If you’ve ever lived in Boston, Michael Rawson’s Eden on the Charles is a great book to help understand how Boston developed in the 19th Century. You may know the basic transformation of Boston from a small ithsmus surrounded by shallow flats to the larger bustling city of today. For a book labeling a city as Eden, it’s mostly about conflict. Conflict between the classes and conflict between different visions of the city. It uses those conflicts to highlight five developments in the city.
The first conflict is over the use of the Boston Common. In the early days of the city it was a common pasture. As the city grew, the common became a spot for recreation. That transformation increased as the affluent residents began calling Beacon Hill home. The conflict arose between those looking to keep agriculture in the city and those who wanted more recreation in the city (and didn’t enjoy dodging cow patties).
The second conflict was over potable water. For centuries, residents were able to supply water through wells in the city. By the middle of the 19th century, wells became inadequate. The conflict was between those who thought water should be delivered by the government or by private parties. By this time in the city’s history there were a few companies privately supplying water. Once the decision fell in favor of the government, the conflict was over how to pay for it. On one side was a movement to have it paid through general tax revenue. On the other was those who wanted it paid through a usage charge. Anyone who has paid a water bill knows how this was finally resolved.
The third conflict was over the suburbs. Boston offered water, streetlights, and police protection. The outlying communities ( West Roxbury and Brookline in particular) offered a rural lifestyle, allowing you to escape from the frenzy of the city. While residents enjoyed the idyllic lifestyle in the more rural communities, they also enjoyed the peace that came from good roads, streetlights, and clean water supplied by the city. Ultimately, West Roxbury failed to deliver the services wanted by the residents and they agreed to be annexed by Boston. Brookline did a better job implementing resident services and managed to avoid the lure of annexation.
The fourth conflict discussed in the book was over filling the harbor. Throughout its history Boston has slowly grown as landowners began filling in the flats that surrounded the isthmus. By the middle of the 19th century mariners became concerned that the harbor’s shipping lanes were getting filled with debris. The conflict ended up being one that turned on scientific reasoning and political will. Little was understood about the hydrological forces taking place in the harbor that made it such a good harbor for that time period.
The last topic had the least conflict. Everyone wanted to preserve some wilderness in the outlying regions of the city. The biggest targets were Blue Hills, Lynn Woods, and Middlesex Fells.
This is a serious book. It was a finalist in for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for History. It’s well written. At times, it’s breezy and easy to read. At other times, it slogs through the topics.
If you have an interest in the history of Boston or enjoying reading about the environmental history you will find lots of good reading in Eden on the Charles. If you don’t have those interests… Well that’s probably not you because they would have stopped reading well before this point in this essay.