Savoring the Cityscape - Then and Now

ONE of the pleasures of a week's vacation-in-place is the opportunity to enjoy at leisure the cityscape one usually must hurry through in the mode of Alice's White Rabbit.

One can enjoy not only the buildings themselves in all their richness of architectural detail, but the rhythm of the life of the streets: the delivery boys and the shoppers, the briefcase-toters heading for their important meeting, or the runners heading for their quick jog around the block. Do all these people usually get to be out on a beautiful spring day like this, when we are stuck inside the office?

In "Cityscapes of Boston: An American City Through Time," Robert Campbell (text) and Peter Vanderwarker (photographs) present another kind of opportunity for savoring the urban scene. The book, out just this month from Houghton Mifflin, will be of special interest to residents of and visitors to Boston; but the lessons drawn should apply to cities anywhere.

Their method was simple: The authors located old photographs of Boston and returned to the scenes to rephotograph them, from the same point of view as in the original shots. Comparisons are drawn between then and now; each pair of photos constitutes the basis for a separate, more or less stand-alone chapter.

Unsurprisingly, "then" is often more appealing than "now." One laments, again and again, "How could they have replaced this with that?" Where the later scene is an obvious improvement, it is often because it represents a restoration to the period before the earlier picture: The Paul Revere House in the North End, for instance, is shown as it appeared as a cigar factory in 1903. But overall the book illustrates a great deal of continuity in the Boston cityscape over time.

This continuity is of course one of the reasons Boston is a good place to have done this kind of study, but only one. Another is that, for all its quainte olde historick atmosphere, Boston is largely a manufactured city, produced by leveling of hills and filling in of marshlands.

It is hard to imagine that today's environmentalists would countenance such wholesale rearrangement of the landscape. The Back Bay neighborhood was once exactly that - a bay. As a planned community, though, it is a superb example of urban design that continues to wear well after nearly a century and a half.

Boston has had notable failures in its cityscaping, however. The razing of the old West End is now widely regarded as a textbook example of how not to do urban renewal: The city declared this densely populated, heterogeneous working-class area of brick tenements "blighted" and leveled it, replacing it with high-rises and vast empty plazas.

By bad examples and good, "Cityscapes" sets forth principles of urban design. Buildings should be seen as people, "with hats and faces" - that is, with distinctive roof treatments, and windows and doors that humanize a building. Streets should be seen as rooms, as enclosed spaces, rather than as collections of objects (buildings).

Streets are fundamental, and a basic square grid does just fine, thank you. The more cross streets and more doorways along those streets, the better, especially if those doorways open into establishments generating traffic around the clock. Conversely, an office tower occupying an entire block can be deadly to the life of the street. Similarly, parking garages should not be allowed to occupy extensive sidewalk frontage.

Diagonal intersections are often good for entertainment districts, we read, because they are conducive to billboards (e.g., Times Square in New York). Would-be shopping streets facing parks tend not to work, because such streets need activity on both sides, just as you need more than one log to build a fire.

Further, "Cityscapes" presents a strong case for heterogeneity, for clutter and even congestion as essential to the liveliness of the city.

Mr. Campbell writes as Boston has begun rerouting underground the Central Artery - a major north-south expressway - which has blighted the city for decades. The urban-design opportunity this project will present when completed will compare to that afforded by the filling in of the Back Bay, he suggests. Will this opportunity be seized?

More broadly: The cities are on people's minds again as they haven't been for a while. Better to follow the counsel of the streetwise school of urban connoisseurs such as Campbell to make the most of cities as assets than to have to deal with them later as liabilities.

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