About Boston
A draft from "How America Can Bike And Grow Rich, The NBG Manifesto"

People on bikes continued to roll in. I watched the huge plaza, surrounded by multi storied buildings, fill with cyclists and office workers. This huge open area came about in the early 1960’s. It was then that fifty-six acres of downtown Boston were

City Hall & Plaza

demolished in an urban renewal project. Many old granite and brick buildings were torn down and replaced with the John F. Kennedy Towers, Center Plaza, and the new Boston City Hall which itself was completed in 1969.

It made me feel good to know that the old city hall still stood not far away. Hidden from view by skyscrapers, it was Boston’s third city hall and had served 38 Mayors since 1865. Now an office building three stories in height, the restaurant that makes up much of the ground floor still keeps it a public space.

On the sidewalk in front of it, a hopscotch recognizes it as the site of the first public school in America (1635), while it honors its most famous native son in its courtyard with a statue that dates back to 1856. It was here that an eight year old Benjamin Franklin, who was born in Boston in 1706, spent his only two years in formal schooling.

He did so in what is still called the Boston Latin School, which had grown to a three story building by the time it moved from there in 1844. Before it moved a few more times and arrived at its present location in 1922 about two miles away, it had also educated five of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence and in 1812 the famous author Ralph Waldo Emerson. A part of the Boston school system now, it is made up of grades 7 thru 12 and confers much prestige on those students who can meet its stringent entrance exams.

By the time Franklin left school to work for his father, a man who made tallow, the part of the cow’s intestines that made up most of the candles in use for lighting back in the 1700’s, Boston had already been settled for nearly a hundred years. Though America’s first colonists had arrived

City Hall 1865-1971 (retired)

in Plymouth Rock, 35 miles to the south in 1620, it wasn’t until 1625 that Boston was settled by Europeans. It took two years for a clergyman named William Blackstone who had come to the New World on a smaller expedition in 1623, to find this area. The bluff overlooking the Charles River called Shawmet by the local Indians where he made his home, is now referred to as Beacon HIll. By the time John Winthrop, who had arrived in Salem, 15 miles to the north, with 700 Puritans, found him, Blackstone had had ample time to have built his house, planted his apple orchard, and established a comfortable life for himself.

Before they were to meet in 1631, Wintrhrop, had already lost hundreds of people to either starvation or their return to England. In Salem, not knowing what to expect, he and his group had been caught unprepared for the harsh winter they suffered through. Nor had they been able to grow crops in preparation for it because of the heavily forested lands.

When spring finally arrived, he sent those who remained in search for friendlier territory. When many of them determined that Blackstone had found an area that would sustain them, Winthrop made it his new settlement. In honor of his hometown in England, he called it Boston.

Over the next twelve years or so, approximately 26,000 of Winthrop’s fellow English Puritans migrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Many of them ended up in Boston. As Church of England members, the Puritans thought of themselves as a part of the Church that only sought to make it more pure. One of their aims, for example, was to rid the church of any semblance of Roman Catholicism. They also did not think that the individual had the right to choose which God he or she chose to worship. It was for this last reason that Roger Williams, the founder of Providence, our next Mayors' Ride city, would, in 1633, be banished from Massachusetts. 

Led by the Puritans, though other religions had begun to show up in Boston by 1670, Bostonians remained loyal British subjects for next 130 or so years. This began to change when England began to impose taxes on the colonists as a way to pay for the war they had had to fight to force France out of the New World. The increasingly heavy military presence needed to collect moneys for the Crown led to the Boston Massacre of 1770.

A short lived riot that killed five and wounded six, it signaled the growing unrest that was being more and more felt by having such a large armed presence in their midst. It was the Tea Act of 1773, an attempt by the English Parliament to set a precedent for their ability to levy taxes in the colonies, that broke the back of American support for English rule.

When in the December of 1773, three boats filled with tea docked in the Boston harbor, thousands of locals demanded that they leave. Instead of waiting for local authorities to resolve the matter, about one hundred and fifty of them decided to take matters into their own hands. Without a shot being fired, these men, dressed up as Indians, threw the 342 crates of tea that had arrived into the Boston harbor.

During the next few months, both sides fought a war of words. Benjamin Franklin symbolized the division his fellow Bostonians felt when he offered to pay for the lost tea himself. However, when in March of 1774, England closed the Port of Boston, the colonists couldn’t take any more. They began to store arms.

The following month, the British dispatched troops to the Boston area to arrest those behind the tea vandalism and to seize those munitions which the colonists had begun to collect. When Paul Revere and William Dawes rode through the night to warn the colonists of the approaching soldiers, the American Revolution had begun.

After the Revolution, Boston became one of the world's wealthiest international trading ports. Its major exports were rum, fish, salt, and tobacco. However, by the mid part of the 19th Century, it had turned to manufacturing. It prospered as a producer of garments. machines and leather goods.

All of this had changed by the first decade of the 20th century, however. The once thriving factories and mills had become old and obsolete and many businesses moved out of the region for cheaper labor elsewhere. Boston chose to reinvent itself.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, it brought out the wrecking ball with various urban renewal projects. It demolished an entire neighborhood, the West End, of which the emotional scars are felt even today and replaced much of it with multi-storied housing. It tore down another thousand or so structures so that it could build an elevated roadway called the Central Artery that divided its downtown from its waterfront. Even the city hall plaza where we were today, as we said earlier, had been completely rebuilt.

It stands now on what had been, at one time, a thriving entertainment district called Scollay Square, where greats like the Marx Brothers, George Burns and Milton Berle once performed. In building what is now called Government Center, the city fathers had revitalized a a part of their downtown that had grown aging and seedy. In doing so, however, they had demolished yet another thousand buildings and displaced 20,000 people,

The eight acre concrete and brick plaza that became a part of this massive complex, played host to Queen Elizabeth II during her 1976 Bicentennial visit. There have also been huge receptions for Boston’s winning professional sports teams. When over a million people jammed Boston's streets to watch a parade for the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots in 2002, for example, it ended up here.

Caught up, like the rest of America, with its fascination with the new, Boston had rebuilt itself in a way that would not be possible in today’s preservation consciousness. Here as we surge through the new millennium, however, Boston has emerged as an alive and virile city once again. As testimony to Boston’s willingness to experiment with the makeup of how its people live, work and play, it is putting the finishing touches on an underground freeway system. While one can argue that the Big Dig was needed since Boston’s working population doubles each day as commuters flow into the city and travel times have without question been reduced, the long term benefit remains questionable.

The Boston Indicators Project, put out every two years by the Boston Foundation notes that in recent years car ownership has grown rapidly in the city as has fuel consumption. During this time, public transit has also declined contributing to the financial difficulties that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the agency that oversaw the Big Dig, is suffering through. While the 15 billion dollar Big Dig, replaced the roughly one mile Central Artery, somehow the bicycle escaped notice in the 27 acres of open space that has resulted with its destruction.

Even though Boston’s old and narrow streets almost by default do not allow for speeding automobiles to ply its streets, local bike activists missed a chance to get bike lanes built into an infrastructure that does not include any. Thankfully there is a new and active coalition called Liveable Streets that is committed to rebuilding a bicycle consciousness into the politics of a city where, as we show you later in this chapter, the bicycle first began in America.

Of Boston’s 540,000 people about 282,000 of them are between the ages of 15 and 44, the prime age for bicyclists. Another important demographic of bike riders are students. While according to Mass Bike, one in ten Bostonians is a college student, or 54,000 people, this still does not account for the other 200,000 who attend its 57 colleges. And it is their trips in and about the city, after they have made their commute from out of town to school, that several local bike organizations are also working to address.