Book Review: Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston by Michael Rawson


Author: Michael Rawson
Title: Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston
Publication Info: Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, c2010.
ISBN: 9780674048416
Summary/Review:

This wonderfully researched and well-written history, explores the making of Boston by focusing on the social and environmental factors that shaped the city, its human ecology.  There are five sections of the book:

1. Enclosing the Common – the effort of prosperous Bostonians to enclose Boston Common, changing it from a place of work (pasturing cows and digging up turf) to a place of recreation.

2. Constructing water – the contentious development of a public waterworks, a means by which reformers hoped to improve both the health and morality of the populace, but a process that also forever changed the role of municipal government.

3. Inventing the suburbs – people move from the city, seeking pastoral cities and escape taxation, but they also miss the public works that the city provides.  Some suburbs are annexed by Boston (willingly or otherwise) while some become cities in their own right.

4. Making the harbor – the modern Boston Harbor is human-made not natural, and the processes of landmaking, dredging, damming, et al that modified it so much were a contentious issue in the 19th century when many mariners thought the harbor would be lost with natural water movement.

5. Recreating the wilderness – suburban green spaces such as the Middlesex Fells and the Blue Hills are created as a connection to the colonial forbears and the lost wilderness.

This book is a terrific means of grasping the process of urbanism for modern cities and a unique approach to the history of Boston. It pairs well with Walter Muir Whitehill’s classic Boston: A Topographical History.
Favorite Passages:

“What made that agenda so contentious was that reformers wanted to expand the role of government to achieve it.  Since government had never played a serious role in structuring how Bostonians interacted with their water supply, transferring responsibility for finding adequate water from the individual to the city seemed to some like a radical and potentially dangerous move.  Instead, early experiments in municipal water like Boston’s would prove to be the leading edge of a wave of change in municipal government.  As the century progressed, cities would expand their power to fund larger public works, often through borrowing, and they would pay the cost through general taxes rather than special assessments.  Event the cost of smaller projects that did not require bond issues would increasingly be spread out among all residents of a city.  Public water would encourage urban residents, in Boston and elsewhere, to expand their vision of the public good.” – p. 104

“The Fells and Blue Hills were designed to store information about colonial people and events and prompt visitors to recall the collected stories.  The existence of such places implies a relationship of permanence, lest the memories disappear with the monument…” – p. 269

Recommended books: Boston: A Topographical History by Walter Muir Whitehill, A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900 by Stephen Puleo, Boston’s Back Bay by William Newman & Wilferd E. Holton and Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston by Nancy S. Seasholes
Rating: ****

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