Boston’s North End, Once Slated for the Wrecking Ball, Perhaps the Best Urban Neighborhood in America
Last week I visited Boston and I specifically made a trip to the North End neighborhood. Before heading on the trip I re-read a portion of Jane Jacob’s classic 1961 book, Death and Life of Great American Cities. Starting on page 8 Jacobs talks about planners and architects and how they’ve learned how cities “ought” to work:
Consider, for example, the orthodox planning reaction to a district called the North End in Boston. This is an old, low-rent area merging into the heavy industry of the waterfront, and it is officially considered Boston’s worst slum and civic shame. It embodies attributes which all enlightened people know are evil because so many wise men have said they are evil. Not only is the North End bumped right up against industry, but worse still it has all kinds of working places and commerce mingled in the greatest complexity with its residences. It has the highest concentration of dwelling units, on the land that is used for dwelling units, of any part of Boston, and indeed one of the highest concentrations to be found in any American city. It has little parkland. Children play in the streets. Instead of super-blocks, or even decently large blocks, it has very small blocks; in planning parlance it is “badly cut up with wasteful streets.” Its buildings are old. Everything conceivable is presumably wrong with the North End. In orthodox planning terms, it is a three-dimensional textbook of “megalopolis” in the last stages of depravity. The North End is thus a recurring assignment for M.I.T. and Harvard planning and architecture students, who now and again pursue, under the guidance of their teachers, the paper exercise of converting it into super-blocks and park promenades, wiping away its nonconforming uses, transforming it to an ideal of order and gentility so simple it could be engraved on the head of a pin.
This neighborhood, first settled in the 1630′s, didn’t fit with the mid-20th century notion of a city. Architects, planners and politicians had written off the entire area, and equally urban areas in cities all over the country, so they could be rebuilt in the new order. Jacobs continues:
Twenty years ago, when I first happened to see the North End, its buildings — town houses of different kinds and sizes converted to flats, and four- or five story tenements built to house the flood of immigrants first from Ireland, then from Eastern Europe and finally from Sicily — were badly overcrowded, and the general effect was of a district taking a terrible physical beating and certainly desperately poor.
Gee, that doesn’t sound so good. Perhaps the planners were correct, wipe it back down to bare earth and start over? Of course, at this point in the early 1940s, the country had been in a long depression with little money for the maintenance of housing stock.
When I saw the North End again in 1959, I was amazed at the change. Dozens and dozens of buildings had been rehabilitated. Instead of mattresses against the windows there were Venetian blinds and glimpses of fresh paint. Many of the small, converted houses now had only one or two families in them instead of the old crowded three or four. Some of the families in the tenements (as I learned later, visiting inside) had uncrowded themselves by throwing two older apartments together, and had equipped these with bathrooms, new kitchens and the like. I looked down a narrow alley, thinking to find at least here the old, squalid North End, but no: more neatly repointed brickwork, new blinds, and a burst of music as a door opened. Indeed, this was the only city district I had ever seen — or have seen to this day — in which the sides of buildings around parking lots had not been left raw and amputated, but repaired and painted as neatly as if they were intended to be seen. Mingled all among the buildings for living were an incredible number of splendid food stores, as well as such enterprises as upholstery making, metal working, carpentry, food processing. The streets were alive with children playing, people shopping, people strolling, people talking. Had it not been a cold January day, there would surely have been people sitting.
The general street atmosphere of buoyancy, friendliness and good health was so infectious that I began asking directions of people just for the fun of getting in on some talk. I had seen a lot of Boston in the past couple of days, most of it sorely distressing, and this struck me, with relief, as the healthiest place in the city. But I could not imagine where the money had come from for the rehabilitation, because it is almost impossible today to get any appreciable mortgage money in districts of American cities that are not either high-rent, or else imitations of suburbs. To find out, I went into a bar and restaurant (where an animated conversation about fishing was in progress) and called a Boston planner I know.
“Why in the world are you down in the North End?” he said. “Money? Why, no money or work has gone into the North End. Nothing’s going on down there. Eventually, yes, but not yet. That’s a slum!”
“It doesn’t seem like a slum to me,” I said.
“Why, that’s the worst slum in the city. It has two hundred and seventy-five dwelling units to the net acre! I hate to admit we have anything like that in Boston, but it’s a fact.”
“Do you have any other figures on it?” I asked.
“Yes, funny thing. It has among the lowest delinquency, disease and infant mortality rates in the city. It also has the lowest ratio of rent to income in the city. Boy, are those people getting bargains. Let’s see… the child population is just about average for the city, on the nose. The death rate is low, 8.8 per thousand, against the average city rate of 11.2. The TB death rate is very low, less than 1 per ten thousand, can’t understand it, it’s lower even than Brookline’s. In the old days the North End used to be the city’s worst spot for tuberrculosis, but all that has changed. Well, they must be strong people. Of course, it’s a terrible slum.”
“You should have more slums like this,” I said. “Don’t tell me there are plans to wipe this out. You ought to be down here learning as much as you can from it.”
“I know how you feel,” he said. “I often go down there myself just to walk around the streets and to feel that wonderful, cheerful street life. Say, what you ought to do, you ought to come back and go down in the summer if you think it’s fun now. You’d be crazy about it in the summer. But of course we have to rebuild it eventually. We’ve got to get those people off the streets.”
Here was a curious thing. My friend’s instincts told him the North End was a good place, and his social statistics confirmed it. But everything he had learned as a physical planner about what is good for people and good for city neighborhoods, everything that made him an expert, told him the North End had to be a bad place.
Boston’s North End, like St. Louis’ Soulard or Old North neighborhoods, were very overcrowded during the years of the depression when many people migrated from rural settings to urban centers seeking employment. Overcrowding, not to be confused with high density, can and did lead to many diseases. The older buildings often lacked modern plumbing which would have helped offset disease.Â At the time the experts claimed the only thing to do was to clear cut the entire area — including all the streets and alleys — and start over from scratch.
In the 1950s Boston cut out a strip of the North End to create their overly popular Central Artery highway.Â This highway project cut off the North End from downtown and the rest of the city.Â The highway also became congested quickly which eventually led to the “big dig” project. Â Despite being cut off from downtown, or perhaps because of it, the North End avoided the wrecking ball.
Boston, St. Louis and all older cities do well with their older street pattern and mix of uses.Â As you will see, this is very compact, and not for everyone.Â Of course, not everyone aspires to a 2-story Colonial ranch in the suburbs with a 3-car garage.Â The inner core of our region, basically the entire City of St. Louis, should grow increasingly urban as it once was.
Here are a few of the pictures I took in Boston’s North End: