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InterviewsFred Salvucci

Great Projects: The Building of America

FS: Well, fortunately, they didn't totally level the hills. Beacon Hill is still a hill, but it was a much steeper hill before they started. So the early landfills were very direct. Take the top of Beacon Hill and push it into what's now North Station. Take what used to be Fort Hill and use it to expand the seaport down by where Waterfront Park is today. The later process was they ran out of hills. So they went out to places like Needham, which were countryside then, and pulled in gravel on railroads.

INT: What were urban planners thinking about Boston in the '50s?

FS: I think if you look around Boston at the changes that were made in the city in the 1950s you have to conclude that there was a certain amount of hatred for the city going on. I mean the clearing of the West End was really a terrible intrusion into an urban neighborhood, the construction of the Central Artery as an elevated highway just slashing the city off from its own waterfront. In the '50s, there was a certain mentality that has really given up on the city, given up on what an exciting place it is, and it was kind of a defeatist attitude. It was like, "Well, the real future's in the suburbs, so let's build roads to connect to suburbs. Let's make Boston more like a suburb. Let's tear down some of the dense neighborhoods. It doesn't matter if the road is ugly. You know, this is an old city. Old is bad." I think that was the mentality. I mean I wasn't part of it. I don't like what they did but when I look at the evidence of what happened in the '50s, I have to conclude that there was a real negative feeling about the city and a failure to recognize what it is that really makes this city exciting and a place that people love to come to today. So I think a lot of mistakes were made in the '50s and one of the biggest ones was the elevated Central Artery.

INT: Were they acting out of desperation, in a way?

FS: That was the thinking. I think the thinking was wrong. If the West End, for example, had not been cleared, it would be a wonderful neighborhood today. It was a great neighborhood then. And I think people generally would agree that there were a lot of mistakes made. I mean if you look at the Government Center area, the location where the Liberator was published was torn down. It was a beautiful piece of architecture on that street, but I mean here was the heart of the Anti-Slavery Movement in the United States and just knocked the building down. It would never happen today. There's much more appreciation both for the physical importance of those buildings, but also the spiritual meaning of those buildings, what went on. I mean the Anti-Slavery Movement was, I think, a very important part of the development of the United States and its heart, a good part of its heart was right there in Boston. And in the '50s, we just knocked those buildings down. That's a pretty vandalistic way to deal with what I think is a really great city. I just love Boston. And I'm glad they didn't destroy too much of it but, to me, the Central Artery, the Government Center, the West End were big, big mistakes.

INT: What percentage of Boston is landfill, 80 percent?

FS: I think it's that high, yeah. Certainly more than two-thirds. I think 80 is probably right. There's an interesting visual. I don't know if it works for you, but if you go to the top of the John Hancock Building they have where you can get a view of the city? They also have a display that shows what was the original city.

FS: I think one of the basic things to understand about Boston is that well over two-thirds of the inner city was underwater when the British first got here. And that's done a couple things. One, it means that the process of reclaiming that land from the tidal lands has been from the very beginning a major construction effort. And very early in the city of this history -- the history of this city people have been adding and changing the city. Secondly, every square inch of the land in the city is precious and because it had to be created at such great expense. So, consequently, it's developed very densely and that one of the things I like about the city and I think a lot of people like about the city.

FS: In the 1950s generally there were major efforts to change the city. I'm sure people thought they were doing the right thing, but not just in Boston, but all over the country, you had the Urban Renewal program that really was very destructive. I think the basic philosophy was anti-city viewed the city as sort of old, dirty, something of the past, too dense. A lot of the things that make Boston great, that I think are among its assets, were things that they were trying to destroy. And they were lucky they didn't have enough money to carry it out, because they -- they did a lot of destruction. You know, the West End urban renewal project took an entire neighborhood of this city of nice brick, bow front, interesting architecture, very interesting mix of people right in the heart of the city just torn out. Those people all relocated in the space of five years. I mean [it was a] terrible thing to do to people, to begin with, and also a very bad thing to do to the architecture of the city, the clearance in what used to be called Scully Square, is now calling Government Center there were major casualties there -- the beautiful buildings along the location of the Sears Crescent, which, fortunately, is still there. The other side of that street was a set of beautiful brick buildings, very nice architecture, but more than architecture, The Liberator was published there. This was the heart of the Anti-Slavery Movement in the United States. This is a really important part of the city that is Boston just eradicated. "Insensitive" doesn't begin to describe the brutality of -- of some of what went on in -- in the 1950s, both in terms of -- of how the citizens of this city were treated, the people were just kicked out of their houses and told to move over, but also what was done to the -- to the historic fabric of the city. We're really lucky that the damage was limited but it was -- it was more than too much what happened to Government Center, West End, and the construction of the Central Artery and a little bit further north. The Tobin Bridge ripped through Chelsea in a very similar way. I mean I'm describing from a point of view of a Bostonian, but this was going on all over the United States. The combination of urban renewal and the interstate highway program did a lot of damage to traditional neighborhoods that I think people wish they had back, I mean, in a lot of those cities. Certainly that's the case in Boston.

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