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  • Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston
  • Carl Abbott (bio)
Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston. By Michael Rawson. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2010. Pp. xii+367. $29.95.

Eden on the Charles is a pleasure to read. The body of the book consists of five largely independent essays about different ways in which nineteenth-century Bostonians thought about, interacted with, and modified their physical surroundings. The topics of the substantive chapters are the transformation of the Boston Common from a traditional commons to a park; the decision to develop a public water supply; the rise and partial fall of the Romantic suburban ideal in Roxbury and Brookline; efforts to preserve a functioning harbor in the face of land filling and other changes to the physical environment; and the development of the metropolitan park system.

Michael Rawson is not writing in a historiographic vacuum. The modern scholarship on these topics goes back to the 1950s and 1960s with authors like Nelson Blake and Sam Warner and has advanced through dozens of intermediate historians. I wished for more explicit engagement with these earlier contributions beyond some brief citations. Nevertheless, Raw-son provides clear and usable summaries of the policy choices while pursuing his own distinct goal, which is to explore the meanings that upper-class and middle-class decision makers projected onto the landscape.

Some of the cases offer forceful comparisons with the present. The arguments and instrumentalities by which affluent Boston suburbanites tried to preserve bucolic bliss closely anticipated the socially exclusionary land-use practices of the later twentieth century. The defenders of West Roxbury and Brookline were just as self-satisfied and self-centered as the folks of contemporary gated communities. For another example, the apologists for the modern ideology of neoliberalism have been urging the privatization of public water-supply systems in developing nations, and it is telling to see the same classical liberal arguments for privatized water made 150 years earlier.

For historians of technology, the chapter on “Making the Harbor” may be of greatest interest. Utilizing research previously published in Environmental History and as a chapter in Anthony Penna and Conrad Wright, Remaking [End Page 644] Boston: An Environmental History of the City and Its Surroundings (2009), Rawson examines the ways in which human actions such as damming rivers and filling tidal flats for buildable land changed the hydrodynamics of Boston’s harbor. He then explores the way in which scientific theories and knowledge were mobilized to meet threats to the harbor’s viability. Early scientific understandings, it turns out, were plausible but inaccurate, requiring painful revision in the light of continuing harbor change.

The chapter on the Common and its marshy environs is also most revealing to a reader whose previous knowledge of that part of the city comes largely from the travels of Mr. and Mrs. Mallard. Again one sees the individual and class interests behind emerging environmental ideas. One can also make an interesting comparison with events on the other side of Beacon Hill. Residents there tried to assure that African American children went to school at the bottom of the hill, not on its slope, as detailed in Hilary J. Moss, Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in Antebellum America (2009).

As previously stated, these five case studies are largely independent. They all revolve around the unobjectionable observation that the relationship of people to landscapes and natural systems changes as towns turn into small cities and then large cities. They also highlight the ideas of affluent nineteenth-century Bostonians about which aspects of those landscapes and systems should be preserved or enhanced. The major argument (as distinct from observation) has to do with the consistency with which those ideas expressed ethnic and class differences. “Just as important were the competing visions of the Boston ideal produced by different class and ethnic factions, especially the Yankees and the Irish. The tensions between these two groups had animated arguments for a public water system, encouraged the invention of residential suburbs, inspired a landmaking scheme to create more ground for middle-and upper-class housing, and influenced the movement to build a monument to the Puritan past...


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