Preservation to a T

| April 4, 2013
INT. BRICK BUILDING - NIGHT, APPROX 7:00                         

          Police Commissioner Thomas Hutchinson arrives at the scene       
          of a crime. Police cars splash red and blue light onto the       
          brick wall. Three men, all dressed in revolutionary-era          
          clothing, lay face down in the pavement. Detective Adams         
          approaches the commissioner.                                     

                              DETECTIVE ADAMS                              
                    Five dead, another six injured. We                     
                    have some men in custody -                             
                    ’redcoats’ they call themselves.                       

          The commissioner gives an affirmative nod but pauses before      
          following the detective. He is unfamiliar with the ’redcoats     
          gang’. Mist begins to rise from one of the Orange Line vents     
          and P.C. Hutchinson pulls his grey trench coat closer around     
          his shoulders.                                                   

                              P.C. HUTCHINSON                              

                              DETECTIVE ADAMS                              
                    None that we can figure out. This                      
                    was a quiet part of the city until                     
                    today. A mob formed late in the                        
                    afternoon to protest taxes and the                     
                    recent arrivals. Something about a                     
                    "reenactment" - State St. Station                      
                    has been a hotbed of disorderly                        
                    conduct since.                                         

                              P.C. HUTCHINSON                              
                    Agitated no doubt.                                     

                              DETECTIVE ADAMS                              
                         (Frowning slightly)                               

          Still sir, surely this can’t be a coincidence. State St.         
          Station was the scene of the exact same crime a year ago to      
          the day!                                                         

          The police commissioner turned slowly, glaring at the            

                              P.C. HUTCHINSON                              

          Detective Adams. You would do well not to question my            
          authority on the matter. I don’t care that the newspapers        
          are calling this the "Boston Massacre". If I say that this       
          was an agitated attack and furthermore a coincidence it damn     
          well is.                                                         


The above is not my preview for the new hit TV-Drama “MBTA Files”. It is, however, a scene that is readily familiar to any T-rider who uses State St. Station regularly. It’s a natural byproduct of the fact that the Old State House, the site of the Boston Massacre and the first reading of the Declaration of Independence in Boston, also serves as the primary entrance to a major transportation route.

Pictured: Your evening commute.

Pictured: Your evening commute.

This dual-identity confuses a few tourists every year, but to natives of the city the mixture is entirely natural. Perhaps no other city in the United States leverages its historical presence as well as Boston. Just as I know that my own favorite building, NYC’s Chrysler Building, will inevitably be replaced sometime in the future, I know that the Paul Revere house will frustrate developers in the North End for the rest of my natural life. Boston’s history brings in tourists, college students and professionals from across the country. It is simply too valuable to replace.

Even if it does look a little out of place.

Even if it does look a little out of place.

This does lead to some rather weird juxtapositions, however. One of the State St. entrances resides underneath the Old State House. Another is lodged inside a modern skyscraper, itself lodged inside the old Boston Stock Exchange, itself on the site of one of John Winthrop’s old houses. The third entrance is comparably normal. Tucked into the side of a brown skyscraper, the only architectural oddity is that the building was designed to mimic the bay windows of Boston’s brownstones.

Taken together, just finding the entrance to State St. Station can be a little difficult.


There are actually three MBTA entrances in this photo.

And this difficulty calls into question the power politics of city preservation. Exchange Place, the black skyscraper wearing the stone dressings of the Boston Stock Exchange, is actually a compromise between the original plan and the concerted effort of a few preservationists to have the  building scrapped entirely. The battle was so acrimonious that it shifted the entire focus of skyscraper construction towards the waterfront, and then the construction stopped entirely. No building taller than 30 floors has been constructed in Boston for nearly a decade, while the historical sections of the city have been protected from things as damaging as shadows.

I imagine the disconnect comes from the difference between the people that use the space of these old places and the people who manage them. In the case of State St., the people who use the orange and blue lines to commute to State St. every day may have a stake in preserving the Old State House, but maybe not at the expense of the possible jobs a multistory tower might bring or the affordable housing units that are now mostly standard for any high-rise apartment building downtown. It would be a question of balance, one that State. St. may very well have done right.


The front says that your serious about your work. The back says that you still like to party.

The people in charge of preserving the Old State House, however, don’t use State St. Station in the same manner, and are fundamentally disconnected from the parts of Boston that the station serves: JP and East Boston. Suburban commuters like to preserve the history of Boston because that’s what drew them to the city in the first place and is what keeps them coming back. Whether it’s the brownstones in  Back Bay, the USS Constitution or Fanueil Hall, there is no question of balance here,  preservation is almost always the preferred course of action.

There are very few places in the United States where a building constructed in 1713 is also a major subway station surrounded by 40-story skyscrapers. There are also very few places in the world where you can ride a train built in the 20th century one minute and be shot at by a redcoat from the 18th century the next.

That’s a special thing.

But perhaps not all of our historical places deserve that kind of respect. Maybe it’s time for some cross-cultural talk between the people who use the MBTA stops and the ones that manage the space around them. That way the growth in the city can be enjoyed by everyone, and the history can be too.

All pictures credited to friend and photographer Neel Dhanesha whose work can be viewed here (and in other East by West by T features!)

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Category: Boston, East by West by T, featured, Politics

Will Carbery

About the Author ()

Will Carbery studies Chemistry in CAS and is expected (we all hope) to graduate in 2014. When he's not exploring Boston for his series "East by West by T" Will can usually be found fencing or watching Bollywood films, although not usually at the same time.

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