Cultural, social, and economic diversity in the United States is expanding. Nowhere is this demographic complexity more evident than in urban centers where people of different races, ideologies, religions, sexual orientations, and socio-economic origins find themselves sharing the same space. Boston is also shifting physically from population growth, development pressures, and a changing climate – shifts that both in the past and today dramatically alter the physical landscape.
The overarching theme for the Boston portal is Policy, Place, and Power in an Evolving City. In broad terms, this work focuses on a central challenge facing the city and region of Boston (and many other major American cities and metropolitan areas): balancing the pressure and need for continued development with legitimate concerns about how that physical growth dramatically reshapes the social and economic makeup of neighborhoods, including many communities that are home to large numbers of minorities and immigrants.
This theme encompasses topics that relate to the cyclical process of urbanization in Boston. Equal attention is paid to the policies that code high level planning agendas, the people who react and shift outcomes through organizing and civil disobedience, and the places that result from a collision of these planned and unplanned circumstances.
Three moments that particularly interest scholars and students associated with the portal are:
Land-Making and Demographic Shifts (late 19th century): An era of extensive land-making culminated in the second half of the 19th century, giving Boston well-established, densely built neighborhoods like Back Bay and the Seaport. South Bay was created through the same process, with the exclusionary mission to keep middle-class Yankees in and new Irish immigrants out. However, it never became the urban neighborhood originally envisioned. We ask: What were the drivers for the filling of South Bay? Why did it take so much longer to fill than other areas? What were the infrastructural, economic, and social impacts of the slow pace of completion? How will the changing climate remake this and other low-lying manufactured land areas?
Urban Renewal and Community Empowerment (mid 20th century): Federal urban renewal programs swept through American cities between the late 1950s to early 1980s with the promise of rebuilding crumbling inner cities and forging connections with federally funded highways. What actually happened was the systematic destruction of immigrant and minority communities. Boston’s Inner Belt connector project required massive neighborhood demolitions, but was ultimately stopped by community action. A collaborative design process between the city and the community resulted in Southwest Corridor Park and an expanded public metro rail line. We ask: What were promises of renewal advocates, and what was delivered? Who were the beneficiaries and who paid the price? How was the project transformed from being destructive into a community asset?
Big Plans and Social Tension (early 21st century): The United States has a rich history of planning establishing enduring public realm infrastructure that was devised to respond to nature, support social cohesion, and drive market investment in both targeted and systematic ways.This is especially evident in Boston with the establishment of Boston Common in the seventeenth century and its incorporation into Frederick Law Olmstead’s Emerald Necklace in the late 1800s. Today, there is a renaissance of planning in Boston, only this time public infrastructure follows the market rather than the other way around. The failed Olympicbidof 2015as well asdozens of parallel, yet unintegrated city plans, demonstrate a disproportional dominance of economic development over environmental consideration and social needs–contributing to growing urban inequality. On the final, unbuilt link of the Emerald Necklace along Columbia Road, Boston has an opportunity to make grand gestures towards both public realminfrastructure and social inequality. We ask: what is the relationship between public plans and the private market? Who benefits and who suffers from major green projects? What are the spatial relationships between the urban elite and the urban poor?
Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study
Today, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University is dedicated to creating and sharing transformative ideas across the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences. We encourage you to explore the people, programs, and collections that make the Radcliffe Institute a home to big thinkers, new ideas, cutting-edge research, and thought-provoking events that are free and open to the public:
The Radcliffe Institute Fellowship Program annually supports the work of 50 leading artists and scholars and has rapidly become one of the most competitive programs of its kind in the world, with an acceptance rate of only 4 percent each year.
The Academic Ventures program fosters collaborative research projects and sponsors lectures and conferences that engage scholars with the public.
The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America documents the lives of American women of the past and present for the future, furthering the Institute’s commitment to women, gender, and society.
Boston Area Research Initiative
The Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI) seeks to spur original urban research on the cutting edge of social science and public policy. In conducting and interpreting this research, BARI seeks to forge mutually beneficial relationships among the region’s scholars, policymakers, practitioners and civic leaders.
BARI is an interuniversity research partnership at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. Funding for BARI’s activities is provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Radcliffe Institute. Key institutional collaborators are the City of Boston and the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.
Jonah Susskind and Aline Reynolds, Harvard Mellon students researching the greater Boston area, generated these dot-density maps, which reveal geographic relationships between employment clusters and employee residences throughout the greater Boston area. In the maps presented, public transportation routes are overlaid to help identify key service gaps
FANEUIL HALL: PATHS, LAYERS, AND NODES
See the website for the full project text and images
The area around Faneuil Hall is dotted with buildings from near the beginning of Boston’s history, seemingly anachronistic structures such as Old South Meeting House (built in 1729) and the Old State House (built 1713) that today stand amid the skyscrapers of the Financial District. Faneuil Hall itself faces forty-story towers on one side and the imposing, brutalist City Hall on another. Are buildings such as Faneuil Hall, then, totally out of context, obsolete relics of the past? Boston has built up in such a way that there are distinct layers through time and space, almost like the rings on a tree or the striations in sedimentary rock. Unless we come to know the reason for Boston’s many architectural quirks, and appreciate, in Italo Calvino’s words, what “invisible landscape conditions the visible one,” it will be hard to judge the context of such historical structures (Invisible Cities 20). In this essay we will explore how best to understand Boston’s most visited tourist site through spatial and temporal layers, paths, edges, nodes, and ways in which this locale has shaped the people of Boston and been shaped by them (an idea also expressed by Calvino).
I. THE LAYERS OF THE FANEUIL HALL AREA
TYPES OF LAYERS
What different kinds of layers provide lenses through which to understand Faneuil Hall? Particularly fascinating in a city like Boston, which has seen such excessive change, is to explore the layers of urban evolution that have shaped Boston. One way to envision this is to think of the landscapes and structures that have come and gone as separate layers, built up over time. The Faneuil Hall site, then, might contain relatively few layers, as it has stayed much the same since the 18th century. Areas like the Rose Kennedy Greenway or City Hall Plaza, on the other hand, might contain four or five distinct layers, as they each have gone through many phases of demolition and rebuilding.
MAPS AS LAYERS
Treating maps as layers will help us consider just how Boston was shaped. The paths in Item #30 follow the contours of the coastline, as they were not conceived of as city streets, but as town lanes. What seems to be the first known map featuring Faneuil Hall—our second relevant layer—is Item #20, from the year 1743 (Faneuil Hall was first completed in 1742). It is clear from this depiction that in 1743, Boston was full of crooked streets and small buildings with relatively few large public spaces or structures. Faneuil Hall, as evidenced by the map, occupied what was called Dock Square, next to the Town Dock, a narrow squared-off inlet from the harbor. For awhile, Faneuil Hall must have suited the expanding city’s commercial needs, as it was not until around 1824 that construction of Quincy Market began. The first clear depiction of Quincy Market appears in Stephen P. Fuller’s 1826 map—Item #24.
If we think of Faneuil as having fewer layers beneath it than many of the surrounding districts, we can come to an important conclusion. It is as if certain areas of the former Shawmut peninsula have frozen at one point in their evolution. Some are still changing before our eyes, whereas Faneuil Hall lost momentum back in the 1800s, which explains the stark contrast with its surroundings.
URBAN EXPANSION AS LAYERS
In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino compares one city to a tree trunk, growing in concentric circles. Boston is much the same way: in fact, as can be seen in Item #29, none of Shawmut Peninsula’s original coastline remains. Like a tree trunk, Boston contains rings of history. The concentric layers of expansion can be seen today in the architecture of Boston: certain architectural landmarks (such as Faneuil Hall) indicate where the coastline must have been at any given time. If you mapped where the oldest structure in any given neighborhood is and when it was built, you would be able to see the “growth rings” of Boston fairly clearly. For example, what is probably the oldest remaining site in Boston, the King’s Chapel Burial Ground, founded in 1630, clearly falls within the original outline of the Shawmut peninsula. We can look at Item #29 and see that Faneuil Hall, however, built first in 1742, was built on reclaimed land, marking one ring. Quincy Market, from 1826, was then built further out than that. Today, there is now the Rose Kennedy Greenway, and just past that, the Christopher Columbus Park: successive bands of urban expansion.
DESIRES AND NEEDS AS LAYERS
It is clear today that this site has been molded according to people’s desires and needs. Faneuil Hall itself does not serve the same exact purpose as what it used to (namely, selling meat and produce), since that is not where the needs and desires of the populace lie (“Faneuil Hall Marketplace”). Somewhat ironically, what are sold there today are tourist gift-shop items (see Item #32). However, since Faneuil Hall itself is still a marketplace of sorts (albeit not the open-air marketplace it once was), it is a perfect example of an urban palimpsest: the basic outline of the original function of the building remains, although it has changed to fit the needs and desires of the vast majority of people who visit the site.
HISTORICAL PERIODS AS LAYERS
Many historical periods have brought their own unique layers to the Faneuil Hall area. Boston City Hall revolutionized the neighborhood, necessitating the relocation of 20,000 people. The New England Holocaust Memorial is located just a few steps away from Faneuil Hall, confirming this area as a site of commemoration and celebration of freedom. Renewed interest in American history must explain the Freedom Trail.
II. FANEUIL HALL AS A NODE
FANEUIL HALL AS A NODE
Faneuil Hall is a “node”: it is where pathways of people from many walks of life cross—whether homeless Bostonians searching for a place to rest, tourists gawking at the historical sites, or locals looking for a bite to eat. But it is not a node in entirely the same ways as it once was. It has acquired two reason for being a node: historical significance and touristic attraction, the latter being strongly influenced by the former.
The first and most important reason that Faneuil Hall is still a node is its historical significance: it was at Faneuil Hall that many of the protests that sparked the American Revolution were held (“Faneuil Hall”) Perhaps the most notable and visible path passing through Faneuil Hall is the Freedom Trail, a line of distinguished bricks that winds throughout Boston, passing by the most significant sites. Faneuil Hall and thus has gained a spot in a route that entirely historically-focused (see Item #34), an area of significance that emerged because of its original importance as a gathering place. For this reason, part of Faneuil Hall is now devoted to a museum, a complete novelty in the history of the usages of this building (Item #31).
It is presumably largely because of this significance that Faneuil Hall has come to be known as a major tourist destination. In fact, it was ranked by Travel and Leisure as the US’s 8th most popular tourist attraction (“America’s Most Visited Tourist Attractions”).
The importance of the site, along with the ever-bustling Quincy Market and ubiquitous souvenirs, explain the hoards of tourists that regularly flock to the area. It is a node for more reasons than tourism, however. Items #35 and #62, which capture a street performance outside Faneuil Hall, confirm that this is a place for the people, and not just for those who can afford souvenirs and overpriced pizza.
“Faneuil Hall” https://www.thefreedomtrail.org/freedom-trail/faneuil-hall.shtml
“America’s Most Visited Tourist Attractions” http://www.travelandleisure.com/slideshows/americas-most-visited-tourist-attractions/9
“Faneuil Hall Marketplace” http://www.faneuilhallmarketplace.com/info/history
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver. 1972.
BOSTON INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART:
See the website for full project text and images
Partitioning the skyline of the historic Boston Seaport district, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) frames a red gabled-building in the distance. The ICA ensconces this much less new-age structure, isolating it in the eye of the viewer, and from this angle the disparity between the two styles architecture could not be more glaring. While the stereotypical conception of the New England environment is populated with buildings like the red one, in the Seaport District, the red building seems increasingly the exception rather than the standard. The abundance of cranes and backhoes imprint themselves on the urban landscape as the fomenters of aesthetic revolution by day and as lifeless monuments to the mechanical form by dusk. Depending on where one stands, and how one looks, the inscription of older eras on the urban palimpsest are being systematically wiped away, in an effort that the City of Boston calls in their “Open Space Plan 2008-2014,” a mission to build “the next great space.” This dialogue about the “continuing revitalization of Boston Harbor’s open space and Harborwalk systems,” the ICA at its vanguard, has a distinct feel of gentrification about it, but this increasingly empty term does not suffice as an adequate explanation. The Seaport District is changing as a result of the aesthetic demands of modernity, a process certainly begun by the rich, but at some point it gained a life force of its own.
UPPER CLASS EMBRACES MODERN ART
The investigation of the history of a contemporary art museum is also, by necessity, an abbreviated history of the modern industrial form in Boston. While the iconography of the machine was born in the sooty furnaces the industrial revolution, a historical turning point came when these forms associated with the sordid economics of production evolved into the tasteful art prized by the cultured upper classes; for Boston, this transition was unconsciously celebrated with the ICA’s first Modern Arts Ball. Right after the ICA was founded as the Boston Museum of Modern Art in 1936, the Gala was put on as fundraising effort, and in retrospect it appears as a landmark in the institutionalization of the modern form as one demanding the respect and appreciation of the rich. One Daily Boston Globe article on “Final Gala Plans for [the] Modern Arts Ball” makes this trend abundantly clear, concerning itself less with the actual event than with listing an enormous guest list of people one can assume were extremely influential if the article expects the reader to know them all by their names alone (beginning with “Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr”). Throughout the rest of the twentieth century, the close association between the ICA and these American patricians seems to have only grown stronger, or perhaps its relationship with the lower classes weaker. When examining WorldMap data of the Seaport District the unsettling reality is a Caucasian ring of concentrated wealth and comparatively high levels of education around a section in South Boston with a higher density of minorities with widespread poverty and sparse education amongst the populace.
Focusing in on the seaport district specifically, the harbor’s small docks and peninsulas, which used to belong to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts or the Railroad Companies according to a 1914 map, appear to be largely available for private ownership seen in a map from a 2008 government report. This move away from a space defined by the control of government and big business has left the Seaport District at the top of this gilded halo of gentrification as a well of undeveloped potential for those who can afford to shape it. However, as there is no inherent aesthetic to wealth or class, what form should this “next great space” take? As it has done since its first Gala in 1936, the ICA welcomes its role as a beacon for an aesthetic paradigm that the massive construction efforts punctuating the environs aim to compliment. On the interior of the ICA entrance, a wall-sized mural in permanent marker, “Seastead,” depicting a hybrid between a cathedral and an aircraft carrier striking off into the sea was created in response to “the ICA’s location between the flat expanse of Boston Harbor and the high-rise development that is transforming the Seaport District.” The accompanying plaque asks, “What triggered the retreat[?],” positing exile, “rising sea levels,” or the search to establish a “new society.” While the very act of providing a list of explanations signals the work is not meant adhere to any answer in particular, as a symptom of the anxiousness simmering beneath the ICA and a desire to run away, this work, along with the other pieces of the ICA collection, betray a certain self-destructive bent within the urban palimpsest itself.
EXPLORATION OF THE MODERN FORM
In Eliot Weinberger’s film theory essay “Camera People,” there is minor point that notes: with “simultaneous time, the babble of voices overlapping and interrupting each other, the rapid succession of images, the cacophony of programmed and random sounds: all modern art is urban art” (Weinberger 49). While Weinberger then transitions to the medium of film, in examining the carefully selected works of the ICA, these inherently reflexive meditations on the modern form by an institution dedicated to preserving modern form offer a means of rationalizing how the shimmering skyscrapers and cranes won the war of iconoclasm being waged in the streets of the Seaport District. Czech Modernism Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely is comprised of several glass reproductions of decanters reflected backwards infinitely through a trick of mirrors and glass. Meant to evoke “the shifts in labor of the last century as the handcrafted was frequently replaced by the machine-made” these decanters offer a number of revelations. In their sleek finish, lateral presentation, geometric symmetry, and the illusion of a vanishing point they almost appear as a city skyline, echoing Weinberger’s words as well as expressing an idealized refinement of the urban form. However, the mis-en-abyme that makes the work so powerful belies a more troublesome property, a desire for the modern form to propagate itself infinitely. The refinement of the work contains an inherent manifesto on the necessity for eventual perfection of the urban form, which necessitates the iconoclasm of any older form. Despite the instinct to use this mandate to reinforce the already sinister conception of gentrification in the popular mindset, the implications here are much more complicated as often the older forms to be eliminated are also forms of modernity. The red house framed by the ICA as well as the old ICA building of the 1970’s are no less urban than the ICA, simply less modern; a buckling concrete pier, not a minute from the ICA, is left to decay at the doorstep of this sleek modern structure.
The concept of the palimpsest does not really encompass this notion of self-destruction inherent to urbanity. While it may appear that humans are the writers of the urban landscape, the truth may be that at some point, modernity began to write its own destiny. Dormeuse, a chaise lounge in the ICA, is wrought in “steel tread plate” so as to destroy the furniture’s association with “feminine leisure, relaxation, and economic privilege.” Here, the implicit messages of this piece of modern art turn on its long-time patron of the upper class, while approaching it without context yields an object that rejects humans in general by ossifying a once functional household item. Reexamining Seastead’s desire for the ICA to run out into the sea, away from the urban poverty and dingy architecture of the past, gives an overwhelming sense of modernity’s self-disgust. This sense of shame, which drives the auto-cannibalism of urban structures, still requires a human mediator to achieve physical results. In choosing a sort of high-futurism for the waterfront, the City of Boston, the ICA, and wealthy supporters expose a certain worship of an invisible idea of modernity.
TEMPLE TO NEW IDOLS
Any good religion needs a temple, and the ICA plays the role to perfection. Filled with the iconography of contemporary art, the building offers a number of spaces for devotees of the urban experience, flaneurs, to worship. The ICA media lab drops down from beneath the building’s overhanging outcrop to offer a set of screens, headphones, a view of the harbor, and (for those in the top seats) a view of the other people in the media lab to anyone wishing to experience a streamlined form of the natural voyeurism found in the city environment (of course there is also a theater that looks out on the harbor). Instead of religious texts, one room contains a set of twenty photogravures entitled, The Russian Ending, annotating disasters as if they were “storyboards for a film.” This again calls to mind the insight of Weinberger’s film essay: “all modern art is urban art.” Enshrined at the edge of the Seaport District, the ICA is a place of cold mysteries and unforgiving realities whose adherents drive the tectonic movements of the urban palimpsest. Beyond issues of social inequality and gentrification, an excess of modern forms defines this process of waterfront “renewal,” and as one can see with Dormeuse, on the surface these can often appear inhospitable to humans despite their impressive beauty. Indeed, the kinds of apartments here do not seem marketed at the residents of nearby South Boston. The quests to make a city livable and a city beautiful are not mutually exclusive, but perhaps in the Seaport District, the latter has left the scales unbalanced.
THE PAUL REVERE HOUSE AND THE CITY AS A MULTILAYERED CULTURAL PALIMPSEST:
a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.
something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.
Cities are the source and setting of socio-cultural life. With their paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks –as Kevin Lynch would describe them-, cities can be said to represent a dynamic canvas where human life constantly unfolds and mutates, taking some of what it found and leaving new traces behind. Cities are thus the ultimate cultural palimpsest, the accumulation of times past, the stage for the present, and the raw materials for the future.
But cities are not necessarily unitary or uniform entities. Like a Russian doll, cities are made of multiple layers of continuously evolving cultural palimpsests: from the city as a whole, to the different districts that comprise them and give home to evolving communities, to specific buildings, landmarks or objects that are being constantly repurposed, to the very individuals that inhabit them, who might take on manifold roles and personas across their lifetime. Cities are thus the product of multiple components and intricate interrelationships: the changes in each of the layers go to influence the others, thus forming a complex network of ever-evolving urban culture.
This exhibition will explore the idea of the city as a multilayered cultural palimpsest by focusing on the study of a historical landmark in Boston: the 18th century house of Paul Revere, famous patriot in the American Revolution. By analyzing the evolving history of the North End -the district in which the house is located-, the Revere House itself and the several uses it has been given, and the life of Paul Revere, a man of manifold personas, this exhibition aims to provide some insight into the ways in which the different elements of the city influence each other to form a beautifully complex cultural palimpsest, a seemingly endless source of creation, reinvention, and transcendence of human life.
[DISTRICT AS PALIMPSEST] THE NORTH END
Located in the northernmost point of the Shawmut peninsula and settled since the 1630s, the North End is Boston’s oldest residential community. This neighborhood has experienced significant changes across its almost four centuries of existence, being home to some of the most important historical moments in the city of Boston.
In the early 17th century, the first inhabitants of the North End were merchants attracted by the waterfront, which quickly became a center of shipping and trade. These early residents built their houses around North Square, where the Paul Revere House, built around 1680, is located. Unlike what we see today, most of these early buildings were made of wood, but a series of fires motivated the transition to red bricks. During the 18th century, the North End became the most popular residential hub in Boston among wealthy families, who erected grand red-bricked, Georgian style houses around the area. Only a couple of these buildings remain today, notably the Pierce-Hichborn House (circa 1711) in North Square and the Christ Church (1723), later known as Old North Church, which is said to be the place where Paul Revere hung two lanterns in 1775 to warn the patriots in Charlestown about the movements of the British army, during the American Revolution.
The North End saw an important demographic change after the Revolution and across the 19th century. The neighborhood became dominated mostly by small merchants and artisans, as the wealthy merchants left the North End for new blooming residential areas. Many of the large houses were put for rent or simply demolished to build row housing. The booming shipping and mercantile trade gave rise to many entertainment establishments in the waterfront district, including taverns and dance halls. But the 19th century North End was mostly marked by a series of immigration waves, which went on to shape the neighborhood’s rich cultural heritage. First came the Irish, following the serious potato famine that struck Ireland in the 1840s, and who ended up making up half of the North End population by 1855. The 1870s saw large immigration waves of Polish and Russian Jews, and almost simultaneously, a vast Italian immigration commenced, making the North End population 90% Italian by the 1920s, and having a lasting impact on this neighborhood’s identity as Little Italy.
The 20th century North End was marked by major construction projects in the area, having an important impact on the neighborhood’s aspect. Some of these projects include the Summer and Callahan tunnels in the 1930s and 1960s, and most notably, the elevated Central Artery in the 1950s that separated the North End from the rest of Boston, to be later replaced by an underground highway during the Big Dig project in the late 20th century.
With its immense historical and cultural heritage, it is no wonder that the North End remains a popular attraction among locals and visitors. This neighborhood represents a rich cultural palimpsest, a continuously evolving canvas that has managed to preserve elements across its four centuries of existence, from the earliest wood and redbrick houses that are now open to the public as museums, to the Italian restaurants, bakeries and cafes, to the transportation projects that have altered its appearance and connection to the rest of Boston. The character of the North End has been continuously influenced by its different sets of inhabitants, from the early merchants, to the prominent patriots that inhabited it, to the vibrant Italian immigrant community. At the same time, these changes in the character of the neighborhood have influenced the makeup of the North End community, as reflected by the currently increasing number of young professionals moving to the neighborhood, attracted by its sense of community, good culinary offer, and convenient location.
The rich historical and cultural heritage of the North End call for a more refined analysis of the elements that comprise it, and that have had a crucial role in shaping its identity as cultural palimpsest. In the next sections of this exhibition I focus on the study of the Paul Revere House located in North Square, and the life of Paul Revere.
 Boston Redevelopment Authority website, North End page http://www.bostonredevelopmentauthority.org/neighborhoods/north-end/at-a-glance.
 Boston Landmarks Commission (1995). “North End Exploring Boston’s Neighborhoods” (PDF). Retrieved September 27, 2015.
[LANDMARK AS PALIMPSEST] THE REVERE HOUSE
Built around 1680, the Paul Revere House is the oldest house in downtown Boston, and is located in 19 North Square, in what used to be the heart of the North End in the 17th century. Paul Revere, then a silversmith, bought this large Colonial house in 1770 and moved in with his wife, his then five children (he went on to have 16 between his two marriages), and his mother.
During my visit I learned that, just like the neighborhood in which it is located, this house has undergone a series of changes in terms of its inhabitants, appearance and uses since it was first built. The first owner of the house was a wealthy merchant called Robert Howard, who lived there with his wife, his daughter, and his slave. In the 1740 and 50s, the house was owned by the Knox, a family of artisans and mariners. Due to financial problems, Andrew Knox lost his house to John Erving, a real estate speculator, in 1763. Erving, in turn, sold the house to Paul Revere in 1770. Revere and his family owned the house until 1800, even though it is believed that they did not live there for most of the 1780s, when they would have put the house for rent due to financial pressures. After the Revere family left, the building was used as a boarding house for transient seamen, while the ground floor was used as shops, including a candy store, a cigar factory, a bank and a vegetable and fruit business at different times. In the 19th century, the house was home to various immigrant families.
As the building started to deteriorate towards the beginning of the 20th century, Paul Revere’s great-grandson, John P. Reynolds Jr., bought the house in 1902 to prevent demolition. The Paul Revere Memorial Association was then formed to organize the renovation efforts, led by prominent architect Joseph Chandler. The house was returned to its 17th century appearance, and opened its doors to the public in 1908, constituting one of the first historic house-museums in the country. Ninety percent of the structure, two doors, three window frames, and portions of the flooring, foundation, inner wall material and raftering, are original. The house currently displays two floors (a third floor was added in in the mid 18th century and removed with the restoration work). The first floor contains the kitchen and the hall, a multipurpose room that in any given day could have been used as a parlor, a dining room, workshop, or business office. In the second floor there are two chambers, as well as a small display of silver items made by Paul Revere in his workshop. Some of the furniture owned by the Revere family has been preserved, although most of what is displayed in the house belonged to other families in the 17th and 18th centuries. The courtyard also displays a 900-pound bell and a small mortar made by Revere and sons.
With the multiple changes experienced by this building across its over 300 years of existence, the Paul Revere House represents a cultural palimpsest of its own. This house has seen its purpose constantly reinvented so as to fit the needs of the particular historical and cultural contexts it has witnessed, from being home to rich merchant families, to hosting transient sailors and immigrant families, to operating shops of various natures, to finally becoming a historical attraction. The series of structural changes it has endured in time, including its incredible renovation at the beginning of the 20th century, also reflects a sense of resilience and adaptation to changing times. Standing in front of the Paul Revere House in our current times represents a truly striking experience, an incredible contrast between the preservation of the simplicity of the colonial past and the modern present, filled with tourists, their modern cameras, and their bright-colored clothes.
 The Paul Revere House website. https://www.paulreverehouse.org/
[INDIVIDUAL AS PALIMPSEST] PAUL REVERE
The concept of the cultural palimpsest extends beyond districts and landmarks, and into the very individuals that inhabit the city. One of the most striking facts about Paul Revere, the famous patriot in the American Revolution, is that he did not become famous until after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published his now well-known poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” in 1860, almost forty years after Revere’s death. Beyond the brave activities that eventually led him to fame, Revere was not just the messenger who warned the patriots of the movements of the British troops, and in fact developed a series of a myriad of activities during his lifetime.
Revere the goldsmith
Paul Revere was born in 1734 in a modest family from the North End. His father was a goldsmith (or silversmith) who migrated from France at a young age, and his mother descended from several New England artisan and land-owning families. Paul apprenticed with his father as a goldsmith and took over the shop in 1756, after conducting military service during the French and Indian War. He became the proprietor of a large shop with apprentices and journeyman employees, and his customers included wealthy Boston inhabitants, as well as his neighbors, relatives and political associates.
Revere produced items in both gold and silver, though most of his preserved pieces are of the latter product, including elegant spoons and creamers, currently on display in the Revere House. As an additional source of income, Revere also produced copperplate engravings including bookplates, mastheads, and illustrations for magazines.
Revere the revolutionary
In addition to his silversmith work, Paul Revere acted as a main spokesman for Boston middle class artisans and laborers during the Revolution. He knew many of Boston’s radical leaders due to his connections as an active Freemason and through his wealthy customers. In the 1760s he joined several of underground political clubs in Boston, including the North Caucus, allegedly responsible for the organization of the Boston Tea Party. In 1774 and 1775, Revere served as paid courier for the Committee of Safety. The night of April 18, 1775, Revere left Boston by horse to warn the patriots in Lexington of the British troops’ movements, which would be later known as the “Midnight Ride to Lexington”. He went on to serve as an officer in the Massachusetts militia from 1776 to 1779, during which he commanded a fort in Boston harbor and took part in several expeditions, including the Penobscot expedition, one of the most disastrous campaigns of the American Revolutionary War. Revere was accused of cowardice and insubordination, and subsequently dismissed from the militia. A few years and several attempts later, Revere was finally able to get exonerated of these charges by a court-martial.
Revere the businessman
After ceasing his active participation in the Revolution, Revere started a series of ventures that rapidly increased his personal income, including a hardware store, a foundry, and a copper-rolling mill. The hardware store operated at a series of locations in Boston in the 1780s, where he sold locally-made and imported goods, as well as items made in his goldsmith shop. In 1788, Revere opened a foundry on the North End waterfront, where he cast cannons and bells. In 1801, he established the first successful copper-rolling mill in North America. Among other things, Revere’s copper was used to cover the dome of the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill.
With his manifold different activities throughout his life, Paul Revere illustrates the concept of the cultural palimpsest taken to the individual level. Cities and its different elements are constantly shaped by the individuals that inhabit them. Individuals themselves are in turn influenced by their historical and cultural contexts, thus creating an endless cycle of reinventive forces that shape the present and give rise to the future. As suggested by his business enterprises, political and military involvement in the American Revolution, and even his persistence in clearing his name, Paul Revere was an individual capable of overcoming challenges and of successfully adapting to changing circumstances. His actions went on to influence his environment as much as his daily activities were influenced by the times in which he had to live. The constantly evolving product of these interacting forces are individuals like Revere, landmarks like the Revere House, districts like the North End, cities like Boston, multiple layers of cultural palimpsests that speak of the past as much as they provide perspectives for the future.
THE CULTURAL PALIMPSEST IN PERSPECTIVE
This exhibition explored the concept of the city as a multilayered cultural palimpsest by focusing on the historical Paul Revere House, the history of the North End, and the figure of Paul Revere himself. By zooming in through the different layers of a city, from its big picture to the level of the particular individuals that inhabit them, this project aimed to bring forth the concept of a city as a constantly evolving network of elements that together give rise to sociocultural life across time. Our analysis could probably continue zooming in on the city ad infinitum, but hopefully this exhibition managed to introduce the idea that none of these elements should be analyzed in a vacuum, but rather as part of a larger set of urban elements, tied to each other’s nature inherently and irrevocably.
For the full project text and images, see http://dighist.fas.harvard.edu/courses/2015/HUM54/exhibits/show/paul-revere-house
URBAN/WILD DUALITY IN THE BACK BAY FENS AND THE ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM:
Constructed in the last decades of the nineteenth century, and bound in both progression and devolution, the neighboring Back Bay Fens and Isabel Stewart Gardner Museum form a reflecting relationship, refracted but forever linked in the changing landscape of the Fenway district. Both landmarks have attempted to tame an urban wild, the driving force of nature, both human and environment– and both have found themselves unavoidably attentive to its wiles. As time has passed, and new layers of usage have shaped the palimpsestic landscape of the Fenway, the original tensions and relationship nevertheless remain between the two cultural loci and their confrontation with the urban habitat.
Iconic landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, best known for Central Park and the Chicago World’s Fair, sketched a plan for what he called the Back Bay Fens in 1887 as a way to clean up the polluted marsh wasteland and attract new life to the area. He believed in the “sanitary” benefits of a park, with its green space for people to enjoy, and anticipated the area to attract wealthy homeowners (1). The people that were to buy the surrounding property, however, were rather from the larger institutions of education, medicine, and, most saliently, culture and the fine arts. Isabella Stewart Gardner first bought a parcel next to the Back Bay Fens in 1899 to make her Venetian-style museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts followed suit ten years later (2). The Boston T cuts right through the MFA, relegating the Gardner to a backyard inferiority that is doubly obscured by the Fenway road and its constant traffic. Despite the quiet crowding of high-minded establishments on the Gardner museum, this corner of the Fenway region has cycled through sinusoidal scumminess, punctuated by construction projects and the opposing, constant strength of the nature that inhabits it.
Today, between the remnants of Olmsted’s bridge and a new construction site, a stretch of the near-stagnant water captures a distorted reflection of a new installation on the Northern side of the museum, Fenway Deity: Large Inflatable Garden Deity aka Garden Deity with Gold Chain. Another bridge down, another bend in the river offers a similarly bendy glimpse of a double Prudential Center. These post-modern creations seem perversions of the Boston Brahmin intentions of such big thinkers as Olmsted and Gardner. The psychedelic buoyancy of the “Fenway deity” reveals another attempt of the museum to stay synchronistic with its surroundings, catering to the youth culture of the encompassing educational institutions and the artifice of the glitzy downtown construction projects like the Prudential.
The found-object landscape of the Fens inverts the intentionality of a painstakingly curated museum. What, after all, is the distinction between careless abandonment and careful placement when both actions produce a dynamic collection of meaningful pieces?
The two loci originally would have been much more similar in nature. Since prehistory, they belonged to one indiscriminate swath of swampland. Olmsted and Gardner each agonized over the curation of the space; the famous architect first in 1878 with his preserving of the native marsh plants, and Gardner twenty-one years later, who was attracted to the scenic urban wild of the Fenway green spaces and correspondingly placed her Venetian palace model around a verdant courtyard and surrounded by a lush garden.
Neither curation was able to retain its complete original plans. In 1910, the Charles River dam project flooded the Fens with freshwater, robbing Olmsted’s creation of its intended brackish plants. Two of his constructed bridges, and few of the trees he planted survive today. In 1990, thirteen works of art were stolen from the Gardner museum and are still at large. Neither generous funding nor careful formulations could keep the two landmarks safe from the whims of the urban wild.
It’s a toss-up between who’s noisier, the squawking geese or honking cars. Both use the route between the Gardner museum and the nearby segment of the Fens as a thoroughfare for their commutes. Olmsted created the Fenway road as a lilting, panoramic avenue that even enabled commuters to enjoy the green space, but the rise of the automobile has now given the stretch a constant soundtrack of beeps, whirs, and sirens, a constant clunkiness of monochromatic metals, and a constant whiff of gasoline. The lawns are littered with goose refuse, and the jolting launch of these somewhat domesticated fowl.
Which commuter is the true inhabitant, whose presence more distracting? For indeed, their perpetual existence skimming the park line makes their commute an occupation, like an airport or bus station that, with eyes blurred, cannot be determined if new objects are coming and going or if the same ones have always been there, only constantly shifting and buzzing. The busyness of these occupants makes it difficult to appreciate the late afternoon light as it dapples over the low-lying buildings, “giant finned cars nos[ing] forward like fish” flashing behind the reeds of thin tree borderline.
And which driver has more agency?
The goose can crisscross the road at will, the car creature stuck in congestion. The pedestrian, the lowliest of them all, has to wait a good minute to be able to move across the intersection.
Nearby, on the other side of the creek from the museum, a newly-constructed astroturf and baseball field caters to those Bostonians who have clung to childhood dreams of Fenway fame. There are a few spectators who have paused in their routine commutes; an older couple sit watching the players, as a gaggle of geese preen their feathers and eye the game.
The geese become more urban, more commanding, more free than the dumbed down current of cars and the piercing wildebeest of emergency vehicles. The boundary is blurred, between the park and the museum, the path and the road, the wild and the civilized.
For the full project text and images see http://dighist.fas.harvard.edu/courses/2015/HUM54/exhibits/show/urban-wildduality/urban-wild-duality
Geographic Representation & Speculation I: 2014
Maps do not represent reality, they create it. As a fundamental part of the design process, the act of mapping results in highly authored views of a site. By choosing what features, forces, and flows to highlight—and implicitly, which to exclude—the designer first creates the reality into which their intervention will be situated and discussed. Furthermore, the usage and materiality of space is increasingly measured, categorized, and circulated by all manners of institutions; these competing data representations often become the primary way of understanding and responding to a site. Designers are in the difficult position of approaching these geographic datasets critically while simultaneously employing them in their work. It is not enough to represent complicated networks of site forces and interactions as a neutral backdrop to one’s design; we are tasked with actively shaping them.
It is within the framework of a highly-authored design process that this course presents the fundamentals of geographic analysis and visualization.
Students: Andy Wisniewski, Natasha Harper, Andreas Viglakis, Adam Tanaka
Geographic Representation & Specualtion II: 2015
Over the course of a semester, the students worked extensively with techniques of geospatial analysis in GIS. Using ESRI’s ArcMap software, they explored data sources, data models, topological overlays, map algebra, spatial statistics, terrain analysis, and suitability modeling, among others. The students learned how to embed these techniques within larger design workflows.They addressed the visualization of spatial analysis in its various forms using Illustrator, Photoshop, and physical modeling. They have also treated mapping as an active part of the design process – where the speculative use of spatial data provides the context for 2D and 3D design proposals in Rhino. These designs will then feed back into the GIS environment as additional layers for analysis and modeling.
The last portion of the semester was devoted to visualizing geospatial data using the Processing language. The basics of coding with Processing was taught with a specific focus on representing analysis produced by students in the GIS environment
Boston is full of green spaces such as the Emerald Necklace, bike trails, and smaller pieces of greenery that make ordinary spaces feel more special. Focusing on Boston and surrounding areas, this Freshman Seminar will explore the ideas behind making cities “green” in the first place. Since the 19th century, landscape architects, planners, government officials, and the public alike differed over where such spaces should be built, who should enjoy them, and what naturalistic ideas these areas were supposed to convey. More generally, the course will provide students with an introduction to the application of environmental thought to planning.
American cities have changed in extraordinary ways. In the last half of the 20th century, there was gloom about urban life and many cities were projected to decline and decay. Many did but Boston and other cities blossomed, becoming models of urban renaissance. Using Boston as a case, this course considers issues of economic change, technology, neighbourhood inequality, political governance, elite relations, cultural institutions, crime, race and ethnic relations, immigration, gentrification and suburbanisation.
This multi-disciplinary course uses Boston’s dramatic economic, demographic, and physical transformations over the last several decades to help students better appreciate, understand and participate in contemporary urban life. In particular, it explores four central questions at the heart of any conversation about any city: How do things work? What do they mean? How do things get done, and how should they get done? To answer these questions, the course draws on a wide number of sources and disciplines, as well as presentations by notable local practitioners, student visits to different parts of Boston, and a variety of writing assignments. In all of that work, we take seriously that studying a city, and teaching a Gen Ed course, is an exercise in dissonance, plurality, and negotiation.
Collective Ethnography: Exploring Dorchester and Roxbury through neighborhood institutions:
For their third assignment, students in US24 visited a variety of ‘third spaces’ in Dorchester and Roxbury, such as libraries, coffee shops, bars, restaurants, community and religious centers, and other businesses. As part of their assignment, students submitted a brief (2-3 paragraph) description of the place they visited and what they observed there, a photograph of that place, and, in some cases, audio from their visit as well. We used these submissions to build this collective online ethnographic map, which also served as the basis of section discussion about the neighborhoods and the sites where community comes together.
CLICK HERE TO SEE THE ETHNOGRAPHIC MAP AND READ STUDENTS’ OBSERVATIONS ABOUT THE GATHERING PLACES
Observation of Public Life:
What can we learn about Boston from public spaces? Are destinations such as City Hall Plaza and the Rose Kennedy Greenway uniquely Boston? Do these spaces reinforce (or contradict) particular images of Boston? Do the city’s public spaces work well and, if so, who do they work for? Who don’t they work for?
For the first project of the semester, students in USW24 carefully observed public life at Faneuil Hall and one of the following iconic public spaces in Downtown Boston of their choosing: City Hall Plaza, The Rose Kennedy Greenway, Haymarket Square, Christopher Columbus Park, Long Wharf/ New England Aquarium Plaza, Paul Revere Mall and Post Office Square. During their visit, they were asked use sketches and photographs to record patterns they observed.
City Hall Plaza: click here for all projects
Rose Kennedy Greenway: click here for all projects
Haymarket: click here for all projects
Christopher Columbus Park: click here for all projects
Long Wharf/Aquarium Plaza: click here for all projects
Paul Revere Mall: click here for all projects
Post Office Square: click here for all projects
As part of the course Reinventing (and Reimagining) Boston: The Changing American City, students visited and explored one of four neighborhoods in Boston: Charlestown, South Boston, the South End, and East Boston. During their visit — and in conjunction with readings on such subjects as “Broken Windows” and other signs of neighborhood conditions — each student chose an “indicator” that they thought would help them better understand the neighborhood. Each student was required to submit one photograph illustrating some notable aspect of the neighborhood, a map showing demographic or socio-economic information, and an essay that answered the following questions:
What did you expect to see?
What do you actually see?
What are those things symptoms of?
What might they tell you about the neighborhood?
Charlestown: click here for all projects
East Boston: click here for all projects
South Boston: click here for all projects
South End: click here for all projects
An interpretive look at the American city in terms of changing attitudes toward urban life. City and suburb are experienced as the product of design and planning decisions informed by cultural and economic forces, and in relationship to utopian and pragmatic efforts to reinterpret urban traditions in search of contemporary alternatives. Topics include: persistent ideals such as the single-family home, attitudes toward public and private space, the rise of suburbs and suburban sprawl, cycles of disinvestment and renewed interest in urban centers, and impacts of mobility and technology on settlement patterns.
The contemporary city is constituted by multiple overlapping realities articulated across built form and imagined space, individual experience and collective memory, embodied sensation and digital mediation. Often, these multiple realities are invisible or illegible. However, realities always leave traces, to be excavated and reconstructed. The Mixed-Reality City is a combined seminar and workshop in which students pursue studies of urbanism-in-the-making through means and methods emerging in the digital arts and humanities, including: data narrative, digital ethnography, adversarial design, and critical technical practice. The course focuses in equal parts on unpacking discourses and developing interpretative digital artifacts.
Humanities Studios are project-based courses designed to foster translational thinking. They combine in-depth research, design thinking, and hands-on training with digital tools and media in an environment that involves sustained cross-disciplinary teamwork. At once practical and experimental, Humanities Studio courses renew the relevance of the critical and narrative tools of the arts and sciences for a world in which technology is a means of inquiry.
In the late nineteenth century, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead proposed for Boston an “Emerald Necklace,” a series of parks and greenways linking around the city in a ring. Though the park system is celebrated today, it is not complete according to Olmstead’s original vision. Franklin Park and South Boston were to be connected by a linear parkway along Columbia Road – but this section was never built, despite periodically recurring interest over the centuries from the government, community, and private sector alike. Though we often conceive of nature as pure and at a remove from the quotidian, the story of this missing link illuminates the profound connections between nature and capital, so contentious and capricious that development proposals for Columbia Road are actively being debated today.
The development of Boston’s South Bay is deeply intertwined with the city’s struggles with immigration and race. South Bay was once 138 acres covered with water. “Land reclamation” efforts – landfill – began in 1845 and continued well into the twentieth century, as the city scrambled to create attractive residential areas to keep middle-class Yankees in and new Irish immigrants out. But the underlying landscape betrayed its origins: by 1870, the area was filling with sewage draining in from surrounding neighborhoods and flooding during storms. Today, as immigrants face executive orders and the climate changes at an increasingly rapid pace, it becomes increasingly urgent for us to examine South Bay with an eye towards learning from projects past.
The Southwest Corridor encapsulates 1960s urban renewal, 1970s protest, and 1980s participatory democracy in a single narrative on a narrow stretch of land extending from the South End to Forest Hills. In the fifties and sixties, plans were developed for a twelve-lane highway extending through established Boston neighborhoods into Cambridge. As demolition pressed forward, protestors pressed back, and in 1969, highways funds were diverted towards instead developing mass transit and open space. Though the resulting park and subway line has some dark undersides – resources were diverted from other areas, class separation was reinforced, and selective underinvestment remains an issue – Southwest Corridor Park ultimately shows us what a good collaborative design process is capable of.