Saturday, May 16, 2009

Boston landfills

Anthony Watts writes about the artificial land created in Boston. It's a topic that I have always found amazing, so I can't resist to write this simple text.

The Back Bay: the Trinity Church (1903) and the glassy Hancock Tower.

When I moved to Boston at the beginning of September 2001, I had a few days to get familiar with the city. As far as I remember, it was either Sunday September 2nd, 2001 or Monday September 3rd, 2001, when I went to the observatory at the Hancock Tower. The visitors could listen to the pilots landing at the Logan Airport.

It was the first time when I heard about the Boston Tea Party and it was a lot of fun to hear the Yankees' presentation of the British king (George III) who was mentally sick - partly because he wanted our American friends to pay taxes! ;-) As you can imagine, my neutral attitude to these old disputes between the Englishmen and the colonial citizens combined with the American excitement about this classic story amused me.

Needless to say, around September 4th, I had to go to New Jersey where I defended my PhD on September 11th, 2001, at 9:30 am. ;-) Once I returned to Boston, we could no longer visit the Hancock Observatory. More obviously, the same was true about the Twin Towers in New York which we visited with my friend Zuzana in 1998 or so.

But there was something else they told me about Boston which really shocked me: the landfills. Much of the city is located at places that used to belong to the ocean just a few centuries ago. The most expensive apartments in Boston - and the Hancock Tower above - are located in the Back Bay. What a stupid name for a neighborhood, right!? ;-)

The Boston Neck.

Well, it used to be a bay of Boston, on the back i.e. Western (non-Atlantic) side. See also a Google Earth or Virtual Earth screenshot (on the left side). Downtown Boston used to be a peninsula - well, it was almost an island. On the Southern side, it was connected by a thin Boston Neck with Roxbury.

This neighborhood, Roxbury, has always been a part of the land. You could think that with such a glorious past, it must be very rich today. But you would be completely wrong: today, it is a poor neighborhood settled mostly by African Americans and by Mr Milan Kohout, a famous Czech American artist, criminal, and champion of the blacks' and gypsies' rights - who has attended the same (21st) elementary school in Pilsen as I did.

To summarize, the most expensive apartments and towers in Boston were built on an artificial land filled with trash. The Back Bay is not the only neighborhood that was expanded or created in this way. Another favorite place of mine, the Castle Island, ceased to be an island, too. The name became another oxymoron. See how Old Boston in 1775 changed to New Boston between 1772 and 1880 and by 1903, despite their "primitive" technologies. During a few centuries, people have naturally built a lot of new land. They seem to be continuing today, too (see e.g. these Big Dig construction pictures).

The New Greater Boston from the satellite.

The Dutchmen have learned how to fight against the rising sea level - and the Netherlands may look like the most "cultural", "artificial", and "unnatural" country in the world (from the airplanes). But the Bostonians did something that may look even more impressive. When you think about these matters, it's extremely hard to disagree with Anthony who says that free and creative individuals can do seemingly amazing things - and a feet of sea level rise per century - even if it had some human contribution - is the last thing that they could call a problem.

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