fb-pixel Skip to main content

‘An Elevated View: The Orange Line,’ at the BPL

Melissa Shook’s “Dover, the Orange Line, Washington Street.”Melissa Shook

Dover, Northampton, Dudley, Egleston, Green, Forest Hills: They're the station names on the elevated portion of the old Orange Line south of the Essex and Washington street stations (all right, if you insist, Downtown Crossing). Anyone recognizing those names can't be much under 40, since that part of the Orange Line came down in 1987 and moved half a mile to the east. The comparable stations are now Chinatown, Tufts Medical Center, Back Bay, Massachusetts Avenue, Ruggles, Roxbury Crossing, Jackson Square, Stony Brook, Green Street, and (a bit of continuity) Forest Hills.

The removal of the elevated line along Washington Street was a small but not-insignificant chapter in Boston history. It might even count as a kind of precursor of the depression of the Central Artery (a considerably bigger deal, though maybe not if you lived in the South End). "An Elevated View: The Orange Line" illustrates that chapter.


The show consists of nearly 70 photographs taken during the final few years of the elevated. They were part of a project to document and celebrate the el. The project also involved local high school students. A half dozen of their photographs are in the show, too. It runs at the Boston Public Library's Wiggin Gallery through Jan. 19. The gallery is far from being the library's most attractive space. Which makes all the more welcome how handsomely the show has been installed. A frieze of quotes and a ribbon of orange paint circle the room, for example, in imaginative tribute to the elevated line.

"An Elevated View" is equally rewarding as urban history and aesthetic exercise. The el had gotten pretty shabby by the time of its dismantling. But within that shabbiness, photographers David Akiba, Lou Jones, Jack Lueders-Booth, Melissa Shook, and Linda Swartz found a complex and varied beauty. Sometimes, as in Shook's "Dover, the Orange Line, Washington Street," they even found something like majesty and magic.


Some of the photographs were taken in 1985, a few in '87, most in '86. That was an interesting time in Boston — in part because of how uninteresting it was. The election of Ray Flynn as mayor in 1983 marked a symbolic end to the era dominated by court-ordered desegregation in the public schools. The big downtown building boom had yet to reach full blast. These years were a breathing spell for Boston, and you can feel that in these photographs. They're about dailiness and texture and routine. They show what otherwise tends to go unnoticed because deemed uneventful.

People use the term "subway" interchangeably for all types of urban rail transit. But a subway (below ground) is different from a trolley or tram (surface) and both are different from an elevated train. A train becomes something different when it goes above ground. For one thing, it enters into a very different relationship with meteorology. Akiba's "Dudley Platform, Outbound," from 1986, has such delicacy and tonal subtlety it seems more snowscape than urban document — though it certainly qualifies as both.

David Akiba’s “Dudley Platform, Outbound.”DAVID AKIBA

A subway isn't just beneath the city but apart from it. An elevated railroad is a part of the fabric of urban life. That's bad in some ways. Just ask the people who live on the part of Beacon Hill where the Red Line comes aboveground. There's the shrieking of metal on metal, the cutting off of sunlight. But an elevated's place in city life is in other ways very much to the good: how it varies the texture of the cityscape, the marvelous views it can afford, the sense of dynamism it imparts.


Akiba's "Between Dudley and Northampton," from 1987, shows what splendid vistas an Orange Line ride could offer. The Hancock Tower looms over the city as a kind of sentinel. Now there is a dark knight rising. Gray rather than dark, and not at all knightly, is Lueders-Booth's "Along the El, Dover Station," also from 1987. If that luncheonette were any closer to the station customers would have to pay a fare to get a bite to eat. A transit system is about so many things: not just tracks and trains, but also passengers, passersby, employees. platforms, stairs, escalators, fare booths, structural supports, graffiti. They're all here.

Akiba, it should be noted, deserves a special place of honor: He took more than three-fifths of the images in the show. Clearly, he grew very attached to the el. "What a strange and unsettling experience to stand today on Washington Street and see the sky," he said in 1990. Looking at the photographs he and his colleagues took, those words make sense.

"An Elevated View" is one of five BPL exhibitions this fall under the heading "Building Boston." "Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America's Great Public Spaces" and "The People's Own: Construction of the McKim Building" are already up. Next week "Boston in the Gilded Age: Mapping Public Places" and "Boston Sports Temples" open.


Under the heading of "Common Ground," the Lowell Lecture Series at the library is also being devoted to Boston and building. Tuesday the Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, Robert Campbell, and his longtime associate the distinguished architecture photographer Peter Vanderwarker speak. Subsequent speakers include Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer with US District Judge Douglas Woodlock, and artist Maya Lin.

For more information on "Building Boston" and "Common Ground" go to: www.bpl.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.