This is another of the entries from my previous project, Walking the Post Road, which I have transferred over to this project for two reasons. The first reason is that it is relevant to this project in that it is a ‘ramble’ about Boston. The second reason is that the previous project was done on Apple’s iweb, which is no longer supported by Apple and, consequently, the website is slowly decaying. I will eventually revisit that project and bring the entire site up to date. In the meantime readers are welcome to comment upon this entry as part of this project. It has been updated and edited slightly from the original version which was published on Tuesday, May 18, 2010, as entry #8, Mile 4.
“Algo mas?“ ” un batido, por favor.” “Hay guanabana, mamey, fresa, mango, pina, tamarindo…” “De guanabana.” I take my fruit shake and sit down in a booth in the Miami Restaurant, with my pressed pork sandwich, called a cubano. The combination is delicious and ridiculously high in calories and sodium, but I don’t eat one every day so I happily gorge myself for less than eight dollars. The place calls itself the ‘King of The Best Cuban sandwich,’ and the sandwich is as good as ones I have eaten in Miami (the closest I have been to Cuba and center of the largest Cuban community outside Havana). The Salvadoran place across the way, ‘Pupusa La Guanaca’, is a very good place as well, especially their cheesy and bean filled tortillas called ‘pupusas’ which are filling, tasty, delicious, and cheap. There are other Cuban places nearby, including the famous ‘El Oriental,’ as well as a couple of Mexican restaurants, and Dominican and Puerto Rican storefront bakeries, fruit shops, and fast food joints. Across the street from where I sit, in the wall of a ‘jewelery’(sic) store, is the milestone placed by Paul Dudley in 1735 indicating that Boston is four miles away. In less than one mile I have followed the Post Road from the Congregationalists of eighteenth-century Roxbury to Latin America, the ‘Latin Quarter,’ Hyde Square in Jamaica Plain.
The area from Jackson Square to Hyde Square on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain is the center of the Dominican community in Boston. Stores advertising their wares in Spanish line the street for half a mile, almost all of the conversations are in Spanish, and on a hot day in Mozart Park, it is very difficult to distinguish the scene from that of any plaza in Mexico or Costa Rica: the man selling flavored ice from a cart, the empanada bakery, posters advertising concerts plastered on the windows of Franklin’s CDs –judging by the photos on the wall behind the counter a haunt of Pedro Martinez, Big Papi, and Manny Ramirez, among other Latin baseball players who have played for the Boston Red Sox–, the driving Reggaeton beat emanating from the speakers of the passing cars lovingly detailed in chrome, the storefront Pentecostal churches, and the ubiquitous ‘Envios de Valores’ signs, where people working in Boston can send remittances to loved ones back in Santo Domingo or Managua.
The forty-five million people who speak Spanish as a first or second language according to the Census Bureau (which does not include millions of undocumented workers) will not be surprised to find a scene like this in any major city in the United States. A little discussed fact is that the United States has the second largest Spanish speaking population in the world after only Mexico and in front of Spain, Colombia, Argentina, and Peru¹.
I find it amusing when in a restaurant in Mexico or Spain to be the person doing the translating at a table with French, German, or English acquaintances. After all, I have been informed countless times over the years when traveling that Americans never speak foreign languages. Coupling the above data with the observation that millions of people of Chinese descent live in the United States as do millions of immigrant families from all over the world, it seems that Europeans need to rethink their outdated images of Americans as monolingual. When the citizens of a country like Sweden, with the population of North Carolina, boast about speaking English, I have to point out that only nine million people speak Swedish and in order to function in the world, learning another language is a matter of survival. We have the luxury here of speaking the most important language in the world. In fact the United States is in the unique position of having the most English speakers in the world, the second largest Spanish speaking population in the world, and the largest Chinese speaking population (estimated at 2 million, including both Mandarin and Cantonese) outside a majority Chinese country such as China, Taiwan, and Singapore. These are the three most widely spoken languages in the world. Hyde Square is America.²
I came here to Hyde Square from Eliot Square in Roxbury. I strolled downhill on Centre Street away from the milestone indicating three miles to Boston and arrived at a large, busy street where once the Stony Brook ran into the Fenway. The Stony Brook still runs, only it has run in underground pipes since the middle of the nineteenth century. Now only traffic runs through the Stony Brook Valley in myriad forms: walkers and bikers on the Southwest Corridor Park paths; cars, buses and trucks on Columbus Avenue; the MBTA Orange Line, the Commuter Rail, and Amtrak. The Stony Brook Valley has for over a century and a half, been a major transportation corridor into the City of Boston. In 1832 Tremont Street was extended straight out from Boston through the marshes of the Back Bay and intersected the old road to Cambridge at Roxbury Crossing (named for the place where the road to Cambridge crossed the Stony Brook). The Tremont Street route became the more direct route out of the city and bypassed the Post Road completely. A report by Francis Jackson, Land Commissioner of Boston, published in the Boston Central in December 1832 gives the following information: “ From the Parsonage of the 1st Church Brookline to the Old State House, Boston: Over the neck-5 miles 0 quarters 37 rods. Over the Western Avenue (Mill Dam) [Now Brookline Avenue and Beacon Street]-4 miles 1 quarter 77 Rods. Over the Tremont Street into town- 4 miles 2 Quarters 56 Rods.” After 200 years as the sole land route out of Boston, the twisting road down the Neck, through Roxbury and into the hinterlands had been superseded.
More traffic was to come with the opening of the Boston to Providence Railroad in 1834, the tracks being routed straight down the Stony Brook Valley out to Forest Hills and beyond. Rail had arrived and continues to this day. As I stand at Columbus Avenue, which is the main four lane thoroughfare through which traffic pours out of town into the neighborhoods, I watch the high-speed Acela train rocket along the sunken tracks adjacent to the street on its way to New York in three and a half hours, a far cry from the 10 days it took in the 17th century. Commuter Rail trains as well as the MBTA run down the tracks below and the Jackson Square MBTA station behind me is a major bus interchange. Along with the bustling traffic at the corner of Centre Street and Columbus Avenue, this is one of the noisiest places I have encountered thus far on my brief journey. At least there is not a major interstate highway roaring through as well, and therein lies a tale of civic action.
In the late 1940s, transportation planners envisioned a system of interconnecting controlled access highways that would be fluid and free of impediments such as traffic lights. These ‘Interstate Highways’ would increase commerce by speeding up delivery of goods between urban areas as well as between rural and urban areas. They were designed to facilitate troop and supply transport in the event of war.³ They would also allow people living in crowded congested dirty cities to move out to the fresh air of the newly developing suburbs. Many of these highways were constructed beginning in the 1950s with little regard for the urban areas through which they passed. Until it was recently moved underground, a major elevated highway, Interstate 93, ran directly through the city of Boston, effectively cutting the city off from the harbor which had defined it for three centuries. This route was constructed by seizing hundreds of properties and cutting neighborhoods such as Dorchester into two pieces.
A similar plan was designed to bring Interstate 95 directly into the city through Hyde Park and Jamaica Plain along the Stony Brook corridor where I stand. Land was seized, many buildings were razed and a large vacant wasteland materialized where once the Stony Brook ran. However the effects on Dorchester of the I-93 project were plain to see and a public uproar ensued. The project was killed by the Republican Governor of Massachusetts, Francis Sargent, in 1970.(4) Sargent was widely praised for his enlightened approach to conservation and advocacy of a multi-modal urban transportation system. (I will leave it to the reader to marvel at the idea of an enlightened Republican. Times have changed).
The empty land intended to accommodate an Interstate Highway was transformed into a multi-modal transportation corridor, still known as the Southwest Corridor. The Orange Line of the MBTA was rerouted from Washington Street and depressed (thus removing the elevated railroad that blighted the first two miles of the Post Road. See entry #4). The train lines for the Commuter Rail and Amtrak were also depressed. A bike path was constructed alongside Columbus Avenue, providing direct access to the Back Bay. Numerous playgrounds and park lands line the railroad tracks from Back Bay to Forest Hills. The Stony Brook continues to be a major transportation corridor, but compared to an elevated multilane highway that would have divided this area of Boston and depressed real estate values, the current incarnation has been much more successful in preserving the neighborhood. I never would have moved to Jamaica Plain had an interstate highway existed one hundred yards from my house.
The Stony brook was crossed here in the 18th century via what was called the Hog Bridge. On the opposite side of the brook was the large estate of William Heath, a major general in the Continental Army. Today the land is occupied by the large Bromley-Heath housing project, first planned in 1939, one of the oldest such developments in Boston. The Bromley-Heath has an unfortunate reputation for crime and violence. As I walk on the short stretch of Southwest Corridor from Columbus Avenue to Centre Street in Jamaica Plain I pass a basketball court which is covered with flowers, stuffed animals, candles, and notes of remembrance. Only last week a fourteen year-old boy, Jaewon Martin, was shot to death as he and a friend talked with some girls here on the basketball court.(5) I have biked and walked through this area for thirteen years and have never had a single problem, but for the young teens who live and play in the area, the situation is often much more dangerous. The senseless slaughter of inner city youth in Boston and other urban centers needs to be brought under control, but solutions are proffered, and time and again the same scene in front of me is repeated. An almost identical story ran in 2007 when thirteen year-old Luis Gerena was killed in the same area.(6)
The owner of Miami Restaurant, Juan Reyes, tells me he is “selling next year because the neighborhood is going down.” Of course he told me the same thing three years ago when I last spoke with him. The neighborhood around Hyde Square, up the hill from Jackson Square and Bromley-Heath seems more vibrant than ever, with more restaurants and even an influx of twenty-something art students and musicians patronizing the new cafes and the tattoo parlor, Fat Ram’s. If anything the neighborhood has become more expensive, and I wonder how long the Hispanic community can remain as the rents rise higher and higher. For the Hyde Square area is the frontier of the two Jamaica Plains, the other version being the one I inhabit: significantly wealthier, and populated by liberal, well-educated professionals. Wags refer to the two parts of “JP” as “Gay P” and “Jamaica Spain,” and there is a kernel of truth in these vulgar terms. The border here is fluid; some streets are filled with smart, restored Victorians inhabited by lawyers and authors; the next street is filled with triple-deckers covered with vinyl siding. People of different classes, languages, sexual orientation, and race co-exist well. But real estate pressure is changing the dynamic. Rather than worry about the future, I will just eat my cubano, drink my batido, and enjoy it while I can.
Census figures for the area through which the road travels provide some data to support my observations. The Hyde Square area is located in Ward 10, Precinct 9, which stretches for some distance over into “my Jamaica Plain,” but nonetheless has a population comprised of 35% Hispanic residents. My estimate for the Hispanic population of the area immediately adjacent to Centre Street from Hyde Square down the hill to Jackson Square is about 50-60%. The total population of the area from Hyde Square to Jackson Square, which comprises Ward 10, Precincts 6,7, and 9, is 7119 (data is from the 2000 Census), of which 25% is White, 21% is Black (largely in the Bromley Heath area), 46% is Hispanic, and 4% is Asian, and 4% is ‘Other’. As one passes Hyde Square, Centre Street makes a curve to the west and continues as the main street of Jamaica Plain. The area from Hyde Square to the stone marking five miles to Boston is comprised of Ward 19, Precincts 1,3,4,5,6,8, and 9. This area has a population of 10,474 of which 73% is White, 8% is Black, 12% is Hispanic, and 3% is Asian.
In the span of four miles we have passed through a diverse sampling of the American population. At the site of the first milestone, located in Ward 3, Precinct 8, the predominant ethnic group was Chinese, and 58.8% of the population was of Asian descent. The second milestone would have been found in Ward 9, precinct 3, in the South End, which is predominantly African American (47.4%) and becomes increasingly so as we pass through Dudley Square in Roxbury. The third milestone, on Centre Street just past Eliot Square, is still in Roxbury, but it is a mixed neighborhood containing some large older houses as well some affordable housing. This area is in Ward 11, Precinct 1 which is 55.6% African American, and 21.9% White. Milestone four in Hyde Square is in an area that is 48% Hispanic overall, but has a much higher Hispanic population in the immediate area of the milestone. The fifth milestone is in Jamaica Plain at Monument Square, (in my neighborhood. See entry #1 and the next entry in the series (#9) for more), Ward 19, Precinct 8, which is 86.2% White.
As we head away from the heart of the city we will remain primarily in areas with less ethnic and racial diversity than we have encountered thus far until we reach the next major city on the road, Providence, Rhode Island. The theme of many of these future entries will be about the natural world, history, and politics but whenever any evidence of the amazing diversity of the country in which I live presents itself, I will not hesitate to discuss it. Not only can I travel in time on the Post Road, I can also travel the world. At the very least I will likely get some good meals out of my explorations.
Originally published Tuesday, May 18, 2010
2018 Update: Miami Restaurant still exists, as does El Oriental, but the Pupusa place has been replaced by Pikalo, a Venezuelan Empanada restaurant. Bromley-Heath has been renamed Mildred Hailey Apartments after the long-time housing activist, although youth violence continues unabated. As for my comments about the dearth of enlightened Republicans, no comment is needed in the age of Trump! My statement that “Hyde Square is America” is even more true today than in 2010. More of America today is like Hyde Square than was the case eight years ago, and the increased aggression towards ‘minorities’ to me is the last gasp of a group that knows their time is up.
As we close in on the 2020 Census, the area from Jackson Square to Hyde Square which I described as ‘Hispanic’ is indeed still largely populated by people originally from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico and other Latin American destinations, but the pressure of real estate prices and the desirability of the neighborhood is changing the neighborhood rather more quickly than I had anticipated. The Whole Foods which opened in late 2011 on Centre Street just west of Hyde Square is the most obvious manifestation of the change. WGBH did a piece on gentrification in Jamaica Plain in 2014 which covered some of the same ground I covered in this essay. A pricey Southern restaurant (The Frogmore) further down Centre Street towards Jackson Square at Creighton Street and the new apartment buildings popping up around Jackson Square are more signs of change. From Canary Square to about Forbes Street, the neighborhood is mixed: part gentrified, part still essentially Hispanic. After Forbes, all the way to Jackson Square, it is essentially still a Hispanic neighborhood, although the nice houses that populate many of the side streets are probably gentrifying faster than Centre Street. On a positive note, in 2010 there was virtually nothing between Jackson Square T station and Columbus Avenue and now it is rapidly being filled in with new buildings, so it does not have the abandoned look it had courtesy of the Southwest Corridor demolition of the 1960s.
Ward 10, precinct 9, the area I discussed above as being part of Hyde Square, was changing even as I wrote this entry in 2010. The 2000 census listed 903 of the 2552 residents (35%) as ‘Hispanic’, but by 2010 only 662 of the 2575 residents (26%) were ‘Hispanic’ and the ‘White Not Hispanic’ population went from 1287 (50%) to 1576 (61%), an increase of 289 residents, almost the same as the decrease (-241) in the ‘Hispanic’ population. The numbers will clearly reflect even more demographic change in three years time when the 2020 Census data is released. The ‘JP’ part of Centre Street that I described as ‘My JP’ in 2000 had 10,474 residents of whom 73% identified as ‘White Not Hispanic’ (WNH). By 2010 the total population was 10,815 while the ‘WNH’ population had increased from 7683 residents to 8187, or 76% of the population. It has definitely increased in the intervening eight years based on my observations. I will shortly be publishing an entry on one of these precincts, Ward 19, Precinct 06.
2. I will also add that I have been told many times in my travels that Americans don’t play soccer either. Tell that to the eighteen plus million people who can be found kicking a round ball around a field somewhere in the United States on any given Sunday. That is larger than the entire nation of the Netherlands, although I admit the Dutch are pretty good. I predict that the USA will defeat England on June 12, 2010 in Rustenberg South Africa, finally laying to rest the old canard. 2018 update: The game ended in a 1-1 draw and team USA won the group, advancing to the next round where they were robbed by the ref against Ghana. The team has regressed since then and England seems to be entering a golden era, so perhaps I was a bit hasty in predicting a changing of the guard.