Boston - Birth And Rebirth

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On September 7, three hundred and fifty years ago, a ragged group of Puritans under John Winthrop chose a site on the New England shore and declared it suitable for a new town—one more pinprick of settlement for a land in which they hoped to find the spiritual regeneration that had eluded them in their native England.

They did not find regeneration, but they did establish what would become one of the premier cities of the world, and this year Boston is marking its three hundred and fiftieth birthday with seemly pomp, including tall ships sailing into Boston Harbor and a host of other events and exhibits sponsored by such private and civic organizations as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the New England Society for the Preservation of Antiquities, and Boston University.

But that anniversary is not the only just cause the city has for celebration. For in 1979—at the end of the mixed-bag decade of the 1970’s, when the city was as trammeled by strife and economic fibrillation as any in the country—Boston completed one of those rare urban projects that manage to achieve a splendid amalgamation of historic preservation, the developer’s itch, urban renewal, and the profit motive.

The idea that such normally hostile interests could be made to work together to produce something of value is a fairly new one. It was first dramatically demonstrated when a private developer, William Matson Roth, announced the opening of San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square in 1963, a sumptuous collection of shops and restaurants housed in an abandoned chocolate factory, a red-brick Victorian monument looming at the edge of San Francisco Bay. “It was a business deal,” Roth remarked of his creation. Musing over that statement, San Francisco historian Roger Olmsted got to the heart of the matter: “Translated into what should become Boardroom English, Roth was saying that there is sound money in amenity, that profit can be generated by ambience and association. … Every planner and promoter who has seen at least the first light should ponder carefully: ‘There has got to be more than eat and buy.’”

Three years later, the light was discerned by at least one Bostonian, architect Benjamin Thompson, and where it glared most brilliantly was in the city’s Waterfront Urban Renewal District—specifically that section of it known as the market district, which contained some of the oldest buildings in Boston. These included Faneuil Hall, a public meetinghouse and market built in 1742, enlarged by Charles Bulfinch in 1806, and called “The Cradle of Liberty” because of all the flaming speeches given there in pre-Revolutionary days; Quincy Market, built by Josiah Quincy in 1826, its 535-foot length pointing toward Boston Harbor, its center capped with a copper dome; and flanking the Quincy building on either side, North and South markets, also built by Josiah Quincy. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, this group of buildings had been the hub of Boston’s commerce; by the middle of the twentieth century, the district had become dingy, worn-down, and all but deserted.

Benjamin Thompson wanted to do something about that. So did the Boston Redevelopment Authority. And so did any number of avid developers, at least one of whom wanted to rip it all down and put up high-rise office buildings and apartments. Thompson had other ideas. He wanted to use the buildings, restore and refurbish them, make them the center of a commercial and historic revival, something with ambience and energy. Through persistence and persuasion—and the presence of James W. Rouse, a developer with the instincts of a William Matson Roth—he got his way.

Today, Faneuil Hall Marketplace, as the complex is called, is forbidden to automobiles, its open spaces planted to trees and given over to pedestrians. Pushcart vendors hawk their wares; restaurants clatter; boutiques abound; tourists and shoppers prod the fruit and vegetables in open stalls, buy slabs of meat in butcher shops, sniff out the fish in fish markets; the hungry feed on souvlaki, ayelah, fried dough, pizza, clams and oysters, frozen yogurt, cheeses and cheesecake—all of this amid a cluster of buildings that have been given back the purpose and dignity of their past.

Altogether, a splendid—and permanent—way to celebrate Boston’s birth.