Tour of Jamaica Plain – Adam Brousseau




For me, the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston has always been a region difficult to understand at face value. Along the waterfront of Jamaica Pond, homes appear expensive and well maintained, suggesting affluence. This is consistent with the perception I’ve always had of Jamaica Plain as a more posh, suburban district within the city proper. As it turns out, this notion isn’t really true. Yes, the waterfront, especially along the Jamaicaway actually is as affluent as it looks, but walking deeper into Jamaica Plain showed me just how much this part of the neighborhood is the exception, not the rule. As I ventured eastward, away from Jamaica Pond, the affluence seemed to slowly fade away, though not nearly as quickly as I might have otherwise expected. This can mainly be attributed to the multitude of historical buildings that still stand in livable condition. Despite this, Jamaica Plain never ventures into anything aptly described as urban blight, nor did I encounter a “rough” feel anywhere in the neighborhood. It also turned out that Jamaica Plain’s socioeconomic history took the phrase “the other side of the tracks” very literally, given that the area previously redlined, and today one of the poorer looking areas, is sandwiched between the paths of the current and the previous Orange Line. Furthermore, even before construction of the new Orange Line, its path was marked by the tracks of a previous rail line, themselves forming a geographic barrier for the people of Jamaica Plain.

I think perhaps my rearticulation of the Emerald Necklace as a relational landscape came almost by accident, as I wasn’t really thinking about how to connect the Emerald Necklace to the overall theme when I was developing my idea for the tour. In a way, because I became interested in the Federal Housing Administration's use of Home Owners' Loan Corporation maps, the connection sort of made itself. The map of Jamaica Plain made it clear that the Jamaica Pond part of the Emerald Necklace had an impact on the rating of the area directly adjacent to it, while Arnold Arboretum and Franklin Park did not. I can only speculate as to why this is. Certainly it’s not accessibility, as though Franklin Park and the Arboretum are obstructed by the Arborway, so too is Jamaica Pond blocked by the Jamaicaway. Perhaps it could be visibility. Jamaica Pond is visible from most places west of Centre Street, while the Arboretum and Franklin Park are comparatively hidden. I however favor the theory that it is the mere fact of Jamaica Pond being a body of water which sets is apart, as a waterfront view is a much larger asset to the value of real-estate than park access alone. Beyond that, the few watersports permitted on Jamaica Pond, rowing and sailing, have always been fairly posh pastimes.

Apart from the effects of Jamaica Pond on real-estate values, I think perhaps a primary failing of my project is that it doesn’t craft any narratives about the Emerald Necklace period, let alone new ones. I think this particular idea may have gotten away from me, though I don’t feel as though this is problematic as I thoroughly fill this void with plenty of historical narrative on Jamaica Plain itself.

Where I do feel my tour had a fair bit of success was in evaluating the entangled histories of landscape preservation and urban segregation, while also integrating the deals, changed plans, and compromises which led to Jamaica Plains modern urban landscape. Whether talking about how the path of the current Orange Line has always been a geographic barrier, or talking about how the Washington Street Elevated depressed property values along its path for decades. Whether talking about Governor Sargent relenting to protest and cancelling the Southwest Expressway and building a new Orange Line below grade on its path, or the state establishing the South Street Community Garden to placate the community where they had just built an eyesore with the State Lab building, only to try to go back on this promise many years later when the state wanted to make money on the property. Jamaica Plain, thanks to its deeply ingrained culture of community involvement, has a neighborhood history full of these negotiations and compromises. Though simply returning to the question of the balance between landscape preservation and combating urban segregation, it seems to me that Jamaica Plain’s recent history has been one of advancing both causes in tandem, each motivated by the other.

Certainly, it is all but written in giant letters on a glittering marquee, how closely my tour resonates with The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. Namely, the great connection being the fixation with the Federal Housing Administration's use of Home Owners' Loan Corporation maps. I will be the first to admit that the key difference is in Rothstein’s analysis of race based on the mistreatment the maps enabled, while I largely ignored the subject, choosing instead to evaluate only socio-economic impacts. Perhaps one could consider this divergence evidence of a further failure in my project, though I don’t see it this way. Perhaps race was once the target or the victim of these factors in Jamaica Plain, I admittedly didn’t look into it, but here like anywhere else the real weapon is the money. And further, if we hope to reverse these effects, we can no longer do it on the pretext of race, we will have to fix it through the money, through the property rights, the affordability guarantees, and the land trusts.

So yeah, I created the tour of the Emerald Necklace and racialization that really doesn’t talk about either. Really, what I created is a greatest-hits tour of Jamaica Plain as it is now, but one which asks the reader to look around, and imagine the forces which shaped how the streets and the buildings look along the way, and to notice the embedded hints that provide a glimpse into the future of the neighborhood, and I think that’s as important a way to frame it as any.