Boston

Postcard from the Back Bay

Back Bay

Looking up Boylston Street from the corner of Berkeley in the 19th century. At right is the New England Museum of Natural History, a predecessor of the Boston Museum of Science. (The building is now occupied by Restoration Hardware — sigh.) To its left is the Boston Institute of Technology, now MIT. The tower at the far left is Old South Church in Copley Square. (via) I work nearby and pass this spot every day.

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After the flood

Clarendon Canal

A new report imagines Boston inundated by rising sea levels — as much as 7.5 feet higher than today. Above, Clarendon Street in the Back Bay converted into a canal. My office is just a few blocks from this intersection.

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Flickr Find of the Day

Back Bay 1870's

The Back Bay in progress. Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, looking west toward the intersection of Dartmouth Street, ca. 1872. The photo seems to have been taken from the tower of the First Baptist Church, on the corner of Clarendon Street. From the wonderful Flickr stream of the Boston Public Library.

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Boston rapid transit map, 1954

Boston Rapid Transit map 1954

Click image to view full size. Via Cartographia.

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The Strangler unearthed

strangler

In the news today: Albert DeSalvo’s remains will be exhumed for DNA testing in one of the Boston Strangler murders. (Boston Globe story here, Times here.) DeSalvo confessed to thirteen murders, but his confession was riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies, and has always been doubted. Hard not to think of my own novel The Strangler. While researching then publicizing my book, many, many older Bostonians told me how vividly they recall the terror in the city during the Strangler panic.

Image: “Sept. 3, 1962: Boston police detectives worked through the night trying to solve the Strangler case after Jane Sullivan, 67, was discovered on Aug. 30, 1962, throttled to death in her apartment. She was believed to be the sixth victim….” Boston Globe.

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Boston, 1940

Boston, Valentine's Day Blizzard, 1940

The 1940 Valentine’s Day Blizzard. Cars on Washington Street in Boston stalled out in the heavy snow, Feb. 14, 1940. (Via Boston Globe)

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Demolition of Boston’s West End

West End

Chambers and Barton Streets, July 19, 1959 (via).

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This morning in the Public Garden

Boston Public Garden

An early sign of spring in Boston: the pond in the Public Garden has been refilled. No swan boats yet.

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Missing the West End

West End demolition

Architecture critic Robert Campbell has a nice essay in today’s Boston Globe asking “What makes the memory of this neighborhood so durable? Why do the people, half a century later, still feel that they are members of it?” Of course, the demolition of the West End figures prominently in my novel The Strangler. (Photos: Boston Globe.)

West End demolition

(Images: Boston’s old West End under demolition, ca. 1958-60.)

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Copley Square, 1910

Copley Square 1910

Copley Square from the roof of the Boston Public Library, ca. 1910 (Boston Public Library, via Park & Tremont)

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The Whitey Bulger book I’d like to read

So Whitey Bulger has been caught, and Boston’s greatest crime story will finally have its denouement. Not climax; we’re long past that. But we’re into the last few pages: a few courtroom scenes, a few loose ends to tie up, then we can close the book. (If you need a crash course on the case, start with these articles by George V. Higgins and Alan Dershowitz.)

But why wait for the ending? Already we seem to have decided how the story will be told: Whitey Bulger will go down as an arch gangster, and his signature achievement will be playing the FBI for fools. That was the story told memorably in Black Mass, the nonfiction account by reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. The theme of informants-run-amok was revisited in “The Departed,” where Jack Nicholson played a gangster “inspired by” Whitey, though Nicholson’s performance was so ridiculous, the rest of the country must have wondered what the hell we Bostonians were so scared of. A second movie is already in the works, this time about Bulger’s murderous Winter Hill Gang, based on a book by its chief thug, John Martorano. We’ll have to wait and see of course, but I’m guessing it’ll be more hard-boiled mobster stuff. John Martorano isn’t exactly the man to write a sensitive, nuanced portrait of his old boss.

I don’t object to any of this. Reducing the story to the familiar shape of a gangster flick is fine, as far as it goes. I love gangster stories as much as anyone. I do have reservations about mythologizing a killer like Whitey, who was exceptionally sadistic even by the standards of his profession. But then, vicious mobsters have inspired great fiction before. Al Capone gave us “Scarface” and “The Untouchables.” Dutch Schultz begat E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, one of the best “literary” crime novels I’ve ever read. New York’s Five Families provided the raw material for The Godfather. These are romanticized versions of the truth, of course, and Whitey will have to be romanticized too, for dramatic reasons. But no one is naive enough to believe that these fictions are intended as accurate portraits. So if writers want to retell Whitey’s story as if it was just another gangster movie — “Scarface” or “Goodfellas” with a Boston accent — I say, more power to ’em. Lord knows, I’ve written similar stuff.

But I hope someone will also step forward to write the real story of Whitey Bulger in the full context of his time and place. Which is to say, I hope someone will write the truth. The story is much more complex than Bulger’s manipulation of his FBI handlers. It sprawls over the whole city of Boston. The Bulger book I want to read might be “literary true crime,” like In Cold Blood or The Executioner’s Song, or it may be straight literary historical fiction like Doctorow’s Ragtime or Billy Bathgate. Best of all, perhaps it would be a fictionalized biography, like Colum McCann’s wonderful Dancer or Colm Toibin’s The Master, the sort of book that brings the real man to life. Whatever the style, the book would be big and baggy and discursive enough to tell the whole story.

Continue reading →

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The lost Vermeer

Vermeer - The Concert

The Concert is a painting of c. 1664 by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. It was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in March 1990. It is considered the most valuable painting currently stolen. Its value has been estimated at over $200,000,000. It remains missing to this day.” — Wikipedia

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Whitey Bulger, age 23

Whitey Bulger

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Southie reacts to the capture of Whitey Bulger

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Front page

Globe - B's win Stanley Cup

 

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Robert Campbell on Boston’s Human Scale

Boston’s Old State House … was a perfectly normal-sized building when it was erected, in 1713. But today, surrounded by skyscrapers, it is completely transformed. It possesses a new charm, a charm its architect could never have envisioned: the charm of a tiny jewel or an exquisite ivory carving. Or a child. Among the tall, blank, dark buildings that surround it, the Old State House, with its slightly loony ornaments — a lion and a unicorn — resembles a child in Halloween costume being escorted around the neighborhood by the FBI.

What is true of the Old State House as a building is equally true of Boston as a city. Once Boston, too, was a city of average scale. That’s not the case anymore, not when you compare Boston with the typical American megalopolis, with its vast, bleak stretches of freeway and strip malls. By contrast, we’ve become Tiny Town.

Quite literally so. Boston comprises just 46 square miles of total area. Phoenix is 324, Los Angeles, 465, Honolulu, 596. The new Denver airport is bigger than all of Boston. You could put Louisburg Square in the center strip of many American downtown arteries and forget where you’d left it; it would resemble a minor traffic island. Or take our so-called skyscrapers. No fewer than 12 other US cities boast towers higher than the Hancock, our tallest. Chicago and New York between them have 22. There are several reasons why our buildings are smaller, the most important of which is that most of Boston’s subsoil is muck, not bedrock like Manhattan’s. By the time technology had solved the foundation problem, Bostonians were used to their smaller scale.…

[O]ur perception of scale has a lot to do with our life cycle as human beings. We were all small once, and we all got bigger. In that sense, we are all Alice in Wonderland: In our imaginations and our dreams, we’re always growing and shrinking. When we were little, a table was huge; we couldn’t see over the top of it. The memory of being so overwhelmed is one reason we enjoy miniatures, like doll houses and architectural models.… Why else do we flock to the famous “Main Streets” at Disneyland and Walt Disney World? All the buildings along these streets are built at three-quarters the size they would be in real life. The Disney people always get us right: In a world grown too big, we gravitate to a street that is just a little bit too small. It makes us feel more important, and it makes the world feel more manageable.

…When the “wrong” size is too big, it may command awe. When it is too small, it will often inspire love.

Boston, more than any other major American city, is a place that is filled with opportunities for that kind of affection.

Robert Campbell, “Small Wonders

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Boston, 1971

Boston, 1971

Photo by Nick DeWolf (via)

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Back Bay, 1904

Back Bay 1904

Commonwealth Avenue, Back Bay, Boston, ca. 1904. (via)

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The Friends of Eddie Coyle … Live

Playwright Bill Doncaster emailed the following press release the other day. I’ve already gushed about Eddie Coyle enough on this blog, both the novel and the film, so you will not be surprised to hear that this sounds incredibly cool to me. I’ll be at the Burren to see it. You should be, too.

George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle… LIVE

Staged reading, Saturday, Nov. 13, 3 p.m. The Burren, Davis Square, Free

SOMERVILLE – Widely regarded as the greatest Boston crime novel ever written, a staged reading of a new theatrical adaptation of George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle will be performed at The Burren, Somerville, on Nov. 13 at 3 p.m.

Adapted for the stage by Bill Doncaster, directed by Maria Silvaggi, The Friends of Eddie Coyle chronicles the lowest rungs of the criminal underworld, as Eddie Coyle attempts to stay alive and out of jail in the company of gun runners, bank robbers, hit men and cops in and around 1970 Boston. Critically acclaimed since its release in 1972, Elmore Leonard called The Friends of Eddie Coyle “The best crime novel ever written — makes The Maltese Falcon read like Nancy Drew.”

This staged reading is free, donations for the cast will be graciously accepted, rsvp required: afriendofeddie@gmail.com.

The cast includes Paulo Branco as Eddie Coyle, Rick Park as Dillon, Tom Berry as Dave Foley, Peter Darrigo as Jimmy Scalisi, Jason Lambert as Jackie Brown, Jen Alison Lewis as Wanda, and featuring Jim Barton, Derrick Martin, Courtney Miranda, and Jeremy Lee.

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West End Memories (continued)

Reader “Leonard in Florida” writes with another memory triggered by reading The Strangler:

My father played the numbers with a guy by the name of Brownie in the West End for years. He naturally had a formula for figuring the number. One night he came home with a paper bag with $4,000. He had hit a four-number hit, which I believe paid about $30 to the penny, whereas a three-number hit paid $30 to a nickel.

$4,000 in 1950 would be about $36,000 today, according to the inflation calculator. Not bad. (Leonard’s first contribution is here.)

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