In the desolate eastern reaches of Boston’s South End, at the corner of the Mass. Pike and Interstate 93, the old Boston Herald office sits empty. The paper’s staff decamped to offices in the Seaport District in January. Earlier this month, new details emerged of a redevelopment scheme for the area, currently under consideration by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. With a large residential and shopping complex called the Ink Block and other plans for apartments, shops, restaurants, and a hotel, developers hope to transform this light industrial zone into a vibrant, “18-hour” neighborhood.
The Ink Block name is a hat tip to the printing presses that once defined the area. But nearly forgotten is an earlier identity of this same parcel of land, one that opens a window on a point even deeper in Boston’s economic history. Today, its only visible remnant is the street that would be home to many of these new buildings: Albany Street.
Though few Bostonians realize it today, Albany is the last remnant of a dense grid of tenement-lined blocks known as the New York Streets. It was once one of seven named after towns along the Erie Canal in New York State, along with Seneca, Oneida, Oswego, Genesee, Rochester, and Troy.
How did a neighborhood in the heart of the Massachusetts capital come to be named after our regional rival? The answer lies far back in the long battle for dominance between Boston and New York City.
By 1841, New York was America’s preeminent port, having long ago left Boston in the dust in terms of total shipping volume. Boston was a day closer to the main English port of Liverpool, but New York had one overriding advantage: the Hudson River. In 1825, the Hudson had been connected to the Erie Canal, giving East Coast merchants access to the Great Lakes and all the economic activity of the expanding West.
Boston wanted in on the action, and invested in a crash program to give its port direct access to the Erie via rail. On Dec. 28, 1841, the first train completed a round trip from Boston to the outskirts of Albany and back.
Politicians from both cities celebrated that night at a packed gala in the new United States Hotel, Boston’s largest. Bread made from New York grain was served, emphasizing what was hoped to be the staple cargo for the new line. The table salt was from Syracuse, a canal town and salt capital. According to a contemporary newspaper account, the Boston mayor offered a toast to “Albany and Boston—connected together by a rail road which brings the two cities in such proximity, that Albany supplies Boston with bread, and Boston, Albany with candles, both made and delivered on the same day.” The night broke up drunkenly, with an Albany alderman raising a toast to “the Yankee ladies—may every one who comes to New York catch a Dutchman.”
Within a dozen years, a new residential neighborhood had sprung up next to the terminal. Its streets were given the names of rapidly growing market towns along the Erie Canal (which ran from Albany to Buffalo). Dick Garver, a retired deputy director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority and an amateur historian, speculates that the motivation behind the names—Oneida, Oswego, et al.—was to “brand” the site as Boston’s connection to the mouth of the Erie Canal.
“What was so exciting was that this was a link to the West,” says Boston University historian Nancy Seasholes, author of the Boston land history book “Gaining Ground.” According to Seasholes, however, the excitement didn’t last long. “Boston spent the whole 19th century trying to catch up with New York,” she says, but the city continually lost ground.
The Albany rail connection was never enough to overcome the advantages conferred by the Hudson, and Boston shrank as a port city. The streets named for New York declined in appeal along with the rest of the South End throughout the 19th century, as new neighborhoods such as the Back Bay were added to Boston via land creation. Then, beginning in 1955, all but one of the streets were erased from the map completely.
As early as 1943, noted Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer had developed a “slum clearance” plan that envisioned replacing the New York Streets with a landscaped superblock lined with sleek, stylish towers surrounding a central community center and parking garage. That plan never came to fruition, but 12 years later, the area indeed became the site of Boston’s first urban redevelopment district. Boston’s core had been in decline for decades, and town planners decided the best way to create jobs and increase property taxes would be to bring factories downtown. The New York Streets were demolished, creating a superblock big enough to fit a modern factory.
Today, the land that was once home to the New York Streets is largely deserted, with few pedestrians to be seen. But the dense residential construction that was once the hallmark of the neighborhood is back in vogue. The biggest of the proposed projects, National Development’s Ink Block, will include a 50,000-square-foot Whole Foods supermarket and will begin construction in March 2013, according to project manager Sherry Clancy. One block south, developer Normandy Real Estate Partners has filed plans with the BRA to build a hotel and a high-rise apartment building on the corner of Albany and Traveler.
Though the name now means little to those who don’t remember Boston before 1955, in a sense the New York streets are enjoying one more moment of distinction. Following the changing tides of urban design, this small parcel of land may become one of the first re-redevelopment projects, and, after more than 50 years, it may soon be a neighborhood full of Bostonians once again.
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Correction: Because of a production error, the map that ran with an earlier version of this Ideas story carried incorrect credit and caption information. The map is from 1888 and appeared courtesy of WardMaps LLC.