“I bet it has to do with water, and with flooding,” my husband said.
We were stopped at a red light in Cambridge, at the intersection of Sherman Street and Rindge Avenue, and I had wondered aloud about something that had always intrigued me: Why were the houses in this neighborhood built so high off the ground? Nearly all of them — the oldest ones, anyway — have oddly tall foundations, lifting the front door 6 feet or so above the sidewalk.
This cluster of small high-built houses is nowhere near the ocean or the Charles River. But the neighborhood is not far from the marshes still visible at the end of Route 2, a few hundred yards away. My husband had read somewhere that up until the mid-19th century this part of Cambridge was called the Great Swamp. The area was what we would now call a flood plain, where rainwater running down from the hills would meet tidal surges coming up the Mystic River and Alewife Brook. The builders had known how to configure these cottages so that the living quarters would stay dry even during the inevitable periods when the waters rose.
The ingenuity of this adaptation to a challenging housing site made us curious about who these houses were built for. Immigrants, we learned when we got home and consulted a Cambridge architectural survey. People who came from Ireland in the 1840s to escape the potato famine and found work in the Cambridge brickyards. The Great Swamp held rich deposits of clay that were perfect for making bricks.
The work was grueling. The Irish workers shoveled clay out of water-logged pits, which sprawled from the site of the current Alewife T-station all the way to Fresh Pond. They formed the bricks in burning kilns whose smoking chimneys polluted the air. They loaded the bricks onto trains that ran to the Boston docks. They also made the bricks for the sidewalks of Cambridge, for buildings at Harvard, and for much of the Back Bay, including the Trinity Church rectory.
Anti-Catholic discrimination made it hard for these workers to find housing in Cambridge, so a canny developer created this enclave of workers cottages and boardinghouses. Built between the 1840s and the 1860s, the neighborhood was known as “Dublin” or “New Ireland.” St. Peter’s Church, about a mile away, was built to marry the workers and baptize their children. They were buried in the Catholic cemetery, adjacent to the clay pits, along what is now Rindge Avenue.
In 1875, a tidal gate was built, significantly reducing the neighborhood’s tendency to flood. Building patterns changed, and the neighborhood expanded to include triple-deckers characteristic of Greater Boston, to accommodate the next waves of arrivals, French-Canadians from Quebec and Black people from the South. They too built their own churches, and they too suffered from discrimination.
In his book “Reading the Forested Landscape,” ecologist Tom Wessels writes about how noticing odd details — what he calls “disturbances” within the pattern of the forest — can help us to decipher what we are seeing. “Through some knowledge of history and the broader view of seeing a forest and not just its trees, we begin to see the forces that shape a place. This new way of seeing creates reverence, respect, a sense of inclusion, and accountability.”
Living in a city offers opportunities to read the built landscape with the same kind of curiosity. The oddly high-built cottages at that Cambridge intersection were built high off the ground to keep the mud and water out; and they were built on that particular site for people who weren’t allowed to live anywhere else. They are clues to a particular slice of history that touches on immigration, discrimination, architecture, economics, and ecology. Their foundations are made of brick.
Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index” and “The News from Spain.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.