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Friday, August 19, 2011

Urban Impressions

I recently began volunteering in the office of a social group I've   joined in the South End (of Boston). The South End has come a long, long way over the past quarter century! I remember a South End of muggings, drug dealing, iron bars on windows and those Fox/Magic Eye police locks on doors (remember those?) 

Now the neighborhood, what I've seen of it, is a scene of  beautiful tree-lined streets of brick, brownstone and hunter green trim, alive with a new urban lifestyle, Children in playgrounds, people walking dogs, bicyclists, joggers, little crowds at sidewalk cafes; shot through with a refreshing linear park: the Southwest Corridor Park. Sections of the SWCP are worthy of Thoreau. It's almost as if the dreams of the original South End developers & speculators have finally come true; with a few twenty-first century adjustments. I'm not claiming it's an Eden on Earth; the South End has multiple problems just like everywhere else, but the populace seems to have found direction, an ideal they are working towards. I live in wonderful South Boston, a neighborhood of mostly wood-frame homes, exterior-wise, the gentrification of South Boston hasn't been as gentle as the latest wave has been in the South End with its solid brick & brownstone.
  While it's nice to see a visual (at least) revival ; I find it so very disappointing to see so many newer residents of South Boston taking little interest in the community. While many are getting involved: becoming real neighbors, their are still too many who choose to do little else but throw noisy roof deck parties & sleep here. There's a touch of a strange sort of snobbery to a lot of these "twenty & thirty-somethings" which I find distressing; I can't say with any certainty whether or not something similar is going on in the South End. I certainly hope it passes before it reaches some sort of critical mass. Without interaction, without solidarity, without compassion there is no neighborhood. Whether or not the "new neighborhood" suits me or any individual is not nearly as important as the fact that it exists (of course I certainly hope it suits me & the other old-timers.). Every time I hear the laughter & squeals of my neighbors' children in their back-yards I take heart. 
  Again, I can't say for certain what neighborhood bonds in the South End are truly like, however the level of municipal flourishes leads me to believe they do have strong sense of community there. I can't help but wonder if the sense I get of real community in the South End is simply a case of "the grass is always greener-itus" or if it is created in part by the superior visual harmony of the South End streetscape today? Our visual perceptions play a huge part in our overall assessment of an area. As I mentioned above, the contemporaneous wave of gentrification in the South End has been gentler than that in South Boston. The brick bow-fronts & scattered blocks of brownstones lend themselves to far less bastardization than the wood-frame homes in South Boston. The wood-frame buildings in South Boston had already been subjected to previous attacks: wood, asphalt & asbestos shingles, "Colorado Brick", aluminum & vinyl siding et al. While most of these assaults only covered-over a majority of the exteriors; today all is stripped off, right down to the sheathing. Almost no effort is put into any actual design; there is no attempt to replicate or proportionally adapt original design elements, e.g. a large Greek Revival structure lost its massive-& beautifully intact acanthus leaf consoles supporting an entablature-like hood over the entry.
                                                                                                     similar to these only bigger!:

                                                                                                              - in their place....nothing.

   Over-sized recessed panels,  ill-scaled plastic dentil strips & plastic window pre-fab, one size fits all cornices among other abominations. All painted over with pedestrrian colors. To add insult to injury much of this is done quickly & cheaply. These days, they are usually condo-conversions so as far as the "developers" are concerned it only need hold together until all the units are sold off. All in an amalgam that is, I think, psychologically both unsettling & generic at the same time; even to a consciously indifferent eye. Mission lamps & Art Deco house numbers on colonial revival-esque trim all imposed on a humble Italianate row house. Everything sheet-rock, particleboard, fiberglass/plastic &  silicon caulking, PVC, MDF and the like. All contributing to an aura artificiality & insubstantiality  
   I can't help but feel there's an undefinable something tied to this atmosphere that hinders a sense of settled community. Each block its own sort of qualitative & economic roller-coaster. I know it sounds rather idiotic-I simply can't seem to find the right words to express what mean. I'm not trying to assert a primacy to the power of architectural design & quality of workmanship to affect the sense of community of a given locale, they are just two pieces of a complex puzzle; Two particular pieces I feel I have tuned into.
   After the nascent brutalization wave (the gentrification before most of us knew the word) of the properties of the South End in the in the '70s a cohesive community vision seems to have taken root. While the speculators and developers haven't been vanquished, there is a higher level of sympathy for historic & communal architectural, cityscaping & design ideals, as well as heightened municipal financial & artistic investment in public spaces visible in the South End compared to South Boston & many other sections of the city. I say this even while taking into account the superior physical/structural base that exists in the South End as well as the varying priorities of the divers populations of these neighborhoods. (I should make a  comparative thumbnail survey  of the marketing foci of the respective realtors' marketing schemes, for my initial sense is they too are very different.)
  Perhaps I'm basing my opinions partially on an over-broad or even inappropriate interpretation of Wilson & Kelling's Broken Window Theory, yet I can't help but think it plays a subliminal role. Conversely, I'm not advocating rigid community standards, just a consensus of some kind in some manner. Something that can foster the waxing of a vested interest in one's community/neighborhood.
   Today the South End projects that sense of interest & involvement that seems to be fading in South Boston (or at least is under attack). It's time we took our neighborhoods back from speculators & gilded transients. People must always come before money, community before profit. In the long run expanding the tax base at the expense of established residents & their concerns will do great harm to a city.

                                                                  A.S. Merrimac

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