To the Old Charlestown Schoolboys Association. I would like to Thank You for selecting me for one of the Schoolboy Scholarships. This Award will be put to good use as I continue my education at Stonehill College.
I want to thank you and the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) staff for including the Charlestown community in initial discussions regarding the parcel along the Little Mystic Channel in the Mystic River Designated Port Area (DPA). It is my understanding that this parcel if currently leased to the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), subleased to the Boston Auto-port, and is up for renewal. Although our waterfront has undergone significant changes since this lease was first entered in the 1970s, I do believe that preserving this parcel within the DPA for the near future is in the best interest of the maritime Industry in Boston.
Most importantly, what needs to happen immediately is a decision in writing and made available to the public on the future of the leased Little Mystic parcel that is under negotiation. There is some movement in the community to bring this land out of the DPA. If this is even a minor possibility for consideration, then a process should have begun months, if not years ago. If removing the DPA is not up for serious consideration that those intentions need to be expressed immediately, so that the Charlestown neighborhood can focus on other pressing projects facing the community.
I say this knowing that even if we: the community, Massport, BPDA, The Division of Coastal Zone Management and other elected officials were all rowing in the same direction on this parcel, which we are not, the task of removing such an area form the DPA would take a monumental upstream effort. Furthermore, even if successful, the subsequent uses would still be abutting a working port, isolated from the rest of the community and along a truck route.
A public battle over the future designation of this parcel, if there are no intentions of changing the use, is divisive and irresponsible. As I mentioned earlier, I support the continued use of the Little Mystic as a DPA property. I do not have to love it to understand its regional importance. I also do not want to see my community used as a pawn between quasi-government agencies in a contract negotiation. However, I do see the potential renewal of this lease as an opportunity to revisit the BPDA’s and Massport’s mission and commitment to the waterfront in Charlestown. Particularly, I urge us all to use the current interest and energy surrounding this parcel as an impetus for dialogue; but, with a switch toward much more attainable goals for the community and the waterfront.
It is my strong belief that community efforts are best used to improve the already existing underutilized public park in that DPA that is adjacent to the parcel in question. This public lane today, is an asphalt parking lot with a nearly unused boat ramp. Every effort should be made to make this space a more practical waterfront attraction with accessible waterborne amenities. The boat ramp itself, from what I have been told by recreational boaters, is a quality launch point that lacks fundamental features for basic boating use. In particular, there is no place to tie up a boat once launched. This makes picking up passengers and/or parking a tow vehicle nearly impossible. A small public dock would make this ramp much more practically accessible. A dock cold also make the Little Mystic a more user friendly space for community boating experiences. For instance, there were talks of kayaking and other sports opportunities proposed for the Navy Yard; there is not a better place to each urban children how to access the harbor than a boating program they can see form their housing complex. The allure of the ocean itself will sell such a program. I would even go so far as to suggest that a revenue generating opportunity may be available here; such as a clam shack, bait shop or equipment rentals, etc.
For a wider vision of the Charlestown waterfront, I would like to see Massport and the BPDA enter into comprehensive planning discussions as to what our new waterfront will look like in the future. Continuing the Harbor walk has been a longtime goal. I wholeheartedly support this concept. I would also ask that we take a look at sections of our port area that are underutilized. I envision not just recreational uses along the water but practical daily uses for commuting and other activities that tie our neighborhood together. I cannot think of a better message than to take the abandoned rail-bed along Medford Street, once proposed as a truck haul road, and turn it into a multi-model bike and pedestrian path. This rail-bed with the right vision, could connect the Navy Yard and two housing developments to the Sullivan Square MBTA station. Improving the sight lines alone will bring this public transportation hub closer to the community.
There is also much discussion as to increasing the need for field space in Charlestown. Barry Playground, “The Oily”, along Medford and Chelsea Streets has a softball diamond with a large open field. This park is situated at the edges of two large housing complexes that contain many school-aged children. An investment by the parties to the Little Mystic could be made to make this park usable year-round. Even if just the outfield was turned into a synthetic turf field it would open thousands of square feet of year round practice and game space. The Mel Stillman Tennis Center is also another recreational facility in the vicinity that could use so me attention. A new seasonal enclosure would not only benefit tennis programming, but could also be sued by others as indoor recreational space.
Daniel J. Ryan
We need a master plan
As Charlestown approaches its 400th birthday, it might be worthwhile to reflect on its past as it plans for its future.
Eighteenth-century British historian John Oldmixon called Charlestown the Mother of Boston. She, that is Charlestown, in a way did give birth to Boston. She was settled first. It was lack of water that led settlers off the peninsula to Shawmut (Boston). Except for Salem, Charlestown is the oldest settlement of Massachusetts Colony and was considered its capital.
At the time of the Battle of Bunker Hill there were between two and three thousand inhabitants and about 400 structures. When battle was imminent, women and children fled the town. The men remained to fight. Many died and the town was burnt to the ground. That’s why, unlike Salem, for example, there are no seventeenth century structures here.,
Charlestown became part of Boston in 1874. In the early 1900s the elevated railway went up along Main Street, carrying passengers from Medford and Somerville to downtown. I often wondered what it was like for people living along Main Street, to have to endure the noise, clatter and dirt from the elevated. To lose the sunlight. While the railway offered faster ways to access downtown, the effect on Main Street and surrounding streets was disastrous. Businesses closed, houses were boarded up. By the 1950s Charlestown’s population had dropped 40 percent. In addition to laying down of elevated train tracks across Main Street, Charlestown endured other damaging government planning. There was the 1942 razing of a neighborhood to build the Bunker Hill Housing Development. In the 1950s dozens of homes were bulldozed to build the Tobin Bridge. The town, in essence, became a sitting duck for the newly formed Boston Redevelopment Authority’s heralded Urban Renewal. The West End had been razed as part of the BRA’s revitalizing slum clearance initiative. Within several weeks time, with little advanced notice, the BRA displaced 7,000 West End residents. Charlestown was next. In April 1960, the head of the BRA described Charlestown as a ‘slum, as bad as any I have ever seen.’
To mobilize Charlestown, and protect it, a group of residents formed the Federation of Charlestown Organizations. Robert L. Lee of Winthrop Street served as the federation’s president, overseeing the activities of more than 50 local organizations, including the Boys Club, Charlestown Historical Society and the Daughters of Isabella. Sounding like a great orator, Lee told federation members they were engaged in a battle, not unlike the Battle of Bunker Hill. Lee passionately called for a ‘resurrection’ in Charlestown.
Joining the older, more established groups in the federation was a new organization that called itself SHOC, which stood for Self Help Organization of Charlestown. SHOC’s members were homeowners, parents of children who attended local schools, factory workers and professionals. Led by its president, Leo Baldwin, SHOC went on high alert. One SHOC member drove his station wagon through the town, shouting through a bullhorn, for residents to pay attention to what had happened in the West End.
In his book ‘Planning the City upon a Hill,’ Lawrence W. Kennedy noted that 90 percent of Charlestown residences were earmarked for rehabilitation, which, in broad definition could mean anything from forced remodeling to forced surrender of property under eminent domain.
For six weeks SHOC members traveled every morning, five days a week, to Boston City Hall to attend Redevelopment Hearings on Charlestown, sponsored by Boston City Council and the BRA. SHOC members took their places in the gallery to listen before taking their place at the microphone to protest urban renewal in Charlestown.
My mother was one of SHOC’s members. She, a stay-at-home mother of seven once reminisced: ‘I don’t even know how we got the car fare to go there every day but we knew we had to. All the mothers knew that. We had to be there.’ These residents brought the needed attention to Charlestown’s plight, provided the necessary resistance and, in light of the West End debacle, with BRA public relations in tatters, coerced BRA officials to revise Charlestown plans.
A BRA local office within Charlestown’s boundaries was established. A series of meetings began. Revisions included the promise that no more that 11 percent of the homes would be taken. The BRA began a massive long-range $64 million renewal project, emphasizing remodeling of existing homes and low-cost loans available to homeowners. These actions toward a true redevelopment, along with the razing of the elevated train in 1976, began the preservation of the Charlestown neighborhood.
What, then, does Charlestown’s former history have to do with now? Charlestown presently has the greatest population density of any of Boston’s neighborhoods, yet building continues, creating worse pollution and traffic jams that have to be experienced to fathom. Studies show the pernicious long-term effect of overbuilding on health and welfare.
As a woman mentioned at a meeting last week, except for its initial settlement in 1628-1629, Charlestown has never had a Master Plan. Couldn’t the city once again engage with the residents to hear their concerns? Early Charlestown literature speaks of the beauty here. In Travels in New England and New York, Timothy Dwight wrote of Charlestown: The peninsula presents a site for one of the most beautiful towns in the world. One of the most beautiful towns in the world. That is the legacy of Charlestown. This is our legacy. This is our responsibility.
Some sections are from ‘Struggling to Keep their Homes: Charlestown and the BRA’, by Helen O’Neil. Originally published in Charlestown Bridge, Nov. 9, 2005.