Home rule: the creation of local historic districts in the New Boston, 1953 to 1983
Born, George Walter
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As large-scale, modernist urban renewal projects advanced following World War II, residents of Boston’s historic neighborhoods pushed back, asserting the value of the existing built environment and enlisting new strategies, like local historic districts, to mediate change. Over time, these defenders of traditional urbanism changed from relatively conventional 1950s home- and business-owners to more countercultural, back-to-the-city technocrats, the advance guard of a new middle class. Employing previously unexplored government archives and public documents, extensive contemporaneous newspaper reports, and interviews with current and former neighborhood activists, “Home Rule” analyzes historic districting as a social movement, tracing how adherents of this cause mobilized resources to effect the policy changes they sought. While the growth of the historic preservation movement in the interwar South has been well documented, the adoption of preservation planning techniques in the post-war North is less well studied. The first chapter investigates the effort to create the first historic district in the urban North on Beacon Hill, a campaign that took place against the backdrop of a destructive urban-renewal project in the nearby West End. A neighborhood association spearheaded the effort, carefully building support, consistent with the consensus culture of the 1950s. The chapter also examines the expansion of the district and challenges to its authority. The highly contested movement to designate the Back Bay occupies the second chapter, pitting a powerful mayor and his deep-pocketed allies determined to insert high-rise towers in a historically low-rise area against a large and well-heeled neighborhood association. The third chapter examines the drive to create a statutory Landmarks Commission to regulate historic resources citywide. The chapter also explores two attempts to designate historic districts after the creation of the new agency, one effort on Ashmont Hill that failed and another in West Back Bay that succeeded. The movement to designate three contiguous historic districts – the St. Botolph Street area, Bay Village, and the South End – constitutes the fourth and last chapter. These efforts exemplify the rediscovery of urban life by an educated, progressive middle class who negotiated with various ethnic and racial minorities, transformed the city, and reinvented urban renewal.