Originally published in Architecture Boston, July-August 2006
When I moved to Boston in 1976, I rented an affordable apartment 10 blocks beyond Copley Square, in a brick South End townhouse with a diagonal view of Union Park and a more direct look at the failed housing the neighborhood referred to as a "HUD dud." The buildings on that block were mostly still rooming houses, but mine had new owners who were persuaded (and persuaded me) that the neighborhood was on the verge of a turnaround because the elevated Orange Line would soon come down and make life a lot quieter and safer. In the meantime, they told me to be careful getting in or out of my car—I should notice the people on the sidewalk before unlocking the door—and, with the necessary exception of the exterminator, not to let any strangers into the building. When my father visited from New York to see my new set-up, the cab driver told him, "Oh, you don't want to go there, sir," so I spared him the grim detail that, on my afternoon walkabout the day before, in a gritty snow bank, I'd come upon a used Kotex and a decapitated pigeon.
But when spring arrived, the sunny brownstone stoops became occupied by elderly roomers who appeared to have been keeping an eye on everything for decades, and whose company I found both interesting and reassuring. Of course they would clearly be the first casualties of the promised South End makeover, but they seemed to sense correctly that this was unlikely to occur during their lifetimes.
I remember paying $180 a month, and numerologists would enjoy the fact that in today's market my rent would run about $1800, according to the Gibson real estate office I consulted both then and now. It turns out, however, that my building currently consists of three condos, and I'm able to learn that my former two-room unit sold for $245,000 in 2000 and again in 2004 for $382,500. Sure enough, when I poke around back, where the once derelict alley now goes by the upwardly-mobile name of Newland Street, I can peek through the boards of the sliding garage doors behind my old building to spy a silver Mercedes "4-matic" on a gravel car-park. If I lived in Unit Two today, I'd have a pressurized deck to overlook it.
But I find a truer symbol of prosperity in my rediscovery of the linked garden plots that were established around 30 years ago as the Rutland and Washington Streets Community Garden, cultivated land which still stretches the long block beyond Shawmut to where the elevated tracks once cast their defining shadow. The "Boston Urban Gardens" movement was a force for good back in the mid-70's, as well as a logical extension of the South End's "Tent City" coalition in the 60's, which promoted an alternative model to the brand of renewal that merely uproots its residents. I, too, want to resist resorting to an Either/Or argument about gentrification, so I am in search of an encompassing metaphor for urban regeneration. And this is my reason for returning to those plots that are at once venerable and lovingly tended.
In the language of gardening it is essential, so as not to exhaust the soil, to replenish the nutrients by some method of crop rotation. And in a similar way, aren't we all reliant upon the inexhaustible energy of the renovators—along with their dollars—to periodically update the otherwise steadily deteriorating infrastructure of inner city housing? But just as nature thrives on balance, so too must the neighborhood, to ensure that in another 30 years (or 60, or 90) the cycle might repeat itself.
Across town, as it happens, I've spent these past three decades imposing my own fluctuating will and wallet upon a similar brick townhouse, at times updating its systems and otherwise simply keeping it looking alive with a fresh coat of paint. It's an impulse I learned on Shawmut Avenue, half my life ago.