The Emerald Necklace of Boston offers a bucolic experience through the city of Boston via an unbroken path of park and natural elements, as a break from city life. But this break from city life obscures the truth and reality of the city which the Emerald Necklace serves. A walking tour through a similar transect of the Emerald Necklace vicinity reveals a more complex experience of race inequalities and urban renewal. This is evidently clear if you were to trace a parallel or “shadow” path through the neighborhoods that the Necklace crosses through.
Let’s Begin at Franklin Park – one of Frederick Law Olsmted’s “Big Three” parks, alongside Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City. Does Franklin Park feel like a Central or Prospect Park today in 2019? In short, not quite. The paths are not well maintained, structures are dilapidated, and the grassy fields are weedy and uncared for. Does this sound like Boston Common, or Boston Public Garden? A hint: no. These are all parks on the Emerald Necklace, but clearly Franklin Park receives the short end of the stick in funding and priority for maintenance. One can observe that Franklin Park lies in the part of Boston whose residents are overwhelmingly minorities or peoples of color. As for the Common or the Public Garden? They lie in the wealthiest, whitest neighborhoods of the city. Indeed, the redlining maps from “Undesign the Redline” closely match the racial composition of Boston neighborhoods today (with exceptions), and shows that Franklin Park borders formerly redlined communities.
From Franklin Park, one encounters the William Lloyd Garrison House, which is the former home of William Lloyd Garrison, who was one of the most articulate and influential advocates of the abolitionist movement against slavery in the United States. The house finds itself in the middle of Roxbury, which today is a center of Black culture and community in the city of Boston. The lack of notoriety surrounding this critical landmark begs one to wonder – why is this house not celebrated or actively touted as a must-see destination. One begins to wonder at this second stop of the walking tour, why are these destinations that are located in predominantly Black and/or lower income neighborhoods not well maintained or celebrated? Urban renewal spared destruction on large swaths of Roxbury and Franklin Park, and so to this day they retain their historical character. But are these historic neighborhoods celebrated like the North End or Back Bay are? It becomes clear that there is perhaps a flaw in our historical value system of which monuments, parks, and neighborhoods are important. Just from these first two stops we see that historically redlined neighborhoods are still undervalued relative to their counterparts of equal historical significance located in whiter neighborhoods.
The Madison Park Technical Vocational High School is an architectural monument unto itself to the urban renewal era in Boston. It’s a concrete monolith that breaks from the architectural heritage of the surrounding neighborhoods. The stated goal of this high school was to improve education for residents with a modern, sophisticated establishment. From the perspective of a walking tour, one wonders: does this school serve the Roxbury community which it is located in? Did urban renewal in the example of the school improve the neighborhood, or help counter lingering legacies from the redlining era? Does the Boston Public School’s enrollment and bussing system help this high school and the Roxbury community, or does the school benefit more those outside of the community?
Across the street and down the block, the next stop on the walking tour is the Boston Police Headquarters. Why is the headquarters located on the edge of a major private university and a lower income neighborhood of people of color? The Jim Vrabel’s A People’s History of the New Boston explains that the placement of the headquarters was intended to make the Roxbury neighborhood safer and thus encourage economic development. That was in the sixties and seventies – in 2019, does it seem like the headquarters achieved that? In today’s consciousness of police treatment of Black people and people of color, as seen in the Black Lives Matter movement, would residents of Roxbury today say they feel safer because of the headquarters being in their neighborhood? Would they say they feel less safe?
I feel that these first three sites on the walking tour effectively raise questions on urban renewal and race in the city of Boston for the rest of the sites on the walking tour. Who was urban renewal for? Why are certain historical landmarks celebrated and marketed, while others are effectively ignored? How does the placement of urban renewal projects in certain neighborhoods reflect the perceived success of said project in 2019? How are communities that have retained their historical character in spite of the urban renewal era continuing today?
The Lenox/Camden Public Housing Community lies on the border of Roxbury and the South End, and has not retained its historical architectural character. But can this be considered a success? Has this housing community improved the lives of its residents? Carter Playground was created when the Southwest Expressway was cancelled and turned into the Orange Line, but now a new type of urban renewal, “privatization” by Northeastern University threatens the public and community qualities of the park. With the new renovations of the park, who is Carter Field for? For the residents of Roxbury, or for the students at the elite research university? The Prudential Shopping Center was a massive urban renewal project, and today it’s a vibrant economic hub in the middle of architecturally preserved neighborhoods, as a modernist behemoth. It’s high end stores are popular and the office space is filled with high paying jobs, but who are these jobs and stores for? The Prudential is a success, but is it successful for everyone?
Trinity Church is a protected and valued historic church in the upscale, historic Back Bay neighborhood, celebrated for the architectural and social heritage. But are there not similar churches of equal value in poorer, more diverse neighborhoods, that are celebrated much less so? What makes us value Trinity Church so valued in spite of others? The Boston Public Garden is a significant stop on this walking tour, as thoughts about the quality and value of certain public spaces brought to light at the beginning in Franklin Park can be answered. The Public Garden is clearly well maintained, highly visited, and valued by all. Is its proximity to affluent neighborhoods and historically not-redlined neighborhoods the cause of its continued prioritization over parks in poorer neighborhoods like Franklin Park?
The Museum of African American History is one of the more striking stops along this walking tour. It’s located in the affluent, predominantly white neighborhood of Beacon Hill. Beacon Hill is celebrated for so much: its architecture, its age, for being the seat of the Massachusetts State House. This heritage was spared from urban renewal, however, the Museum of African American History is not one of those things it’s generally celebrated for. Is this because it’s in a white neighborhood? What does this say about our value system that this museum is one of the most prominent neighborhoods of the city, yet it’s one of the least known ones?
The case of the Liberty Hotel raises significant questions on race in Boston and in the United States. It’s an historical building that survived urban renewal, even as every building around it was torn down and rebuilt. It exists today as an incredibly upscale establishment, and is celebrated for being a former prison. The former prison part of its history contributes much to the assumed grandeur and posh-ness of the hotel today. Who does this hotel serve, who is the clientele? How does the clientele reflect the racial or economic demographics of incarceration in the city and the nation as a whole?
The walking tour concludes at Boston City Hall, which is arguable the most contested building in the entire city and one of the most contested results of the urban renewal era. What does it say about a city who puts its seat of power into a new, provocative building? Did urban renewal help open-up city government to more residents of the city? What does City Hall’s status as a continued controversial building say or reflect in the unresolved issues of race and wealth in Boston today?
In conclusion, it is clear that the legacy of redlining and urban renewal (or lack there-of) on the city of Boston is complicated. What is not complicated however, and becomes ever more clear with additional observations and research, is that places and perhaps by extension, people, are valued more in whiter and more affluent neighborhoods in Boston. This walking tour reveals that neighborhoods, parks, and landmarks of equal historical significance and influence are given different levels of priority, value, and pride based on their location in the city of Boston. These locations unfortunately draw numerous similar parallels to the redlining of a bygone era, that persists stubbornly today.