part of the Interpretive Park Ranger job description. However, from the two year period I served as a park ranger at Boston National Historical Park, the accomplishment of which I am most proud was the creation of a historical walking tour of Charlestown, which included the area from City Square to Thompson Square and took in the major sites of this small but fascinating ‘town’.

The tour started at John Harvard Mall, a small ‘piazza’ situated on what was originally known as Town Hill, immediately adjacent to City Square, to which I shall return in a moment. To start the tour I dramatically declaimed the words of John Winthrop which I have quoted above. Although the sermon is likely to have been read (if he actually delivered it at all) on board the Arabella while en route to America, it is often taken literally to mean the city of Boston, and metaphorically to express the notion that this was an experiment in serving God by setting a good example as a community. Also expressed in the sermon is the notion that the welfare of the individuals in the community is the responsibility of the entire community. It amuses me when conservatives (Ronald Reagan comes to mind, as well as Mitt Romney’s more recent accurate but self-serving reference quoted above) use it to promote their muscular and individualistic version of American Exceptionalism, as the sermon has always seemed to me to have what today might be called a ‘socialist’ message. Regardless of the interpretation of the message of the speech, as the bottom of the Mishawum peninsula was the site of the first settlement, in practical terms Charlestown is ‘the city upon a hill’ in Winthrop’s well-known speech.

*****

As I cross the modern version of the bridge across the mouth of the Charles River, I marvel at the dramatic changes that have occurred in Charlestown in the twenty-eight years I have been visiting the neighborhood, first as a Park Ranger in the early 90s through to these contemporary walks. In 1991, for example, the area immediately along the waterfront to the right of the bridge as it reaches Charlestown was a series of derelict warehouses, one of which was spectacularly set on fire by arsonists in 1994, resulting in the death of a firefighter. Today there is a Marriot hotel on the site of the old warehouse, a marina full of expensive looking boats, and a pleasant walking path to the Navy Yard.

View of Charlestown Navy Yard from Charlestown Bridge, showing the plethora of boats in the new marina. The Bunker Hill Monument is also visible, site of the first major battle of the American Revolution on June 17, 1775.

When I worked at the Navy Yard the walk from North Station was not at all pleasant, excepting the walk across the Charles River Dam, which I mentioned in the previous entry. Ignoring the obnoxious anti-Park Service taunts one often received from the ‘Townies’ (we were the government, the government forced busing on the town, therefore we were bad people as well as interlopers; see my note below for more on this topic)¹, one still had to negotiate a tricky route along disused roads in disrepair, passing a series of dilapidated buildings, and, worst of all, passing underneath a highway/bridge interchange that completely covered the entire area of City Square as well as the entrance to the Navy Yard. The only fun part was watching the thousands of starlings that roosted under the highway as they flew in at sunset in fantastic Escher-like patterns, although getting hit by bird shit was a definite problem.

And this was an improved landscape from that of only a few years earlier when the Orange line of the MBTA ran on elevated tracks across City Square and directly up Main Street to Sullivan Square along the very charming route I am currently following!

City Square Park, Charlestown.

Fortunately, the entire superstructure was in the process of being torn down as part of the ‘Big Dig’ and so, within a few short years, the entire area was completely transformed into today’s remarkably tranquil and harmonious neighborhood, a process of renovation and revitalization sparked in part by the efforts of groups like the Charlestown Preservation Society as far back as the 1960s. By 1989, it was already clear this was a neighborhood on the move when Todd English opened Olives in a building on City Square. Here is an aerial photo from the Boston Globe showing City Square in 1990. Here is a photo from 1930 of the Elevated City Square Station. Nearby is a photo of City Square today.

Footprint of the original building of the first settlement in the Boston area, the ‘Great House’, in today’s City Square in Charlestown, built by the followers, including Thomas Graves, sent ahead of John Winthrop.

Had it not been a gigantic construction site, my tour would logically have begun at City Square, the site of the “Great House” begun in 1629, which served as the seat of government, the meeting house and the residence of the governor, briefly occupied by Winthrop before the settlement was in large part relocated to the Shawmut peninsula in late 1630. The park has been restored to its former grandeur and is perhaps better than the original version as the foundation of Great House, later the Three Cranes Tavern has been highlighted in the ground of the park, replete with postholes and some original stones. The grand surrounding municipal and commercial buildings, mainly built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, are once again visible.

 

View along Main Street in Charlestown from City Square.

Most importantly, Main Street leading into Charlestown has been opened up and the magnificent collection of buildings along the street built in the aftermath of the complete destruction of the town during the Battle of Bunker Hill have been restored. The short distance from City Square to Thompson Square alone makes the entire walk from the North End to Cambridge worthwhile. In addition to a harmonious array of red brick buildings dating to the early nineteenth century there are two or three buildings of great interest made of wood. The first of these along the route is the Georgian house of Deacon John Larkin, dating to the 1790s. Larkin is perhaps best known for providing the horse which Paul Revere rode along this very street through Charlestown on his way to Lexington on the night of April 18, 1775 to warn the Committee of Safety of the impending arrival of British troops.

Deacon John Larkin House, 1790s. Main Street, Charlestown

A little further along is an even older building, the General Warren Tavern, which is perhaps the oldest building remaining in Charlestown. Named for Joseph Warren (the most important patriot you have never heard of, as discussed in this entry), who died nearby at the Battle of Bunker Hill, the tavern is still a going concern which, despite the ubiquitous presence of televisions showing sports, still has a great deal of charm.

Finally, there is the Benjamin Thompson house of 1795, where the main entrance and the main facade of the house do not face the street, but rather face the charming yard which lies beyond the picket fence lining the sidewalk, as can be seen in the accompanying photograph. It is perhaps the house which most evokes the atmosphere of what the Charlestown of two centuries ago must have been like, a small village gradually absorbed into the larger Boston metropolis as the city and surrounding towns expanded rapidly in the nineteenth century.  There are even more buildings I could talk about, the Hurd House for example, but time to move on. I encourage readers to take a stroll around Charlestown for themselves, and I plan to publish a more detailed Charlestown Walk in a future entry.

Warren Tavern (1780). Charlestown, MA

Benjamin Thompson House (1795). Charlestown, MA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*****

 Main Street merges with Warren Street and Austin Street a few yards past the Thompson house in the appropriately named Thompson Square. This is the ‘commercial’ center of Charlestown and there is a small plaza nearby where a Whole Foods is located. When I worked in Charlestown there was a mediocre grocery store, Johnny’s Food Master, which we referred to as the ‘Food Disaster.’ A ‘mob’ hit took place in 1995, in the nearby 99 Pub in Charlestown, so a couple of coworkers and I went to lunch there a few days later and tried to sit in the booth where the shooting took place. I was young, and I have a macabre sense of humor–what can I say? They did not accommodate our request.

Charlestown Five Cent Savings Bank (1876). This Victorian Gothic building, which has long been a favorite of mine, also housed the local Masonic Lodge.

The point I am making with this bizarre anecdote is that times have changed. What was once a shabby area with a sketchy reputation is morphing into a rather high end shopping area, replete with small antique shops, smart restaurants and cafes and, most intriguingly, large numbers of young and healthy and mostly blond women in yoga pants quaffing half-soy half-decaf lattes and meeting with their ‘life coaches’ to discuss their strategy for the next promotion at law office X, or hedge fund Y (I am, unfortunately, not making this up. A scene very much like this actually happened next to me as I took notes in Cafe Z). In 1990, the neighborhood was made up in large part of working-class Irish families, and there were lots of what appeared to me to be drug deals going on in broad daylight in the little square in front of the quirky Charlestown Savings Bank building. Money has transformed the neighborhood. I personally much prefer the modern version of Charlestown but I understand the frustration that many people feel at being priced out of their own neighborhood and the loss of what many believed was a tight-knit community.

 

*****

The walk from Thompson Square in Charlestown to Union Square in Somerville, the next pleasant and interesting area on the walk to Cambridge, is in truth, a relatively tedious stretch of about two miles. A glance at the 1775 map or the 1829 map above shows the area as sparsely populated and  many of today’s buildings, particularly on the left (west) side of the road, are recent constructions on what is landfill, as the road passed very close to what once were the tidal waters of the Charles (before the Dam). After passing Salem Street on the right, the views along Main Street become less interesting. Few of the lovely nineteenth century redbrick townhouses of the compact old town can be found this far along the road. Instead the buildings, although neat and tidy, are mostly modern. To the left is a large housing development called Mishawum Park, built in the 1970s as affordable housing.

The demography changes significantly as well. This stretch of Main Street is part of Ward Two, Precinct Six, an area that as recently as the 2000 census was 97% White. Today the population is 84% White; although the population of the precinct increased by 347 people from 2,337 residents in 2000 to 2,684 residents in 2010, the White population decreased by 15, while the Black population increased from 7(!) to 52, the Hispanic population increased from 34 to 149, and the Asian population increased from 21 to 193. Anyone who has read Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas or lived in Boston in the 1970s will appreciate what a stunning development this demographic shift represents. Along with similar earlier demographic changes in Precincts Two and Four, mostly as a result of a shift in the population at the Bunker Hill Apartments complex, the less well-heeled areas of Charlestown have become significantly more diverse, unlike the lovely but pricey Precinct One, the area through which I just passed. The White population of this wealthier precinct actually increased from the 2000 to the 2010 Census, from 93.0% (1,454 of 1,564 residents) to 93.7% (1,754 of 1,871 residents) White.² More fuel for the argument that class is the great divide in America and that race is a red herring.

After a half mile walk through a relatively unremarkable residential stretch along Main Street I reach the intersection of Main Street and Bunker Hill Street which, on Hale’s map of 1829 for instance, or on Montresor’s map of 1775 marks the beginning of the area once known as ‘Charlestown Neck’, the narrow passage separating the Charles river from the Mystic river. Today Sullivan Square is a massive congested traffic interchange, a transportation corridor with Interstate 93 looming overhead, MBTA, commuter rail and freight train lines, busy Alford Street leading to the Malden Bridge (which curiously crosses the Mystic River to Everett). The landscape is that of a former industrial area, with the iconic sign on the Schrafft’s Building the most prominent feature. Of course, as these are rambles about old roads, this somewhat unpleasant and noisy area interests me greatly. This is because this was a transportation junction even in the 17th century: One road led north to Medford (more in a moment on that ) while the road leading to the Malden Bridge once led to the ‘Penny Ferry’ and later became part of the Newburyport Turnpike, all part of one of the main routes north of Boston. Dr. Alexander Hamilton passed over it on his way to York, Maine in 1744, passing through Charlestown on the way, which he called “a pritty large and compact town consisting of one street about half a mile long” (Saturday July 28th, 1744). One day I hope to follow Hamilton north, but today I turn west across Charlestown Neck on the road to Cambridge.

Cambridge Street at Sullivan Square looking east toward the Schrafft’s building (1928), formerly a factory for the well known candy company and restaurant chain, today a multi-use commercial space.

Tavern at the End of the World. Probably the most appropriate name ever for a bar located in the center of a transport corridor straddling Charlestown and Somerville. The beer selection is great and the food was actually not bad for pub food. Apparently they have music, but not at lunch time on a Tuesday, when I went. (see note 3 below for more info.)

Paul Revere passed through the Neck on his way to Lexington, as he recalled in a letter written in 1798 to Massachusetts Historical Society founder Dr. Jeremy Belknap. Although he intended to follow the route I am walking to reach Cambridge, the presence of British officers on patrol forced him to change his route and head up what is today Broadway, over Winter Hill to Medford instead. I am unlikely to be stopped by British officers and so make the turn to the west and continue along Cambridge Street, past Sullivan Station on the Orange line, past the ACME Bookbinding building, past the Tavern at the End of the World, which seems appropriate for the bleak surroundings and soon reach the border with Somerville.

*****

The transition to Somerville is imperceptible, save for the Somerville sign and the change of the street name from Cambridge Street to Washington Street, which is perhaps fitting as Somerville was a part of Charlestown from the earliest days to 1842, when it became a separate town.  For the greater part of it’s existence, the area now called Somerville was a lightly populated area consisting of a few farms and some hills, the latter fortified during the siege of Boston. According to a nineteenth century chronicler of the history of Somerville, E.C. Booth, “The highways were mere country roads, with grassy borders and in poor repair” (Drake, p. 315). At the time of the creation of the town of Somerville, which was apparently so-named because there were no other towns with this ‘fanciful’ name, the entire population comprised 1,013 residents. As transportation links with Boston improved and tolls were eliminated on the bridges, most importantly the Craigie Bridge (now the Charles River Dam bridge, or for clarity, the one which passes the Museum of Science), Somerville became a bedroom community of Boston (it is a mere 2.5 miles from Union Square to Boston City Hall along Somerville Avenue). As we have seen above, Somerville today is one of the most densely populated cities in the country, mostly because it has little parkland and its development as a predominantly working-class community resulted in high concentrations of the well-known ‘triple-deckers’, closely spaced on compact lots.

Today Somerville is not only a bedroom community for people working in downtown Boston, its ‘cheap’ rents, relative to Cambridge and proximity to multiple universities, including Harvard, MIT, and Tufts, have attracted many graduate students and young adults to the town. One curious effect of the lower rents in Somerville is that there are many interesting restaurants and bars located literally just over the border from Cambridge and the whole border area has a very ‘hip’ vibe, as we shall see shortly.

But Somerville is definitely a city with a split personality. East Somerville, the area through which the old road to Cambridge passes as we exit Charlestown, is a fairly nondescript area which seems to be primarily a working-class immigrant community, especially Brazilian residents, based on the church signs and the few stores I pass. Of course since the town came into being this has essentially always been an area of working-class immigrant families, only the ethnicities have changed. In these highly charged times, it might seem that immigrants have never had it so bad and yet, in Somerville, outsiders have been treated badly for almost two centuries. In 1834, nativist mobs burned down a convent housing a school located on a hill just north of the the old Cambridge Road, in large part because of anti-Catholic sentiment, convinced that there were, in the words of one nineteenth century chronicler “abuses which were too horrible to divulge.”

Perhaps the principal reason this area seems slightly blighted is that the aforementioned transport corridor extends for almost three quarters of a mile from Sullivan Square into Somerville. Not only are there two different sets of railroad tracks, the road also passes under both Interstate 93, as well as the McGrath Highway a half mile further on. On the left is an abandoned shopping mall, there is one reasonably appealing apartment building, the Cobble Hill Apartments, and there is a Holiday Inn, laughably called the ‘Bunker Hill Area’ Holiday Inn, despite being 1.5 miles from the Monument: the moment of realization must be very depressing for the visitor to Boston who expected to see be adjacent to the site of the battle and ended up next to the McGrath Highway.  At least the Tavern at the End of the World is close at hand.

As it happens, the blight in this area was man-made and unsurprisingly, was part of a grand scheme which, among other travesties, planned to ram a highway from what is now Alewife through Porter and Union Square and have it link up with I-93 in this area, connecting to a so-called ‘Inner Belt Highway‘ , an inner ring highway similar to Route 128. All this planned highway building and, in some cases, actual neighborhood destruction was meant to revive the declining fortunes of Boston, Somerville, and other urban communities that had seen marked declines in population in the postwar period as industrial production began its long march out of the country. However, some sensible residents immediately protested what they rightfully saw as the obliteration of many residential neighborhoods which would only exacerbate the problem rather than solve it. My own neighborhood in Jamaica Plain was part of this hare-brained scheme, the scars of which can be seen in the form of Southwest Corridor Park, created from the empty space left by the demolition of countless houses. I can safely say that the million-plus dollar homes lining the streets around here would not be selling for such ridiculous sums had there been a giant highway located a few yards away.

McLean Asylum for the Insane, today’s McLean Hospital, the acclaimed pyschiatric hospital affiliated with Harvard University, was originally located on Cobble Hill in what is today the industrial wasteland called the ‘Inner Belt’. This image shows the hospital on the rise adjacent to Washington Street in Somerville.

It came as something of a shock to come across an image, while perusing Frothingham’s History of Charlestown (1845), of the McLean Asylum for the Insane, which I discovered was originally established in 1818 on what was then Cobble Hill in what was then Charlestown. The institute took over and expanded the Barrell Mansion, designed in 1792 by Charles Bulfinch for a wealthy Boston merchant, at the summit of Cobble Hill. McLean Hospital, to use the modern name, moved to the leafy confines of Belmont in 1895 as the area around Cobble Hill became progressively surrounded by the train lines we see today. Nearby is a copy of the aforementioned image which gives the reader a sense of the changes the ‘Inner Belt’ has undergone over the last century or two.

Today there are on-again off-again plans to build a Green Line Extension from Lechmere Station that would provide a decent transit link to thousands of residents of Somerville. One station is planned for Washington Street adjacent to the McGrath Highway alongside the tracks presently used by the Commuter Rail. Should this sensible transit project ever be completed, given the intense real-estate pressure Boston is experiencing, one might reasonably expect some new development to begin in the area which would certainly be an improvement for what in truth is a fairly mundane stretch of road. Maybe sometime in the future I will see some young blond women in yoga pants strolling along Washington Street to meet their life coach at the hip new cafe where the empty bodega once stood. They are conspicuously absent today.

*****

Yet a mere five minute walk past the McGrath Highway along Washington Street brings us to Union Square, which is perhaps one of the hippest places in the Boston area these days. Along the way is a curious stone marker, a memorial to a minute man named James Miller.  Aged 65 at the time, he apparently told his fellow minutemen that he was ‘too old to run’ as British soldiers advanced on their position up the hill near the route, and was killed as a result by the soldiers as they retreated to Boston from Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. Easy to miss, this marker is the sole indication since I left Thompson Square that this is in fact an ancient highway.

Stone marker on Washington Street in Somerville a short distance from Union Square commemorating James Miller, an older man who, being unable to flee, died fighting British Soldiers retreating from Lexington and Concord in 1775.

Union Square has been a junction of roads almost as long as the highway to Cambridge has been in existence. It is clearly visible on Montresor’s map of 1775 above and was the location of a tavern at that early date on an otherwise lightly populated road. That it was less busy in the nineteenth century is attested to by Booth, who says “the location which is now dignified by the name of Union Square was at that time merely a country cross-road” (Drake, p. 316). Today it is the home of numerous restaurants, bars, and cafes. One can buy $4 donuts at Union Square Donuts (sadly I have; they are not bad but a donut should never cost $4.) Bloc 11 is a nice cafe with loads of space (you can even sit in a bank vault!). The restaurants range from Peruvian to Korean, from basic or fancy burger joints to one of the chic restaurants of the moment, Juliet, which looks promising but is much too much work for me. The reservation setup alone is enough to put me off, and I still cannot quite figure out what actually happens there (Is it a cafe or a restaurant or both? Does it serve a la carte or is it a set menu? Does ‘neighborhood night’ mean I am not welcome? God this is complicated, all I want is to eat a nice meal!) However, it does get rave reviews and has received national coverage, so don’t listen to me. I am too old to eat here, to paraphrase James Miller.

I had to include a photo of this restaurant in Union Square, Somerville, if only because of the sheer chutzpah of the owners to advertise pizza, falafel, and indian food in the same restaurant. Life is too short: I have no interest in experimenting here to see if it is possible simultaneously to make a good slice and a decent aloo gobhi.

 

*****

Leaving Union Square the walk continues for a half mile along Washington Street to reach Broadway and the border with Cambridge. This part of the walk is through a primarily residential area, and the houses get progressively nicer the closer one gets to the Cambridge line. One thing that makes me smile is the slight ‘s’ curve to the road at one point, which can be seen on Hales’ map of 1829 above, a small link to the past. Just before one enters Cambridge, at the intersection with Broadway, there is a last burst of hip restaurants, including the Kirkland Tap and Trotter, which disingenuously implies in the name that it is on Kirkland Street in Cambridge, when in fact it is still in Somerville. Next door is Dali, a Spanish restaurant of long-standing that I have visited several times over the last 30 years. It is perhaps not the best Spanish food one can find in Boston, but it is decent and is markedly less pretentious than most of the alternatives, which is good enough for me.

*****

A study in contrast: Two Harvard departments in buildings directly across Kirkland Street from each other. Above, the Ukrainian Research Center at Harvard. At left, William James Hall, Department of Philosophy at Harvard

My impending arrival at the campus of Harvard, less than half a mile ahead along Kirkland Street, is almost immediately apparent upon entering Cambridge. Looming ahead is the tower of Memorial Hall. Along the way are some exceptionally refined old houses, clearly the preserve of generations of Harvard faculty and staff. On the right, for example, I pass Irving Street and Francis Avenue, where past residents included Julia Child,  E.E. Cummings, John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., whose lots backed up on each others (incidentally, Marion Cannon Schlesinger, an artist and Schlesinger’s 104 year old ex-wife, still lives in the house!). Here and there an elegant nineteenth century house has become a Harvard department, and shortly larger academic buildings begin to line the road, including William James Hall, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who also designed the World Trade Center in New York. This large, modern, white building is a stark break from the low key elegant residential architecture of the preceding few hundred yards, and is in complete contrast with the Ukrainian Research Center housed across the street. Incidentally, William James lived in an elegant house built for him in 1889 at 95 Irving Street, just up Kirkland Street.

Memorial to John Harvard, who is buried in the Phipp’s Street burial ground in Charlestown.

The old road to Cambridge Common has been severed by the sprawl of the Harvard campus, which has burst out of the confines of the eighteenth century yard. Cambridge Common can today be reached directly only by crossing the campus. As I plan to devote the next entry to the central role of Cambridge in the development of the roads leading to and from Boston, I will stop at the edge of the campus, a fitting ending as the namesake of the college was one of the early residents of Charlestown, and donated half of his estate and the bulk of his library to the newly formed college in Cambridge upon his early death in 1638, a fine example of the true meaning of Winthrop’s sermon.

 

Below is a map of the walks described in these entries. The lavender line at the top is the walk described in this entry. Click on the rectangle at top right of the map to view a larger version and see more detail.

 

Footnotes

¹A short footnote on the subject of ‘Townies’. The Townies, as mentioned above, had a reputation as being a fiercely proud and tight knit community, resentful of outsiders. As a park ranger in the early 90s, I was occasionally harassed by locals (kids mostly), as described above. I was pelted with stones on one occasion. The black rangers at the park were not even sent to the Monument as they were harassed more aggressively. Some of the frequent graffiti sprayed on the Bunker Hill Monument (which was also ‘egged’ on occasion) during my time at the park sported phrases like ‘fuck the government’ and ‘IRA forever’. Unsurprisingly, my attitude towards Townies was perhaps not very respectful. We told a lot of jokes about Townies, one of which goes like this: Townies are somewhat famous for being involved in bank robberies in Boston, as depicted in movies like The Town. One joke relates the story of a Townie bank robber who came off the overpass from Boston in his escape vehicle only to be met in City Square by the Boston Police who took him into custody. ‘I was dimed’ the robber is purported to have said, implying that someone turned him in, as he passed the bumper of his car, to which was affixed a bumper sticker reading Townie.

² When I use terms like ‘White’ or ‘Asian’ in these essays my aim is to attempt to go beyond mere anecdotal evidence about a neighborhood and to try to use actual data, awkwardly phrased as it might be, to try to explore the complexity of race and of immigration in America. That data is the United States Census, and the categories I use are those provided by the Census. So ‘Asian’ means only that it was a choice on the Census and somebody ticked the box; it does not reflect the way I see people or mean I dump anybody born east of Istanbul into a homogeneous box. There is not a great deal of useful data with categories like Laotian, or Afghan, or Colombian, or Basque, so I use what there is and try not to over-interpret the results.

³ According to one of the people working at the tavern, the pub was previously and appropriately known as the Town Line Tavern and was similar to the type of tavern one still encounters in parts of Southie or Neponset or the fringes of West Roxbury (think The Departed, or at a minimum the antithesis of Cheers, a place where they most assuredly do not know your name and would prefer strangers did not visit). One of the new wave of Irish immigrants, the ones who seem to be intent upon improving pub culture in Boston, bought the place about a decade ago and transformed it into the pleasant pub it is today, with hanging plants outside, presumably to indicate it is not a dive bar in this out of the way stretch of road, with live music, live standup, brunch, decent food, and a wide selection of beers, including a strong local selection. If this sounds like a sales pitch, it is because it seems so out of place that I want to let anyone who happens to be over here that it is well worth a visit and that you are unlikely to get stabbed by the next Whitey Bulger wannabe for your trouble.

References

Samuel Adams Drake, History of Middlesex County, Massachusetts. 2 Volumes (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1880). Charlestown was a part of Middlesex County until 1873, so there is much information about the town in these volumes, although there is not a specific chapter for Charlestown as there is for every other town still in the county in 1880.

J. Anthony Lukas, Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families.
(New York: Vintage, 1986). One of the books that has most influenced my thinking about Boston. I highly recommend it.

Justin Windsor, ed., Memorial History of Boston, IV Volumes (Boston: James Osgood & Co., 1882). Charlestown is discussed specifically in Volume 1, Chapter 11, pp.383-400, Volume 2, Chapter 10, pp. 311-330, as well as many times in all four volumes with regard to specific subjects, such as the Battle of Bunker Hill.

James F. Hunnewell, A Century of Town Life: A History of Charlestown, Massachusetts, 1775-1887, (Boston: Little, Brown, & Company, 1888).

Richard Frothingham, Jr., A History of Charlestown, (Boston:Little and Brown, 1845). Specifically about the settlement of the town in 1629-30.

John Freely, Blue Guide to Boston and Cambridge, 2nd edition, 1994. I prefer the older versions of guide books as they used to have much more detail. This book has a very nice tour of Charlestown, more thorough than even some recent guides claiming to be specifically about Charlestown. Apparently, modern readers cannot focus for more than a few seconds on any details.

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