Sunday, July 23, 2006

Subway Suburb

"Oh, you live in the historic Woodbourne area."

That's what the architectural historian on my church's board said when I passed around my new address to other members 17 years ago. He was right and I was too ignorant to know what he meant. Sure, if he said so.

As it turned out Woodbourne's history and political bent suited me just fine, as it did that of most congregants in that pinko, Unitarian church. With a granularity typical of Boston, I had moved to the Woodbourne area of the Forest Hills section of the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. Pity my one-block street doesn't have its own sub-designation, although some realtors do break down where we live further into the Bourne section of Woodbourne.

Among that small order of architectural historians, plus a few other sets of scholars, Woodbourne is known as:
  1. The neighborhood built for the emerging middle class.
  2. The model for single-family home ownership and mortgages.
  3. The right way to build a housing development. (Long Island's Levittown tract housing was the wrong way.
  4. A noble, philanthropic effort to remedy the long-standing housing ills of Boston.
Unlike the Pond Side and Moss Hill wealthy enclaves of JP, Woodbourne has retained a more middle-income flavor. What may have been over a century ago an all-White, mostly Roman Catholic, largely Irish-American social experiment has blended to reflect Boston's cultures very clearly. There are few Latinos here, but White and Black, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, unchurched and others, gay and straight and on and on own these houses.

The small, single and double-family houses that have lately entered into the National Register of Historic Places as an historic district have served the stated purpose from the beginning.

Indeed, ordinary families live on wee plots in petite houses. We are close enough for a real sense of neighborhood without voyeurism. In contrast to the Wellesley and Dover mansions, our quarters seem to have been left out in the rain and then dried to shrinking.

Up the Middle Class

In this century, we'd wonder why it was even worthy of mention. Yet before WWI, there was scant middle class and your housing issues were your own. Typically in a city, the landlords owed the housing and working sorts either lived at the pleasure of their employer or rented. A rare family saved enough to buy land and build a house. Bank mortgages for ordinary people were virtually unheard of, because so few had anything to secure a big loan.

From the shadows of wealth, power and spare time emerged the Boston Dwellinghouse Company. A consortium of do-gooder ex-mayor's wives and such decided that it was time for alternatives for the working class, at least for those in the budding middle class.

This altruistic group decided to, in effect, create ways for people to buy houses. And they did.

The first effort was Woodbourne, which originally was for staff who worked on the T. They could start and finish their day at Forest Hills and walk the mile home, to their homes.

This came with action by some powerful financial forces.
Early in 1911, Robert Winsor, investment banker with the firm Kidder, Peabody & Company, and one of the directors of the Boston Elevated Railway, raised the possibility of building a model residential enclave near the carbarns of the elevated railway system at Forest Hills for its conductors and motormen. Its location was "within fifteen minutes of the business center of Boston on a five cent fare." He began discussing the idea of creating a "scientific, model residential enclave for its conductors and motormen as an alternative to the ills of urban housing and congestion" with an additional goal to be an "object lesson, which will lead others to make similar investments." He also sent agents to study developments in Europe. Among developments investigated were the projects built by the London County Council as well as a large private development in London. The agents also went to Liverpool, Birmingham and Germany.

Debates over congestion and substandard housing were abounding in Boston at this time. "Boston-1915", founded in March 1909, by Edward Filene (retailer) and other civic, educational, and business leaders hoped to provide a blueprint for coordinated response for every department in Boston. It aimed to increase efficiency and cure many of Boston's problems...

The efforts at inexpensive home ownership in a planned natural environment required architects to define what a home should be. The home must look like a house, whether for one or two families. It must be domestic in scale and sited to provide open space for fresh air, light, privacy and recreation.

In the debate of affordable housing and lack of home ownership, Winsor envisioned his plan for housing as a "solution to some of the most serious problems of city life, the ills of urban housing and congestion." Not only would it provide decent housing, the model community would be "an object lesson which would lead others to make similar investments." It was during a period of concern for affordable housing and the lack of home ownership.
A key aspect is that these were not tenements or subsidized public housing. While it was a housing project, the homes were sold at around $5,000 -- according to the Federal Reserve Bank's calculator, about $79,000 now. People could afford it, but not easily, at about $50 a month. These were not gifts.

Annoyingly enough, when we moved here, a backyard abutter, Ralph, loved to tell all of us coming in at late 20th Century rates that he paid $5,500 "for the exact same house" in 1932. Thanks, Ralph.

Why Woodbourne

It is another beloved-daughter story. This harks back to the day when what is now JP was a suburban outlying region of Roxbury. Here near the coolness of the foliage and ponds, upper-class Bostonians would inherit or buy large tracts and build substantial houses on them.

Many owned factories or other businesses town. They trusted no one, except their peers (in retrospect probably the opposite of the rational view), and kept their weekday residences above their workplaces. For them, the crime, disease, pollution and noise of Boston were no place for wives or children. Families ended up in summer or even year-round housing in places like JP, away from criminals and cholera.

You can see one artifact of this in the sinuous and very narrow Jamaicaway. Originally a carriage road, it was the route on the weekend that the wealthy took to their country places around or near Jamaica Pond. Clearly, it would be better suited to two horse-drawn carriages passing than four 235-horsepower SUVs at a time.

In 1845, one such Boston businessman, William Minot bought farmland here and built his massive summer house for his family. His invalid daughter, Julia, was a reader and found an epithet for the new mansion. She said it reminded her of Woodbourne, the house that features in Sir Walter Scott's 1829 novel, Guy Mannering or the Astrologer.

She likely cited the book's description:
WOODBOURNE, the habitation which Mannering, by Mr. Mac-Morlan’s mediation, had hired for a season, was a large, comfortable mansion, snugly situated beneath a hill covered with wood, which shrouded the house upon the north and east; the front looked upon a little lawn bordered by a grove of old trees; beyond were some arable fields, extending down to the river, which was seen from the windows of the house. A tolerable, though old-fashioned garden, a well-stocked dove-cot, and the possession of any quantity of grounds which the convenience of the family might require, rendered the place in every respect suitable, as the advertisements have, ‘for the accommodation of a genteel family.’
Well, we don't keep doves and there's no river to be seen. However, we around here fancy ourselves civil, if not actually genteel. We find Woodbourne in every respect suitable.

Rant Some More: Additional comments on middle-income Boston here.

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Ron Newman said...

So ... just where is this neighborhood?

massmarrier said...

It's below the Forest Hills Cemetery, across Walk Hill Street. It's so far South in JP, that delivery guys are wont to ask, "Why ain't this Rozzie?"

The distict, including the original and parts subsequently added is roundly bounded by Patten, Bourne, Wachusett and Goodway. Many of the streets include "bourne" in their names too.

The heart of it is around Northbourne, Bournedale and Soutbbourne. There is a great similarity in the arts-and-crafts houses inside and out.

Ron Newman said...

I never knew that was considered JP! I always thought JP ended about four blocks south of Forest Hills, and that anything beyond that was Roslindale.

I'll have to take a look around there, the next time I'm at the Arboretum or Forest Hills Cemetery.

massmarrier said...

JP is the most oddly shaped of the neighborhoods. Our kind of thumb dangling from the bottom is the last of it.

Maybe it is because it was a made-up neighborhood. The old Post Office used to say "JAMAICA PLAIN" but it was an unofficial PO, according to the USPS. There never was a JP as a town, unlike Dorchester, South Boston, Roxbury, or Mattapan. Almost all of what is not JP was Roxbury, then West Roxbury. JP was carved out of the big chunk well after the 1874 annex. Apparently in the 1880s, the locals divvied up Rozzie and JP when Roslindale wanted to become its own neighborbood instead of just being "South Street Crossing," another streetcar suburb.

We're all Boston now, as we were West Roxbury before and Roxbury before that.

Ron Newman said...

If someone sends a letter to you, how should it be addressed? Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, West Roxbury, or Boston?

massmarrier said...

LOL. I asked about that when we moved there and the old post office still had JP chiseled into its facade.

Of course, we live in Boston. As far as the USPS is concerned that, and the Zip Code are all you need.

When I asked that the JP PO, the old guy behind the counter shuffled and did his routine. Jamaica Plain is an unofficial post office name, he said. We should use "Boston," but would have better luck with "Jamaica Plain."

Formally, all correspondence should go to Boston, MA 02130 (ideally with the Plus-4 numbers). I get mail with "JP" only from Massachusetts mailers. I get mail to "Jamaica Plain, Boston, MA" to "Jamaica Plain, MA" and to "Boston, MA".

If you ask United Parcel, they deliver to me in Jamaica Plain. Many other parcel services have Boston and the Zip Code. FedEx prefers Boston.

In places, that can be complicated by the recurring street names. We don't have that issue in Woodbourne, but a little up Washington Street, you can turn onto Boylston Street, which is not the same Boylston as in downtown nor in other neighborhoods. So, xxx Boylston Street, Boston, better have a Zip Code included if you want your letter.

Maybe the worst is the telephone. Some chums in Boston are located by Boston and others by their neighborhood. Ask an operator (probably in Atlanta) for me in Boston and you lose. Try Jamaica Plain and there I am.

It's sooooo Boston. If you don't know, it's your shortcoming!

I'm glad the USPS uses locals who understand the rules of the game.