Urban Archaeology

While we usually think of the past as something that is captured in museums, kept on static display for our occasional perusal, there is another past that is available everyday, and it's a lot handier than a museum exhibit. In fact, in New England, it's often right in front of you.

This is the past of leftovers, artifacts of times gone by that continue to exist in the present, and so commonplace that you hardly notice them until they are pointed out to you. Once you start looking for them, you'll start to notice them everywhere. This is, after all, one of the earliest settled parts of the country, and artifacts lie, forgotten and overlooked, around almost every corner.

In Greater Boston and in other New England cities, evidence of this abounds. Walk downtown, where old buildings are being demolished to make way for new. The long hidden walls that have been freshly revealed will show old fireplaces, bricked up for many decades. Nobody has heated an office or industrial loft with a fireplace in ages-it smacks of Dickens' London, doesn't it?-and nobody has given it a thought in the generations that have passed since they were walled off.

Many brick building walls still display faded advertisements from years gone by. Painted on the brick, this was prebillboard marketing. Companies paid the building's owner a fee, and the entire sign, artwork as well as lettering, was applied by paintbrush. Many are still faintly visible despite years of weathering.

Or just look down. Once entire streets were paved with stones. Rounded ones are cobblestones, and squared-off ones are paving stones. They were quarried and cut in Maine, then shipped here by schooner by the hundreds of thousands. As primitive as these seem today, they made it possible for city streets to carry heavy traffic without turning into impassable quagmires or ruts. Where did they all go? When asphalt products started to be used to surface the streets, it was frequently simpler to just cover the old stone blocks rather than remove them. A recent bike ride between Central and Kendall Squares in Cambridge revealed several spots where the paving stones were once again on the surface, still serving their original purpose of carrying traffic into a new century.

Other worn spots on local roads can show trolley tracks from bygone streetcar lines. Some streetcars ran along reservations, but many lines simply ran their tracks down the middle of busy thoroughfares. The reservations still exist-see Commonwealth Ave. in Newton, which once hosted a streetcar line that carried Brighton residents out to Norumbega Park on the Charles River-but others ran almost everywhere in a complex network that connected neighborhoods in a time when car ownership was unusual. Observe the currently unused Arborway Line tracks in Jamaica Plain and imagine the automobiles sharing the streets with trolleys at rush hour.

Phone booths.Those of a certain age will remember when real phone booths were ubiquitous. The best were those located inside buildings: made of wood, with a seat to sit on while talking, a folding door to pull shut for privacy and a light overhead that automatically came on when the door was shut. One of the last glorious survivals of this era resides on a landing of the front stairwell of Harvard's Peabody Museum. Making a call by cell phone seems cheap and tawdry in comparison.

And there are still unique buildings extant that speak quietly of an earlier time, like the shot tower. The element lead, now banned from gasoline and paint because of the health threat it poses, used to be handled casually and with aplomb. Round lead shot for firearms, for instance, was made by melting lead into a liquid state and then pouring the hot, molten liquid through a screen so that it would separate into droplets. The screen would be at the top of a tower many stories high so that the droplets could coalesce into a spherical shape while falling, before landing in a water tank at the bottom. Believe it or not, one shot tower, long inactive, still exists in downtown Boston, right behind the towers of International Place.

Speaking of towers, why do so many of our older fire stations have high towers attached to them? Because these structures once had a daily utilitarian purpose: when a fire company returned from a fire, its fire hoses needed to be drained and dried out; otherwise, being made of natural fibers, they would soon rot. The wet hoses would therefore be hoisted on end to hang extended in the tower so that the water could drain out and the air could circulate.

And there's always more to find whenever you slow down and look for it. The second floor doors and protruding beams on some backyard garages? Haylofts for the horses that lived there several generations ago. The blue and silver alarm boxes on a few city street corners? Police call boxes from back before radios were issued. All of these things are small and not very spectacular, in and of themselves. Taken together, however, they make up an open air museum of the past, and the only price of admission is a willingness to observe.

Article provided by Homesteader

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