booknotes: the hub's metropolis

Now that Hanna and I are new-apartment-hunting in earnest, my situational interest in the history of Boston's development has come to have immediate real-world applicability as we look across the landscape of our greater metropolitan area for areas that might be affordable yet still within the walkable urban core. My latest reading in this area was particularly enjoyable in this way, as James O'Connell's The Hub's Metropolis: Greater Boston's Development from Railroad Suburbs to Smart Growth (MIT Press, 2013) ends each chapter with concrete, extant examples of each phase he writes about. Guidebook-style he describes three-to-five locations or routes whereby one can explore the  nineteenth-century country retreats of the Boston gentry, the postwar automobile suburbs, or the sites of "smart growth" and the greening of Boston in this newest phase of regional planning. O'Connell (and his ever-patient wife) might be the only people whose idea of a good time is to visit surviving examples of 1980s strip malls, but I enjoyed reading about his enthusiasm nonetheless!

The Hub's Metropolis sketches out, in roughly chronological order, the development of the Boston metropolitan region from 1800 to the present day, beginning when Boston was largely confined to the Shawmut peninsula and connected to surrounding villages in only tenuous trading and regional economic relationships. Prior to the railroad, people generally lived within walking distance of where they labored on a daily basis; deep into the twentieth century this held true for working-class families. (Only since the 1980s have the inner suburbs become locations for the impoverished and working poor who can no longer afford to live in the rapidly-gentrifying core of America's largest cities.) One of the most interesting tidbits of information I learned from O'Connell is that the human tolerance for a daily commute has remained more or less static at 45 minutes and urban historians can trace the growth of cities out from business nodes based on transportation options. When people generally walked to work, residences were within 2.5 miles of their places of business. When streetcars and trains, and later the automobile pushed outward from that radius exponentially as workers were able to travel further and further in the same window of time.

Of course, now we're coming full circle in the sense that "walkable urbanism" is the new hip thing. Hanna and I are both committed to finding an apartment within that 45 minute walking radius (for us 2.5-3 miles) from the neighborhood where we engage in our wage-work. Interestingly, we come to such a lifestyle from opposite ends of the spectrum: I grew up in a family where my father was a ten-minute walk from work and seek to replicate that sense of accessibility, while Hanna grew up an hour's drive from most amenities and never wants to return to such an extreme rural mode of life. We currently live in what used to be a streetcar suburb of Boston, about four miles out from the Statehouse on Beacon Hill; our neighborhood of Allston was developed in the early 1900s as the streetcars made it possible for middle- and working-class families to escape inner-city tenements for newer apartment buildings further away from the noxious industries that clustered around the waterfront (or put them within walking distance of Brighton's slaughterhouses and railroad yards). As we start looking at apartments within the old suburbs (Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, Brookline, Allston/Brighton) we'll be crossing paths trod by generations of Boston workers before us.


  1. Good luck with the apartment search! A 45 minute walk is worlds better than a 45 minute drive from my perspective--I hadn't actually conceptualized them as comparable commutes, given my bodily experience of them, though of course they *do* take up the same amount of the day ...

    1. I'm 100% with you on the two not being comparable! In my mind, that's because 1) walking (or biking) means we can get our daily physical movement in without adding something to the schedule ON TOP OF commuting (which in my experience means I'm not as physically active because who has that kind of time?) and 2) because commuting by driving/public transit is not as predictable. A 45 minute walk is, barring horrific ice or rain, a 45 minute walk. A 45 minute drive in the Boston metro area can be anywhere from 45-90 minutes, so you have to plan for the longer rather than shorter period of time. And it feels much less in your control.