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One of the most interesting stories about Boston is its relation to both the natural and its own built environments. Like all cities, Boston is a very carefully constructed and managed eco-system. Boston has attacked and challenged its natural environment, filling in the Back Bay, pulling down the hills, and creating a ‘natural’ artificial oasis in the centre of the city in the form of the Common and Public Gardens.
And then there’s the relationship of the city to its own built environment. Boston’s downtown core is claustrophobic and composed of winding streets that seem to have no logic of their own. It was for this reason that the wealthy of the city, the Brahmins, began to relocate to Beacon Hill, where the glorious gold-domed State House is. There, they were able to create more space for themselves and their townhomes, and have quick and easy access to the Common and, ultimately, the Public Garden. And then the inner city of Boston, claustrophobic and confusing, became home to the immigrants, many of them refugees from the Irish Famine of 1845-52. This, of course, is how Boston became Irish. But, in this cramped inner city, public health was a nightmare, the streets were filthy, over-crowing was common, as was disease. Here, the built environment created unsanitary conditions when mixed with the poverty of these immigrants and other working class people.
The built environment of the city is a central component of a city’s story, therefore. And public health is a major perspective to look at an urban centre through. In the 19th century, the major cities of Europe and North America were rocked by epidemic after epidemic, all of them caused by the unsanitary conditions of the inner city. But, of course, medicine in the 19th century had not yet caught up. Diseases were thought to be caused by bad air, or other things. Parasites, germs, and other icky things were beyond the ken. In 1854, in London, a cholera epidemic stumped the city’s best doctors. But then one young doctor, John Snow, began to notice the geographical nature of the epidemic and came to realize that all of the affected homes got their water from a single water pump on Broad Street, now Broadwick Street. He also was able to connect the reservoir for this pump to a polluted part of the Thames River, which, he argued, caused the cholera. Later researchers also discovered the reservoir was mere metres from an old cesspit, and human fecal matter had entered the water supply. Snow’s research was a major breaktrhough but it was not immediately seized upon by the medical community. And thus, the shuffling through epidemics in the 19th century continued for almost another quarter century.
Michael Rowson’s book, Eden on the Charles, considers Boston from this environmental perspective. This book so successfully take us through the city and its surrounding areas and examine how the urban and natural environments interact. Last week, we read about the Boston Common.
This week, we will read chapters 3 and 4 of Rowson and consider the enclosing of the suburbs and the re-creation of the Boston Harbor.
Write a reflection and intensify by focusing on the interesting parts from the chapters. Do not write your information as a summary of the chapters. Explain how they connect to things you’ve learned in other courses. (500 – 750 words)
Note: You may also compare your paper with “ A Short History of Boston” by Robert Allison and give some examples from it.
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