North of the fabled Beacon Hill, on the Cambridge side of the Charles River, a forgotten railyard’s cracked asphalt and overgrown grasses are slowly making way for the transformative forces of urban intensification.
NorthPoint, spanning 44 acres of former Pan Am Railway land just outside of downtown Boston, is a planned $2 billion neighbourhood along the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) Green Line light rail transit (LRT) line. A mixture of residential, office, retail buildings and a variety of parks are planned for the site, which is hemmed in by highways, interchanges and rail yards still in operation. On hold since 2007, construction is now restarting thanks to a new team of investors (including an investment fund back by former Los Angeles Laker Earvin “Magic” Johnson).
Cities across North America are seeing new interest in their downtowns through redevelopment and condominium construction, and NorthPoint promises to be one of the largest projects of its kind in New England. Yet it is that sheer size that is putting it at odds with the collective wisdom of Boston’s megaproject-fatigued population. Although NorthPoint is planned for vacant land, it still fails to grasp the lessons learned from the city’s previous attempts at “modern” development.
Urban renewal, as it was known then, promised to thrust the City into the space age. In 1954, the John F. Fitzgerald Expressway (removed in 2007 as part of the “Big Dig” project) was built through downtown, dividing the North End from the rest of the city to the west and destroying an entire neighbourhood underneath it in the process. Then between 1958 and 1960, Boston’s West End was bulldozed. Formally a dense neighbourhood of immigrants and working class families, its tight network of streets and shops was replaced with residential skyscrapers and expansive civic structures and plazas. The devastating impact this had on locals was well documented in Herbet J. Gans’ The Urban Villagers (1962). There were plans to do the same to the North End which was labelled a slum, but it escaped, albeit in the shadow of a concrete freeway.
The pursuit of the creation of modern living environments in Boston through urban renewal was the pursuit of a development ideology founded on ignorant assumptions and unchecked grandiosity. The civic leaders, planners, architects, and developers were so caught up in their own visions of how people should live, that they forget about how the people there actually do live.
After the unveiling of these places, there wasn’t a sudden popular outcry for the abandonment of traditional neighbourhoods in favour of their “modern” counterparts because the modern aesthetic and the megaproject construction process conflicted entirely with the functionality of an urban neighbourhood. They weren’t a reflection of true dynamic living environments; they were monuments to a false ideal.