As soon as John Winthrop and his gang of Puritans landed on the little temporary island known to the locals as Shawmut, they started digging and delving and filling marshes and swamps and inlets to build more land. Nothing new in all that, it seems to be a habit of Western culture; Rome was constructed around the Pontine Marshes, the Dutch put up massive dikes to keep the North Sea at bay, and Venice was built on pilings set in the marshy Venice Lagoon.
Boston, as the Shawmut came to be called, was separated from the mainland by a narrow little strip of land (now, basically, Washington Street) that flooded in spring tides, creating a tight little island. By the 1650s, more tidal streams were channeled, more marshes were filled, and more land was created over the centuries—including the massive filling of the banks of the Charles to create the famous Back Bay.
But coastlines are a fickle things, always coming and going. There was at time, not that long ago as geologic time is measured, when Boston sat under a mile of ice. And there was also a time when you could have hiked out to Georges Bank. Now according to a new study by the National Academy of Sciences, Boston could once more be under water (literally, not financially). The town is one of many coastal cities, including New York and Miami, that could see high tides flooding commonly used streets and neighborhoods in the next decades or so as a result of rising sea levels created by global climate change. And more high water to come in the next fifty years.
The last time Boston flooded entirely was about 11,000 years ago, as a result of the melting of the glacier.
This time around, it will happen from the same reason—melting ice—only this time it will be the polar ice cap and the 600,000 square mile Greenland ice sheet. And this time around, it will be our own fault.
My outdoor choice is Castle Island in South Boston. Great place to walk anytime, but particularly with the onset of Spring when the ocean air smells great and a hot dog at Sullivan's is the perfect reward for circling the whole Sugar Bowl.
The historic spot is the Old South Meeting House. Though there are many wonderful spots in Boston to experience its history, anytime I'm in this church, I can practically feel the place pulsating with 5,000 angry colonists on the eve of the Boston Tea Party.
And of course, the North End touches me personally in a way no other place in Boston does. All three of my immigrant grandparents lived there, my dad was brought up there, my parents dated at restaurants in the neighborhood, and the Italian experience is still vibrant and unrivaled. I feel comfortable there always, at one with my past, whether walking the crooked, narrow streets, spending a few minutes inside St. Leonard's Church, or enjoying dinner with friends. I've never lived there, but it's always felt like home.
Photos of North End by Jessie Bennett. Photo of St. Leonard's interior by wgdavis on Flickr.
John Hanson Mitchell is the author of The Paradise of All These Parts: A Natural History of Boston. concentrated much of his earlier early work, including, most famously, Ceremonial Time, on a square-mile tract of land known as Scratch Flat, located thirty-five miles northwest of Boston. He is the author of numerous books and editor of the award-winning magazine Sanctuary, published by the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Mitchell lives in Littleton, Massachusetts.
Not an easy question, actually, there are so many favorites, but two stand out:
The main one is probably the little warren of cobblestone streets in the North End between the Copp's Hill Burying Ground and the Paul Revere Mall and Hanover Street. I don't even remember the names of the streets and enjoy very much getting lost there.
Do Cambridge or Somerville count? Two of my favorites are: True Grounds Cafe in Ball Square, Somerville-- the best scones and most artful lattes in town. Also Porter Square bookstore in Cambridge, a wonderful independent bookstore with a warm atmosphere and a great series of readings.
Editor's note: I don't usually chime in with my own opinions, but I have to add that Beacon Hill is one of the most beautiful places in the Boston area, and it's an absolute joy to work here, especially in the springtime. Here are a few photos of my favorite spots, including, of course, Beacon Press headquarters! -- Jessie
Mention the Big Dig to anyone from the Boston metro area, and you're sure to get a response. The decades-long project to move Boston's highway traffic (the Central Artery) underground has been much maligned and dissected in the local media. Today's post, from John Hanson Mitchell, gives an overview of Boston's problematic relationship with vehicular traffic and reminds us of why the Big Dig is a boon to the city. Mitchell is the author of numerous books, including The Paradise of All These Parts: A Natural History of Boston, and editor of the award-winning magazine Sanctuary, published by the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
In spite of skyrocketing budget overruns, delayed construction, floods, ceiling collapses, and all the other ills that big construction projects are prone to, the Big Dig is far better than what used to be there. A short walk along the Rose Kennedy Greenway on a weekend after noon in summer is a case in point -- families picnicking, flowers blooming, grass growing, and children sporting under the classical Italianate water spouts.
It's been a while since the Central Artery came down, newcomers to the city may not even remember it, but in my mind, that THING, that veritable Berlin Wall, was the symbol of all that went wrong in this city back in the dark hours of the 1940s and 1950s when auto-crazed urban planners began to construct what they called without a hint of irony, "the New Boston."