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Largest Victorian Rowhouse District [Broadband Recommended]

ablarc

Cyburbian Emeritus
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713
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20
SOUTH END

There are many ways into Boston’s South End, almost all inauspicious.

One really fine gateway is the Back Bay Station. It would be better named the South End Station, after the district it mostly serves:



This cavernous subway station also unloads MBTA commuter trains and Amtrak. The headhouse is by Kallmann and McKinnell, architects of Boston’s City Hall. It somewhat resembles English train stations and the South Kensington tube stop.

This firm’s usual structural expressionism here bears brawny glue-lam wooden arches onto cantilevered concrete brackets. This robust condition is boorishly obscured by the orange and white graphic information band that traces the building’s perimeter.

Outside, you are greeted by a bricky scene of new but conservative mid- and high-rise residential buildings with ground floor retail. Nothing tells you that you are on top of the Massachusetts Turnpike:



Thus the connection between South End and adjacent Back Bay is seamless; here the Pike’s sulfurous trench has no power to separate. Attempts to repeat this feat on adjacent stretches of turnpike have been stymied for years by nimbys.

In the outside view you can watch the forces in that glue-lam crash down onto that sculptured concrete bracket:



Strictly speaking, it’s the John Hancock Garage that sits atop the Pike; the train station is actually sited above the tracks that run alongside the highway.

Alternating horizontal and vertical rhythms in grey lead to Back Bay:



Squat and lumpy, this building is also over the highway. The nimbys cut it down:



Tent City is an apartment complex named for demonstrators who camped on its site to force the developer to build affordable housing. Much of it is market rate:



Office, housing…it all looks the same; the local nimbys insist on brick. Maybe it’s just as well; the South End’s nature seems tied up with brick:



Leading into the South End, this structure steps down and puts on bowfronts in a not altogether unwelcome orgy of contextualism. It also does its best to tuck away the garage entrance:



The forms being aped are not far away:



These, in turn, are in the throes of a pretty decent London impersonation:



The London version, however, is in whiteface:



Union Park is fenced and reserved for residents, like Louisburg Square or New York’s Gramercy Park, or various squares in Bloomsbury and Mayfair. It never fails to take your breath away with its graciousness. Truly an elegant place to live:







The scene when the leaves are out:



Just around the corner, the boys like to hang out:



They were the flying wedge of gentrification, back when this was a dangerous undertaking. With the albatross of its checkered past, gentrification of the South End has been a forty-year effort, slowed by politicians and community representatives of the downtrodden poor. These correctly perceived that if they let the yuppies get comfortable in this place, the floodgates would be opened to a middle class takeover.

Though you could buy a house for a song, everyone had a horror story to tell. Middle class families who moved into this district often left after the fifth burglary and the third mugging. People who are desperate to leave a place sell low, so real estate values appreciated slower than hoped for by those who bought in.

Various social engineering strategies were concocted by the government to keep the poor in place. These included quotas, subsidies and low interest loans for groups that represented low-income economic or ethnic interests. One such group was chosen to develop Villa Victoria, the area of gable-roofed town houses surrounding the lone residential tower in the right middle ground of the next picture (The tower is also part of the project, as are the five-story brick-clad slabs.):



Villa Victoria was developed as a Puerto Rican enclave, with a mixture of rental and owner-occupied units, and a bodega. At first it had a distinctly ethnic character, especially on weekends when its streets became impromptu car repair shops and taverns. The streets were filled with salsa music and guys sitting on car hoods drinking beer. It was a place avoided by women.

There was one group who steadfastly refused to be deterred: gays. In their role as the creative class, they eventually overwhelmed the district by sheer numbers. At some point critical mass was achieved, and the area abruptly became middle class. Today, it is clean, graffiti-free, unlittered and safe. Its demography is a mix of old-timers and carpetbaggers. And the Puerto Ricans? Why, they became middle class too. Today there is nary a boom box to be heard.

In roughly descending order of numbers, the diverse population of the South End consists of: gays, yuppies, Hispanics, Chinese, African-Americans, Middle-Easterners, and others. A nice mix.

The stuff that looks like public housing to the right of the big stone church is public housing. There is less of it this year than last, and next year there will be less still, as the housing authority nibbles at it bit by bit.

The big stone church itself is Boston’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. Here Cardinal Cushing celebrated mass for JFK’s funeral, and more recently this was Coverup Central for the child-molestation scandals:



Another Center of sorts--in this district not liberally endowed with centers-- is the Boston Center for the Arts. Housed in the landmark Cyclorama Building (1884, vaguely Tudor?), this features various dance and theatrical groups, some with a fairly strong gay orientation. Built as a vast circular viewing room for a diorama of the Battle of Gettysburg (since moved), this building has served as a wholesale flower market and a
weekend flea market. Behind it, coyly changing colors to suit the nimbys’ idea of contextualism, is a largish block of loft apartments by Machado and Silvetti. Silvetti currently reigns at Harvard’s Design School.

The kiosk in front is a cupola salvaged from a demolished local landmark:



Some South End streets—like their London counterparts—are relentlessly repetitive, reflecting their genesis as speculative developments:



Others enjoy the fine scale imparted by a narrow street and occasional corner retail, for example a Thai restaurant:



A typical street:





And some others:







Along principal through-streets, 19th Century commercial buildings meet the sidewalk with granite and cast iron storefront structure supporting the heavy masonry upper stories. Too bad the dead hand of the bank sucks out the life. Too much good taste:



Orthodox Church reflects one aspect of the South End’s past:



Granite and iron detailing takes its cue from Ancient Rome:



Lavish new Silver Line bus shelters may represent an element of overkill. They shelter the homeless, while bus riders stand:



A former bank—all of marble—plays host to a non-profit with a sign that’s too big:



Recent South End infill defers to the potent local nimbys. Infill is nowadays invariably brick, even when the context is not. This is not as dull as it sounds; the South End has developed a pleasant spectrum of variety within a limited formal spectrum. It is getting to be as bricky a place as it was ca. 1880, and that is not so bad:





Just how bricky it really is can be seen in this aerial photo of the South End:



From the Michelin Green Guide to New England:

“Situated literally and figuratively on the other side of the tracks with respect to upscale Back Bay, the long-neglected South End is on its way to becoming one of Boston’s most vibrant inner-city neighborhoods. This English-style community of bowfront brick row houses developed between the 1840s and the 1870s in the newly reclaimed area along the “neck” connecting Boston’s original peninsula to the mainland. After a short period of popularity, the district fell into decline [due to the perceived superiority of the newly-developed Back Bay], and by the end of the century shabby rooming houses and derelict apartments abounded, inhabited largely by transients and immigrants.”
 

mendelman

Unfrozen Caveman Planner
Staff member
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ablarc said:
I like any place where I can walk.
Amen, preach on brother!! :-D

Love Boston, love the cold, LOVE the brick

Brick ages much better than exposed concrete, glass walls, painted metal, etc.

Ablarc, can you ship a couple of those residential blocks to me. I know a perfect place for them. :)
 

Seabishop

Cyburbian
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3,838
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25
Great pictures - they remind me that I haven't been to Boston since last summer. I hereby request Downtown Crossing! :-D
 

Seabishop

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Thanks! Despite the chains, (especially the big boxy ones) the activity and scale are great, and its still gritty enough to be the opposite of the Back Bay shops no one can afford - you don't see sausage stands there. I'm surprised its not full of more trendy shops yet, but maybe everyone but the chains are outpriced. It always stikes me as Boston's most "New York" area.
 

jresta

Cyburbian
Messages
1,474
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23
Boston, more so in pictures then when i'm there, strikes me as the most un-american of american cities. It has the character of an old city with the cleanliness of a Seattle . . . it belongs in Europe, or at least Canada.
 

michaelskis

Cyburbian
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20,175
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51
Great Pic's, and it gives me even more ideas.

Now I just need to let these ideas out of the box. The only problem is it is like a few red wood seeds in the middle of a corn field. They see what they have, and they like it. Something new comes along, and they only see it for face value and not the true potential.

But seeing pic's like that make me happy that I am a planner.
 

Gedunker

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ablarc thanks again for the cheap tour. You are an outstanding guide!

The walking street in Dowtown Crossing reminds me of Stroget in Copenhagen -- IMO one of the best walking streets anywhere, in a city that is very pedestrian (and cyclist) friendly.
 
Messages
37
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2
Downtown Crosing at Christmas

I like the Downtown Crossing pics. You have a lot of pics of the Jordan Marsh store, but I prefer the older, more dignified Filene's flagship across the street. During the Christmas shopping season, Filene's still decorates its windows with elaborate sets and moving figurines. Families still pose for pictures in front of the windows as in years past.

And the city creche/nativity scene is still constructed every year near the Tremont and Winter Street intersection adjacent to the Park Street Station.
 

ablarc

Cyburbian Emeritus
Messages
713
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20
statler said:
statler, perhaps you are speaking from experience. If not, think of the other rankings you have encountered here and there in the press on this or that subject you were actually familiar with from experience. Did many of them make sense?

When I was riding my bicycle around Boston and Cambridge, I found I could get anywhere safely and expeditiously, as do thousands of students every day. The worst thing was fumes, but drivers never tried to run me down.

I tried riding in a leafy and suburban Southern city, but quickly gave up: too many close calls due to wrathful drivers unwilling to concede a cyclist's right to the road. Some were even willing to risk killing cyclists in the interest of asserting what they imagined to be their rights. As a result what few cyclists there are in Southern cities ride on the sidewalks, which are otherwise deserted except at jogging time in the early morning.

It was immeasurably worse than Boston. I'll bet the Southern city doesn't appear in Bicycling Magazine's list of worst cities. They are probably reacting to such irrelevant data as number of miles of dedicated bikeway.

Rankings like that are usually nonsense.
 

lowlyplanner

Cyburbian
Messages
69
Points
4
Is the guy with the Burrito Cart still there in front of Old South Church? He had a little propane grill on there to cook the meat - you could smell it at least 2 blocks away.

I miss it up there sometimes.
 

Gedunker

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