Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Case Study 4.2: Charlestown

Charlestown is just across the Charles River from the rest of Boston, once an independent town but annexed by Boston in 1874. First settled in 1624, it later became the first capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. During the Revolutionary War, the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on Breed's Hill, today commemorated by a large monument in the present heart of the neighborhood, Monument Square. Americans lost the battle and British troops burned the town and the dockyards. It was not until after the war ended that settlers returned to rebuild, but by then the hub of activity had already shifted northward, away from the river. The original center of the neighborhood, City Square, is today ringed on two sides by busy streets which cut access to the river. A real shame, a waterfront is always a great asset to have, but today it's almost inaccessible by foot.

In the 19th and early 20th century, the main employer in town was the Navy Yard, but this closed in 1974. Other major changes in Charlestown were the dismantling of the elevated train line in the 1960's (which ran above Main Street), and tearing down 11 percent of area's homes to make way for public housing. If the Boston Redevelopment Authority had its way, however, over 60 percent of Charlestown would have been demolished. Luckily, as in other cities I've featured, residents put a stop to this plan, especially after seeing how the authority had destroyed the West End.

You may recall Charlestown from last year's movie The Town, starring and directed by Ben Affleck, which presents the neighborhood as home to robbers and gangsters. The movie was a point of contention for residents last year, who resent the portrayal. While the Irish mob did indeed operate in Charlestown for many years, they've been gone for a good 15-20 years. The 80's and 90's saw a lot of gentrification and today a local is more likely to be a yuppie than a gangster. Charlestown is thoroughly middle/upper middle-class, and homes costing $1 million+ are common.

Historical homes are the norm here, many dating to the late 18th century. There's a pleasant mix of Federal-style brick row homes, wooden frame homes, brick homes pretending to be wooden frame homes, and newly built homes pretending to be historic homes. The main commercial area of this 15,000 resident neighborhood is Main Street, which has the usual real estate offices, boutiques, restaurants, etc. There's also the Warren Tavern, originally opened in 1780. I think it's one of Boston's best neighborhoods, and unsurprisingly has a reputation for a high quality of life.

A few links:
Charlestown Preservation Society
Boston Public Library historical images

I must say I prefer these old homes unpainted, as it really allows the history to shine through authentically
The cozy shops and cafes of Main Street
Once grand single-family homes, many of these Harvard Street homes have now been split into apartments
In the British tradition, Charlestown has a lot of small urban gardens scattered about
As a result of its working class roots, there's a variety of building types and Charlestown was never really developed
The yellow home was built in 1805. Beyond, 16 Common Street was once an inn
The 1899 home center-right, with the bay window, has 5 bedrooms and is on the market for $2.5 million
Winthrop Square is the second largest within the neighborhood after Monument Square
It's almost odd here to find a brick terrace, much like those we saw in Baltimore
From above we see the delightful street pattern but also the regrettable lack of back gardens
Brick and wooden frame face-off
Especially with homes which haven't retained many of their historical features, the bright colors can look a bit cheap and kitsch
Homes which retain multi-pane windows tend to present themselves much more successfully in a historical context
This style of home is seen throughout Charlestown, five windows wide and an arch over the front door. Early example of builders' catalog?
Especially with the lack of even the smallest front garden, trees along the sidewalk do much for the streets' quality
21 Cordis Street Avenue, built around 1805, was recently on the market for $1.35 million
The homes around Monument Park are generally the largest, most grand, and most expensive
To give an idea, a three bedroom, single floor apartment is currently on sale for $2.2 million
These homes are wonderfully expressive, further helped by the soft edge of a small front yard and beautiful iron railing
It must be quite a spectacular view to look out onto the 67m high Bunker Hill Monument
Monument Square's red brick homes are a stark contrast to the significantly more modest homes of much of Charlestown
The evident care of this home on Mount Street Avenue is welcome to see. Postcard perfect with the cobble stones
It's difficult to say which homes are genuinely wooden frame, as with many it's just a "decorative" facade on a brick wall
Back to the north side of Monument Square
What a contrast between the Monument Square homes and those behind
A very pleasant corner, all it's missing are cobbles. Asphalt is completely inappropriate in a historical area
Few streets are as narrow as Cedar
Further west than the other streets here, Sullivan Street is in a less affluent area that could benefit from renovation 
Some of the Victorian townhomes wouldn't look out of place in San Francisco
I hope you've found a lot to like about Charlestown, certainly one of Boston's most unique and charming neighborhoods. I'm glad its found a loyal base of residents who have successfully guided it through gentrification. Having never been comprehensively redeveloped, or built new from scratch as Back Bay was, the neighborhood developed organically, resulting in a hodge-podge character which has continued to define the area. Subsequent urban renewal and road/bridge construction has eroded the edges of Charlestown, eliminating the original Charles River waterfront and preventing direct access to the former Navy Yard. Maybe if the country ever makes infrastructure a priority again, something can be done along the lines of the Big Dig (I'm not holding my breath).

An interesting feature are the alcoves for front doors, presumably to make up for the lack of front gardens to buffer residents from the street. Which is a minor criticism of mine, that of the almost universal lack of any soft edges in the form of a small front garden, for example. Only the most expensive homes in Monument Square have this. Now, I despise huge front lawns of the kind found in the suburbs, but a small one, a few meters perhaps, prevents residents from stepping out directly onto the sidewalk, beautifies the streetscape if well maintained, and negates the need for trees in the middle of the sidewalk. A few of the larger homes in the neighborhood, however, have a sideways relationship to the street, with the garden alongside of the home rather than in the back, and I think this is a unique, rather nice solution.

Overall, Charlestown is a great little neighborhood full of enjoyable streets which simply needs to focus more on the details to really reach its full potential. I'd like to see renovations more in tune with the historical context, which means high quality wooden windows and doors, complimentary colors, and certainly no plastic siding. I want to see cobbles and brick sidewalks. The various elements of the streetscape, the homes, road, sidewalk, and greenery, all the textures and colors, should be in harmony with one another. These common sense rules are true for any street and city.

Next up, Beacon Hill.