6. Metropolis / Megalopolis

“[To] publish original scholarly work on a dynamic research platform to scholars worldwide [because] the traditonal model of scholarly communication has become expensive,  restrictive and increasingly limited in its ability to make information accessible . . . the  eScholarship program was launched by the University of California in 2002.”   Because  for an independent scholar the traditional model is also no longer sustainable as an economic model,  the University of California’s digital publshing program is the model for BBHs,  which focuses on this latest iteration of a long-running column by DS-T,  a column which first appeared on WGBH,  Boston’s PBS outlet,  on Christopher Lydon’s Ten O’Clock News,  then migrated to print in the 1990s  as  ‘Skyline’  (so named by editor Peter Kadzis)  in the Boston Phoenix,  and now appears here on the BBH site,  of which DS-T is the founder. Always sourced,  but never burdened with what poet David McCord used to call   “foot and note disease” — or the electronic equivalent, mid-text links — and never,  ever peer reviewed,  this online published work is generally intended to bridge academic and popular history.  From time to time,  however,  the learned flow,  if that’s what it is,  will be interrupted by a review or editorial clearly labelled “Comment”.  There will also be occasional guest columns,  particularly by BBH Forbes Scholars.


History waits neither for South Boston nor Brookline;  not for City Hall  nor Town Meeting,  and never for politicians,  so famoously pictured in so many of our minds as running after the passing crowd they seek to lead.  To be sure,  in the 1820s Boston was blessed with the great exception,  Josiah Quincy,  who in his  “The American Mayor”  Melvin G.  Holli endorses as  “the most successful urban reformer in  early 19th century America”;  a  “farsighted leader who modernized Boston and guided the city from its status as an oversized town into the age of modern city government.”  Alas,  whether you are or are not an admirer of John F.  Fitzgerald,  it cannot be contended that  “Honey Fitz”  pulled off the same feat in terms of the transition of Boston from city to metropolis.   Storrow might have done it;  we shall never know.   Not untill John Collins in the 1960s did a figure comparable to Quincy sit in the mayor’s chair of the core city. 

However,  in 1910,  the very year the Fitzgerald-Storrow election spelt the death knell of the  “Boston 1915”  movement in the New England capital,  the example it set sparked a distinct success half way around the world — in Berlin–  a success that reverberated in London five years later.  In each case it was not the first time Boston cut by far the better figure on the global than on the local stage.

In the German capital,  it was Werner Hegeman,  who would become the preeminent German city planner of his day  (who had studied in Boston and in the first year of “Boston 1915” and who had also  been  particularly struck by the 1909 Copley Square exposition at which the Chicago urban visionary Daniel Burnham had been one of the speakers)  who was responsible for this. Inspired  by his memories of that event, he mounted there in 1910  the first International City Planning Exhibition.   Its theme was that of Christiane Collins’s recent book on Hegeman,  the subtitle of which is  “The Search for Universal Urbanism.”

Five years later in London,   Boston’s struggles with metropolitan issues also attracted attention when in 1915,  the year after yet another local Boston event of problematic purport,  the one in which Major James M. Curley was elected mayor of he city of Boston,  another Boston entirely,  global Boston as I have called it,  scored quite a contrasting  breakthrough into a whole new world of conceptual self understanding in the publication of Sir Patrick Geddes  “Cities in Evolution”.  A seminal work  and one in which Boston figured quite prominently,  the book’s author,  the Scots polymath and pioneer biologist,  ecologist and urbanist,  has since been hailed as the most influential city planner of the 20th century, and the importance of the book has thus hardly since declined. 

At one stroke,  really,  Geddes redrew the map — and recast the image on the world stage  — of Boston,  and with no more regard to Curley’s city hall than to Brahmin  Brookline.   Boston,  Geddes insisted,  was not a city at all;   it had become the northernmost metropolis of  one of the world’s leading examples of  megalopolis,  “an urban area or aglomoration of metropolitan areas”  which Geddes called a  “conurbation”.   A neologism in later years mercifully superceded by the far better  “megalopolis”  (coined by another) , Geddes view  described a  dramatic new way of looking at  urban reality,  of which  way,  he  pronounced   “New York-Boston”   already the greatest  example of in the United States.”

“It is a drama in time,”   the modern city,  Geddes insisted,  “more than a place in space.”   And if in Boston’s case the  “place in space” after Curley’s election was about to   stagnate   for two generations in ethnic stalemate, in the New England metropolis  as elsewhere Geddes probed,  the big story,  he was sure,  was distinctly the drama.  Pointing  to what he sensed was the new spirit of the times,  never mind local politics,  to what he called   “a new stirring of action,  a new arousal of thought”,  Geddes declared:   “a new social scene is forming . . . . Berlin and Boston,  London and New York . . . is not each awakening towards a new civic self?”

Geddes view,  furthermore,  was not formed in any ivory tower.  Like  Hegeman in Berlin he knew Boston first hand.  In 1899-1900,   in his first American lecture tour,  he was based for a good part of his tour in the American intellectual capital.   “The diary of Anna Geddes of the American journey reveals . . . how great was their private and social ascendancy in Boston”,  Phillip Boardman writes;  “they were showered with invitations . . . . Geddes was given enough occasions for talks and discussion to occupy even his supply of energy and ideas,”  considerable enough,  afterall,  for him to play leading roles in two fields,  biology — the focus of his first American trip — and city planning,  the second of which he all but created or at least consolidated as a field.   (A typical Boston day found Geddes giving a morning talk on Beacon Hill at the Twentieth Century Club,  an afternoon lecture at Harvard — at which he is known to have met with Harvard president Charles W.  Eliot —  and an evening talk in Copley Square at the Boston Normal School).

That he liked what he saw in the city and its environs is also clear,  for Geddes experience of Boston is noticeable therafter in his work as in that of others of his circle.    This was true in Britain itself,  where  “at the end of the 19th century Londoners began to hear about Olmsted’s famous Emerald Necklace. . . from Boston Common via the Back Bay and Arnold Aboretum to Franklin Park”   [according to  “Open Space in London”]  and Lord Meath proposed a green belt to the London Council . . . . [and] Patrick Geddes  proposed a park system for Dumfermline in 1904″.   Similarly,  “planning in America around Boston at Longwood and Brookline”  was,  in the words of Neal Payton,  the background of Geddes’s brilliant plan for Tel Aviv in 1925.

Even so far afield as in India,  where Geddes counted as an ardent disciple the maharaja of Baroda,  in whose state the visiting British town planners lectures were wildly popular ,  Geddes urged the Indians to  “start a ‘Know your city’ movement . . . similar to those found in America”  and,  according to Helen Meller,   “mentioned the example of the ‘Boston 1915’movement”.

E N T E R    L E W I S    M U M F O R D

One New Yorker all Bostonians would do well to defer to in regard to things Bostonian was Geddes chief American disciple in urban studies, Lewis Mumford.  The 20th century Ruskin as Mumford has often been called,  he was in Boston Globe  critic Robert Campbell’s words “the greatest American critic of architecture and urbanism of his time”.   And in the very year of Geddes great book young Mumford first visited and fell in love with Boston.  He may have read “Cities in Evolution”  on the train from New York.

As between Geddes and Mumford it would be a futile exercise to try to tease out which contribution  was of more importance to the old Puritan capital.  Sufficient to say Mumford’s built on that of Geddes.  And both depended on the same  “facts on the ground” — as Israeli’s like to call them — indisputable facts;  three particularly. They are to my mind the foundational facts of modern Boston, best seen from the  new perspective of the 1870s, 80s and 90s from the Back Bay and Copley Square. In this column the first of the three will be our focus.

There was,  first,  the emergence  (very much at a new metroolitan scale) of the new civic center in the Back Bay  of Copley Square in the half century between 1865 and 1915 — “the city as a work of art”  it has been well called.  Second,  there was  the development of the so-called  “Emerald Necklace”  those Londoners so admired  and of the metropolitan park system that arose from it — the suburbs as a work of art I will insist!  Finally,  third,  there was the construction of the inumerable railroad,  streetcar and subway lines that would knit both core city and suburbs together — the metropolis as technology,  if you will.

The second of these three,  as we have seen,  registered most strongly on Geddes.  And so too with Mumford,  who in 1916,  just a year after his first visit to Boston,   proposed a book entitled   “A Tale of Four Cities: Boston,  Philadelphia,  Pittsburgh,  New York”. Though he was only 22 at the time,  in most scholars’ opinion its text foreshadowed all Mumford’s mature work,  especially its theme of  “ecological history”.  Each of the four cities Mumford discussed as  “a new type of city that would influence every proposal for urban reform [Mumford] advanced over the next half century”,  reflecting not onlyGeddes early influence but that of Ebeneezer Howard’s ” Garden Cities of Tommorow”, which Mumford also read in 1916.  At the same time Mumford fell under the spell of the Irish poet,  George Russell,  whose gospel of country life he fused with Howard’s of garden cities.

 Hence the ringing of cities by  “greenbelts”  became central to Mumford’s thinking,  and  the American city  “which came closest to what he thought a garden city ought to look like was Boston”.   True,  Mumford loved Beacon Hill and noted that Boston had  “not yet succumbed to skyscraper mania as had New York”.  But what he noticed above all was  “the character of Boston’s suburbs”,  which  seemed to him  “a ring of small communities,  more like country towns than dormitory suburbs”.   Although he by no means failed to see the significence of the fact  that  said hamlets were  “connected”  by a train and trolley system,  again,  he was most struck that the core city’s  “satelite towns. . . maintain[ed] a life of their own while participating in all the diversified activities of a large city”.

“The diversified activities”,  of course,  points right back to Copley Square.

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The cornerstone of what would become the great New World  agora of faith and leaning and  arts and sciences and the cradle of the  educational galaxy of institutions of higher learning that would consolidate Boston’s role as the American intelectual capital —  and of the Western world by the early 20th century  —  was MIT,  the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,  founded in the early 1860s at what would be Copley Square’s northeast corner,  at Boylston and Clarendon streets.  Next to its first building was the Museum of Natural History (today’s Museum of Science) , also erected in the early  1860s,  while diagonally oppposite on what would be the square’s southern side was built in 1874-76 the worlds first purpose-built public art museum, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts,  and along with it the Museum School.  Nearby was what is now the Massachusetts College of Art.  A few doors up from the MIT block in the early 1900s the American Academy of Arts and Sciences also built its first permanent headquarters.  (All five  — institute,  natural history museum,  art museum  and  school,  art college  and  academy — have since moved,  of course,  for expansion purposes).

Between MIT and the MFA the first American arcitect who was to exercise a wide international influence, H. H. Richardson,   erected  to his designs Trinity Church and, a  block away,  Brattle Church,  the tower of which profoundly  influenced the founder of American modern architecture,  Frank Lloyd Wright’s master,  Louis Sullivan,  himself  a student  at MIT,  which started  America’s first school of architecture  in the square.   And all that is not to tell the half the story of this new agora,  which Alexander Grapham Bell,  a B. U. professor who worked often at MIT, would put on the scientific map with his invention of the telephone — first publicly demonstrated  at  MIT in the square  —  which Trinity’s rector,  priest-poet and saint-bishop Phillips Brooks,  would also make a transatlantic religious mecca by the power of his thought and preaching..

Above  all, because — as Mumford noticed —  “it was not by accident that Harvard’s rejuvenation in science and scholarship under Charles Eliot coincided with the constructive enterprize of the Back Bay in the generation between 1870 and 1900” — Eliot  erected in Copley Square in 1883  the crown jewel of Modern Harvard,  Harvard Medical School,  built next to where a few years later  would  rise the Boston Public Library,  itself the crowning  glory  of the square.  Truly, wrote Mumford years later,  “it was in the Back Bay” — and chiefly in CopleySquare —  “that Boston first  estabished itself as one of the centers of world culture in the arts and sciences”.

Mumford himself, furthermore,  was quick to see what has been so overlooked in all these developments, the  metropolitan aspect that fueled this context.   “The building of the Back Bay mark[ed] the transformation of Boston”,  he wrote,  “from a provincial town to a great metropolis,  a true mother city,  radiating fresh energy and vitality to the sorrounding towns”.  Indeed,  he insisted it was  “as a result of of the Back Bay improvement,  Boston by the 1890s had taken the lead in creating effective metropolitan organization”.  Organization, note — a framework for life,  — perhaps a more important framework than was ever on offer from the politicians, inevitably lagging behind and in the end not very important to the meropolitan struggle afterall..

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What can Mumford have meant to so acclaim Boston’s metropolitan “organization” in the wake of  Brookline’s rejection of annexation?   In the light of the Fitzgerald-Storrow election?  Mumford responded  as we have seen most keenly not to the first of our three great facts —  the new civic center of Copley Square — but to the second,  the Emerald Necklace and Metropolitan park system,  both of which we will take up here in more detail next time. But  Mumford certainly saw and often wrote about how designers  like Olmsted and Richardson created in both core city and its suburbs the  necessary physical amenities and indeed a most striking visual image of metropolis.

  Olmsted, to be sure,  was responsible for  more suburban than urban art,  but Richardson created both,  and  each was at his best when they collaborated;  in Olmsted’s Back Bay Fens with Richardson’s masterful bridges,  for instance, on what James O’Gorman calls  “the urban,  suburban frontier”.   Richardson,  moreover,  famously Copley Square’s great urban architect —  of Trinity and Brattle Churches and the Trinity Rectory —   excelled  as well  at designing the new building types of the new suburbs,  all  those splendid Boson suburban town libraries and railroad stations,  thus endowing even the

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— the Transportation system –with a convincing artistic aspect,  of which also much more next time,  after we have fully followed the thread here of  the meaning of Mumfords praise of the Boston way of metropolitanizing.

Politics and the arts  do not often,  after all,  keep company,  and more often  than not vex each other.  Yet it was not just that Boston’s facts on the ground included superb  visual images of the new urban metropolis the political dimension of  which seemed so elusive and —  perhaps — less important?  There was something larger going on.

Historian James M. O’Toole,  for instance,  asserts that Irish Catholic leaders like John Boyle O’Reilly  ” seemed to presage an era of cooperation between  the Brahmin establishment and the rising classes of Irish and other immigrants.”  And though he calls it  “an historical might-have-been,  dashed a decade later with the rise of a more antagonistic identity politics (civic and cultural)”   in the Curley years,  O’Toole   meant in addition to O’Reilly leaders like  Hugh O’Brien, who played a key part in  facilitating the erection of the Copley Square library, and  also,  as historian Thomas O’Connor  has noticed,  in helping realize Olmsted’s park plans.  As an alderman in the 1870s O’Brien supported a park system for Boston and later as mayor he appointed a park commission in the mid 1880s that built on the  Brahmin’s coup in bringing Olmsted to Boston,  and  “strongly supported the metropolitan park concept,  renewed Olmsted’s contract with the city,  and worked with him on a friendly and productive basis.”

Whether in Copley Square or in the Fenway,  there is certainly in O’Brien’s advocacy of both library and park system some sort of answer to a question at the heart of  “Beautiful Democracy”,  the book by Ross Castronovo in which he asks,  “what democracy does beauty engender?”   His rather fraught options are  “social harmony and egalitarian sensiblity or, conversely,  violence and social fragmentation.”  But his  point of departure is the work of Matthew Arnold,  the British critic who when visiting Boston was so  bowled over by the site of a barefooted newspaper boy reading in the public library.

  In his  “Culture and Anarchy”,  Arnold argues for an aesthetic that in  C.  T.  Bramen’s words  “warns the mddle classes that they should employ  ‘the best culture of their nation’  to incorporate the working classes into a sense of national belonging”;  in aid of which Costronovo also invokes William Dean Howells’s  ” aesthetic of the common”.  Yet that condescension proved wide of the mark in Boston afterall.

What neither Boston City Hall nor Brookline Town Meeting could sort out in the political sphere,  Geddes and Mumford secondarily,  but Olmsted and Richardson primarily,  accomplished in perhaps equally or more important dimensions superbly.  And not only in both city and suburb, but in both  aristocratic and populist terms.

With respect  to Olmsted’s parks,  of world stature  as we will see in more detail here next time, aesthetically,  one needs only to delve into    “How Boston Played”,  a history of recreational sport for the masses in Boston,   to see how successful the park system turned out to be at the most populist level.  Similarly with the so very  aristocratic  Public Library,  itself an inspired fusion of an idea , born of Brahmin Boston and thus in its nature aristocratic, and yet developed as importantly perhaps by populist immigrant figures,an idea that marks an epoch in the history of western man,  being as it is  the worlds first big city public circulating library —  FREE TO ALL as  is proudly blazoned over its main entrance. 

What mattered about the politicians failure to give the metropolis a political dimension in the face of all this?  They were at least instrumental in seeing to the construction on Copley Square’s eastern side of America’s first subway. The  opening ceremonies of the new subway, and the breaking ground for its construction,  took place  within  sight of the Copley Square library(not Park Street) and it  opened within  a few  years of the new library.  Like  the park system,  the transportation system constituted as consequential facts on the ground as Copley Square and will receive our full attention next time.


S  O  U  R  C  E  S

Boardman, Philip.  THE WORLDS OF PATRICK GEDDES (Routledge) 1978 ed.

Bramen, C. T.  Review in NEW ENGLAND QUARTERLY (June 2009)

Castronovo, Ross.  BEAUTIFUL DEMOCRACY  (Univ. of Chicago Press)  2007

Collins,  Christiane.  WILLIAM HEGEMAN  (Norton)  2005

Geddes, Patrick.  EVOLUTION OF CITIES (Routledge)  1997 ed.

Holli, Melvin G.  THE AMERICAN MAYOR (Penn State Univ. Press) 1999

Howard,  Ebeneezer.  GARDEN CITIES OF TO-MORROW  (Faber and Faber) 1902

Meller, Helen E.  PATRICK GEDDES  (Routledge)  1990

Mumford,  Lewis.  “The Significance of Back Bay Boston” in BACK BAY BOSTON: THE CITY AS A WORK OF ART  (Museum of Fine Arts,  Boston)  1969

O’Connor, Thomas.  Review (of Cynthia Zaitzevskys FREDERICK LAW OLMSTED AND THE BOSTON PARK SYSTEM)  in NEW ENGLAND QUARTERLY  (June 1983)

Payton,  Neal.  “The Machine in the Garden City” in PLANNING PERSPECTIVES  (October 1995)

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