Thursday, July 1, 2010

Blundering Through Boston's Boundaries

Note: these thoughts on the mapping of Boston were provoked by an editorial in this week's Dorchester Reporter and an article in the Jamaica Plain Gazette about new census maps from the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Thirty years ago, I lived near the intersection of Adams street and Victory road. If you had asked me where this was, it wouldn’t have told you much if I only said it was Dorchester. To convey a sense of place, there would have to be something more narrowed down, yet large enough to fill a pigeonhole.

If I had been selling a home there at the time, I would have had to admit I was on the boundary of St. Ann’s and St. Mark’s parishes. Too bad I was on the Saint Mark’s side, because St. Ann’s supposedly had a better school. But I didn’t have kids at the time, and my excursions around the neighborhood usually took me through Fields Corner, or to weekly piano practice at Dorchester House.

To be more precise, I was living in you might have called a place without qualities, an interval surrounded by more definite places such as Pope’s Hill, Fields Corner, or even King Square. For lack of anything more interesting, I would sometimes mention I lived near the scene of an event connected to one of Boston’s most legendary crimes, the Brinks robbery. That scene was an apartment complex across the street, where one of the partners in crime, Specs O’Keefe, was shot by a hit-man named Trigger Burke. Though the complex was renamed when it was converted into condominiums, I still called it the “Trigger Burke Apartments.”

Then there was the old-timer who asked me where I lived. After I did my best to answer, he said, “That’s still Dorchester.” For the next thirty years, his words would continue to irritate, perplex, or amuse.

In a city with as much change in its land mass as Boston, even the most genuine boundaries will migrate. Place names that originate with natural features—Back Bay, South Bay, the Calf Pasture—drift off as metaphors attached to other things: a stately grid of brick rowhouses, a big-box shopping center, or the hulking remains of a sewage facility between UMass Boston and the Kennedy Library.

As Saul Bellow's lowly functionary reflects in Looking for Mr. Green, it's in the nature of things to break down over time--to the point where there's little more than a label or a convention: "It was that they stood for themselves by agreement, and were natural and not unnatural by agreement, and when the things themselves collapsed the agreement became visible. What was it, otherwise, that kept cities from looking peculiar?"

If that weren't enough, there can still be conflicts between official maps, such as zip codes and—before annexation to Boston--what used to be the lines between the independent communities of Dorchester and Roxbury.

But the “still Dorchester” response can be irritating if you think of boundaries as a constant that keeps the change within from becoming shapeless or chaotic or, better still, that provides room for change. Even if you allow that some boundaries matter differently over time (for example, with the closing of parishes, or political redistricting), there is some truth to what boundaries imply: that whatever elements they contain have some things in common, if not the same things at all times.

If you read Sam Bass Warner’s Streetcar Suburbs, you can learn how, at the end of the 19th century, the rich builders of St. Peter’s Parish in Dorchester lived just around the corner from the immigrants in three-deckers. That extreme range of income in a tightly defined area might be a thing of the past, but respecting boundaries can also make it possible to find things in common between people who are normally assumed to be quite different. And if you were to read a local newspaper published almost one hundred years ago, you would find local residents had many of the same concerns as would be covered decades later: crime, land development, liquor establishments, and (less openly expressed) demographic change itself.

Place names will always be subject to revisions. Some of these are the wishful branding of developers or public officials, hoping to obliterate something in the past—whether by changing the name of a once notorious housing development, or replacing the immigrant stew of the old West End with streets named for New England Transcendentalists.

In my own family, there was one relative who suppressed Jamaica Plain and used a return address that said “Moss Hill, Massachusetts.” But, in the years when I lived near New England Baptist Hospital, I also learned about the need for nuance. Even if the hospital insisted on being in Boston, the return address on my envelopes said Roxbury. By word of mouth I was from Mission Hill. I was only from Boston when I was concerned about luggage being stranded in a foreign country.

As a local news journalist, I’m in a field with high risk for getting tangled up in boundaries. I can still remember the daily newspaper that shorthandedly described a violent crime near the western fringe of Roxbury, around Egleston Square, as happening in “West Roxbury.” Then there was a feature story on demographic change in the 1970’s, about the last white person living on a street near Grove Hall. When I continued the article on another page, I noticed someone who was too quick with the paste-up knife had shortened the headline to “Last White Person in Dorchester.”

Even worse is when people in the media do their own improvising, as when a story about crime along Columbia Road described the area as the “Badlands.”

With my bearings always at the mercy of deadlines and tectonic slippage, I feel the need for a back-up. Some of this comes from talking boundaries with people who know them better than I do. When that fails, I use the little red book published by the Boston Fire Department. The book doesn't show a date, but it was published when the Fire Commissioner was Leo D. Stapleton—which means when Boston's mayor was Ray Flynn.

Aside from listing the streets of Boston, the book has columns of different length showing where the streets begin and end, and all the cross streets in between. The streets are also labeled according to neighborhoods, sometimes with utmost precision--for example, a change from Dorchester to Mattapan at 1150 Blue Hill Avenue. Unlike with some official publications, there is no such thing as “North Dorchester.” The North End, South End, Bay Village, and Chinatown are missing as well, lumped in with Beacon Hill and the Back Bay as “Boston Proper.” Allston and Brighton are both in the book, but without a cohabitative hyphen.

At the end of the book there are pages that are completely blank, except for the word “Notes.” Evidently, someone thought the true map of Boston would always need updates or corrections.

The publishers of the book aren’t identified, though they express their gratitude for information from “users of the Guide on missing streets, streets that have been altered or torn down, and similar changes.”

If that’s too deep into a parallel universe, I can still admire the publishers for a degree of humility that would be hard to find among journalists and planners. “Given the size and amount of change occurring in the Boston area, however,” says the publishers’ note, “it is almost inevitable that some inaccuracies will occur.”