The intrusion of history in Boston’s Seaport District, a thicket of glass-and-steel built, oh, sometime not very long before yesterday, is like a fly in a finely-creamed soup. In a city where the constant presence of the past can sometimes feel stifling to the point of suffocation, the Seaport, with its array of chain stores and theme park-scale restaurants, is where you come to breathe deeply and forget. It’s everywhere and nowhere, all at once — a relief, surely, to those annoyed by Boston’s abundance of historical context. The Seaport’s canyons of mirrored glass reflect only on itself.
Last month, the Boston artist Pat Falco gamely embraced the role of interloping insect when he installed a clapboard-clad cross-section of housing on Northern Avenue, just a block or so from the Institute of Contemporary Art. It’s easy enough to miss on first pass: Pale gray on its street-facing facade, it blends with the concrete barriers and construction hoarding so ubiquitous here, where condos sprout like shimmering weeds. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll see matter and anti-matter meeting: A ghost of the city’s past exhumed to haunt its extreme present.
Beyond the clapboard and through the dreary little window, you’ll find red floral wallpaper and a cluster of framed photographs, like a grandmotherly parlor open to the sidewalk and the elements. Amid the towers, it’s an insect among elephants, but it has bite: Falco calls it “Mock,” fashioned after the city’s triple-decker housing built in mass tracts in the late 19th century for the burgeoning working class.
It’s absurdly out of place in the Seaport, like chewed gum spat upon the scrubbed-clean sidewalk. That, of course, is Falco’s point: In a neighborhood where slickly eliding the complications of history is as much a brand strategy as an ethos, something un-palatably sticky is much needed. And “Mock,” a loaded symbol of the city’s long-dysfunctional housing policy, is just the thing.
Falco is no stranger to property development, a field whose inherent hubris needs only the slightest nudge to tip into satire. In 2017, he created “Luxury Waters,” a gleefully acidic sendup of the condo sales industry. It was his first shot at the Seaport and the aspirational marketing that insulated its small-box lifestyle in the rhetoric of affluence. “Luxury Waters” promised “Privilege Power Comfort” along with “#Live #Laugh #Luxury,” as the signs in the mock-showroom he set up downtown read. Blithe ignorance of reality was its pitch: “Luxury Waters” was to be built smack in the middle of the Fort Point Channel, partly below the surface — a fate much of the Seaport could actually suffer, should rising sea levels prove as threatening as expected. The message seemed clear enough: What’s climate change when you have luxury? When really, the question should be the other way around.
The satire of “Mock" is more veiled, embedded in the work’s simple presence in a place willfully disconnected from what Falco sought to represent. But the best thing about “Mock,” maybe, is the connection it makes.
Falco, in his research, found the triple-decker was just as aspirational as the Seaport’s slick units are for the legions of young urbanites who fill them. The triple-decker was a modest structure that afforded immigrant families a means toward ownership, living on one floor and building equity by renting out the other two. As the nails-and-wood embodiment of an immigrant dream, it was humble and pervasive: Many of the city’s residential streets are still lined with them, including nearby South Boston, where Irish immigrants built community and, through the income opportunity the triple-deckers offered, the beginnings of economic roots and the hope of social mobility to follow.
For too many, that dream was cut short: Proliferating triple-deckers — and the immigrant laborers who occupied them — unnerved the city’s ruling class in the early 20th century. In 1912, a new Massachusetts zoning law aimed broadly at multifamily dwellings seemed to aim for the triple-decker itself: It allowed any city or town in the Commonwealth to ban any “wooden tenement" that allowed for “cooking ... above the second floor.” Falco’s work includes a telling quote from Prescott Hall, a prominent Boston housing reformer. His 1916 essay, “The Menace of the Triple Decker," said it all: “[U]nless we take some action we shall deteriorate our land values and buildings, and to some extent deteriorate the population,” he wrote.
Read that as you will, but my take is one of clear exclusion: Heaven forbid that the underclass gain a toehold in the property market, lest they become our economic equals. (Hall, who had national ambitions for his housing policy proposals, was also the head of something called the Immigration Restriction League.) That was a fear shared broadly nationwide, a point Falco makes with a framed map of Boston from the 1938 Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. The HOLC, a federal agency with roots in the New Deal, was a Depression-era kingmaker among neighborhoods, driving investment to some and leaving others to languish. Its maps were a tacit attempt to keep things as they were: In the 1930s, it color-coded districts in 239 US cities according to investment risk. Suburbs and affluent neighborhoods — the vast majority of which were white — were graded A and shaded green. Inner-city districts — in Boston, where triple-deckers dominated — received a D grade, shaded in red.
This was the genesis of “redlining,” a practice that all but insured the poor would stay poor, almost by federal decree. Low grades meant increased investment risk, which made mortgaging properties nearly impossible. The HOLC, with its analysis at the time, left little question as to why: Area descriptions included percentages of foreign-born and non-white residents, which were disproportionately high in the redlined areas. The HOLC listed “negro infiltration” as a major economic risk. It did much to keep immigrants and black Americans out of the property market — anyone’s best bet for gaining equity and social mobility. (A great exhibition on the subject, “Undesign the Redline,” is on view at the JPNDC Brewery Complex in Jamaica Plain through the end of the year.)
What does any of this have to do with the Seaport and its glimmering towers? Maybe that its clean slate isn’t quite so clean as the development industry likes us to believe. The Seaport, and neighborhoods like it all over North America, are often justified by city planning departments as reclamation projects — making something where there was nothing, a void begging to be filled.
For those who remember the Seaport’s acres of barren parking lots just a decade ago, that’s an easy sell. Ribbons are cut, hands are shaken, and we all look toward a bright future glinting off acres of vertical blue glass — an instant neighborhood, started fresh with no baggage. But all that bright light instead leaves us blind to a past where inequity was deliberately built into housing policy, along race and class lines. “Mock” stands as a quiet monument to the sins of the past, and asks a simple question: Are we squandering our second chance? Despite the city’s well-intentioned Inclusionary Development Policy, the Seaport is a fresh monument to a city that has always been built for some, not all. And no amount of gloss can put a shine on that.
MOCK, produced by the public art agency Now + There, on Northern Avenue near Pier 4 Blvd, until Nov. 30.
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.