Travels in Time



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Travels in Time
The area now known as Chinatown has changed in many ways since it was first settled. It has been a wharf district, a residential neighborhood, a home for Chinese immigrants, and a valuable cultural and commercial part of Boston. Using mostly Sanborn maps and my own observations, I have traced its history through these changes and tried to explain their causes.

Beginnings


Much of Chinatown and the South End were underwater when Boston was settled in the 1600’s. Little filling in was done in the area until the 19th century, so in 1722, the road that became Beach Street only went two blocks, from the corner of the Commons straight to the wharfs on the shore of Boston Harbor. Merchants and industrial buildings were probably common where my site is now because of the easy access to the water.

As the population grew, more land was needed and Boston expanded quickly. By 1852 the South End had been completely filled in and the street pattern was fixed. The grid that covered most of the South End followed the old waterfront; streets ran parallel to where the shores had been. To the west, the streets curved slightly to join the neat grid of the Back Bay area. In the area of my site, the streets had for the most part found their current names and locations. Beach St. was no longer anywhere near the shore, and it had more than doubled in length. To the north there was a slight kink – what Grady Clay called a “dog-leg break” (Clay 42) - that corresponded to the odd angle of the Boston Commons, and irregular street patterns continued north to downtown.



Development


The first Sanborn maps that came out in 1867 showed that the newly created land was already densely developed. The blocks lining Harrison Ave. were completely filled with buildings, with no gaps to the sides or backs between them. The block between Tyler and Hudson was also built in the same way, while those north of Beach Street had very narrow streets or alleys between the backs of buildings.

Few of these buildings were labeled on the maps, but a few details can be inferred. They were almost all masonry, and three stories high. This, along with their extremely uniform layout, suggests that they were constructed around the same time, and by the same developer. In the drawings they appear to be row houses like those described by Kenneth Jackson as the “basic form of residential building” (55). They were probably single-family housing in a working or middle-class residential neighborhood.

In Jackson’s book Crabgrass Frontier, he states that in the 1800’s there was a trend towards individual ownership of houses, especially among immigrants. This is reflected in the 1890 Bromley Atlas plates and Sanborn maps from 1885 and 1895. They labeled almost all of the buildings were dwellings, owned by individuals. Only a few were tenements. The names of the property owners on the Bromley plates, from both 1890 and 1902, suggested various European ancestries. The Sanborn maps also show a few stores and other land uses. There are two churches side by side on Kneeland between Hudson and Tyler Streets. Also on Kneeland, one more block to the west is the first evidence of a wave of immigrants: a tiny store labeled “Chinese Laundry.”

Chinatown


Things changed rapidly in the 13-year gap between Sanborns. The 1908 maps show the same buildings; the majority of them are still listed as dwellings, but written over almost all of them are the words “Chinese tenements.” Before, the buildings had been low-density housing, many probably owned and lived in by a single family. Chinese laborers started arriving in large numbers in the 1890’s, drawn to the area by jobs in nearby industries. It must have been profitable for established landowners to rent out rooms to the newly arrived workers, which explains the overlap of American owners, shown by the 1902 Bromley, and Chinese tenants. As time went on and more and more immigrants arrived, the white owners probably either sold their property or moved away while still renting it out. Today, the population of Chinatown is around 90% Asian, with much of the remaining 10% made up of African-Americans and Hispanics.

Changing Times


The immigrants and new technologies provided lots of diversity within my site. More stores appeared in each consecutive set of Sanborns, sometimes in basements, sometimes at ground level, and in some cases, filling an entire building. The labels are sometimes quite specific, showing how businesses sprang up to serve the communities needs. By 1908 a station for the Boston Elevated Railroad had been built in the middle of Beach St. between Harrison and Tyler. A Chinese school was established on Oxford St. and a Chinese temple was built on Tyler St. Several restaurants were listed in the same location where one exists today, and a poultry slaughterhouse on Beach St. near Harrison has been there since 1929. Large buildings were constructed on the northern boundaries of my site, where they are still being used for wholesale and industrial purposes.

Up until the 1950’s there was an accelerating shift into commercial and industrial land uses. In 1929, many of the houses were still intact and being lived in on the upper floors, but more and more stores appeared at street level and even in basements. Industrial use also increased, especially north of Beach St., where companies took up large portions of blocks, including the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company. Another invention that had come into everyday life was the automobile. Since 1908, the Elevated Railroad station had disappeared and parking lots were covering holes in the once-everywhere row houses.


Maps from 1951 showed that even more row houses had been torn down, replaced by industry or parking lots for the ever-increasing numbers of consumers and their cars that were drawn to the commercial district that had formed in the south section of my site. North of Beach Street, the N.E. Telephone and Telegraph company tore down the entire northern half of its block, including the a fork of Oxford Pl., and rebuilt a giant building that today bears a Verizon sign (NE T&T was later acquired by Bell Atlantic Corp., which recently changed its name to Verizon). Financial troubles due to the Great Depression and World War II played a part in the large number of buildings that were torn down. The area to the west of my site attracted more residents, especially as the section around Beach between Harrison and Hudson became more commercial.

Paying for Progress


The most sudden, and the most harmful, change came in the 1950’s with the construction of Boston’s Central Artery. As shown in this 1954 map from the planning commission, the highway cut right through the city and intersected my site on the right edge. Sanborn maps show that the areas east and south of my site was originally very similar, though they developed in different ways. Towards the east they became more heavily industrial, eventually reaching the rail yards of what would become South Station. This portion of the neighborhood was cut off sharply by the construction. A two-block wide swath was cut through houses and stores, leaving half-blocks intact on the east sides of Hudson and Edinboro.

The next available map after the completion of the Central Artery showed that land to the east had become purely industrial. The shops and dwellings had completely disappeared. Changes had also occurred on the West side of the highway, inside my site. Along Edinboro, there had previously been a mixture of residences, stores, and light industry. I looked at Sanborn maps from each decade between 1950 and 1990, and each leap forward in time showed fewer dwellings and more industrial uses and empty spaces that turned into parking lots.

The eastern blocks of my site, between Hudson, Edinboro, and the artery, were the hardest hit. The commercial and residential buildings on the Hudson block were torn down, and part of the block was paved over and incorporated into the highway. The large brick structure that I noted before was actually a ventilation shaft for the underground portion of the central artery. The land around it was shown as vacant on the maps for many years until the Boston Redevelopment Authority built the Chinatown Gateway Park there in 1982. The buildings on Edinboro that are closest to the artery are mostly vacant. They look dirty and run-down compared to the rest of my site.

The highway, as well as the construction process itself, probably played a part in driving away businesses and residents. When access to a store is even partially obstructed by construction, customers can be driven away, never to return. Noise and pollution during years of construction, then the constant drone of traffic after completion, would also have discouraged people from staying. Local industries expanded to fill some of the space, but there was apparently not enough demand, since some land is still unused today.



There is currently a city plan to renew the triangle near the Gateway in the next few years as part of the Big Dig project. It calls for a public space to be created, extending north from the current Gateway Park along Edinboro. It is discouraging to see the similarities between the failed neighborhood parks described in Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities and the current state of the Gateway Park and the new proposal, but based on trends I’ve found in studying my site, I think there is a decent chance that the project will succeed.

Rebirth


For over 100 years now, Chinatown, specifically the area included in my site, has been a place where immigrants can feel at home in a new world. More recently, it has been changing into a part of Boston that people visit in order to catch a glimpse of a different culture. In the past twenty to thirty years, the residents have put together many displays of Chinese and Asian American culture. This is partly for their own benefit, to maintain their sense of pride in their culture, and also to visitors and tourists. The Chinatown gateway and its guardian lions, the mural of scenes from traditional folktales painted on the brick building in adjacent Gateway Park, and the Chinese characters inscribed in marble tiles that are installed on sidewalks along Beach St. all have significance to residents, and they are also sites where you can often find people posing for photographs. This is the same kind of celebration of history in a modern setting as Quincy Market. As was discussed in class, the development of Quincy market drew people back to the downtown area. In a similar way, all kinds of people now visit Chinatown to see its landmarks and find delicious foods.
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