Sunday, November 11, 2007

Tear Down the El!

Looking north from Forest Hills
Green street station

During my years growing up in Jamaica Plain, the streetcars and the Elevated trains were our connections to Boston. My mother brought me with her when she shopped at Filene's and Jordan Marsh, and our dentist was on Bromfield street. When I was a little older, I took the elevated train from Forest Hills to Dudley street on my way to Boston Technical High School. Given the chance, I would always choose the Elevated trains - there was no traffic, so they were quicker. It never occured to me that someone would want to take down the elevated structure. It was old, and the leaning curve at Dudley street could be unnerving, but the streetcars were no day in the park either. The structure did cast a shadow on the street, and Washington street did seem to be the "wrong side of the tracks", so to speak, but that was just the price that someone, somewhere had to pay to get me in town quickly.

In time, of course, the El did come down. The people living along Washington street got rid of the awful noise of the trains going by, but I can't say that the area is particularly rejuvenated when I drive through now. It's still a working class area, with a gentrified bakery looking hopeful but out of place at Green street.

In 1948, barely fifty years after the Forest Hills elevated train line had been built, Representative (and future Mayor) John F. Collins led an attempt to have it removed. Supported by residents of Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, businessmen and civic groups, Representative Collins sponsored a bill in the Legislature that would replace the existing elevated structure with an underground tunnel as far as Marcella street, and from there, by way of Ritchie street to an elevated structure crossing Columbus avenue and Amory street to the New Haven railroad tracks. From there, the tracks would follow the railroad right of way along the railroad embankment to Forest Hills, crossing over to enter the existing station. In Representative Collins's words: "The property owners and residents of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury have suffered the blight of this archaic structure for too many years and prompt action is vital. The removal of this structure will restore property values and improve this district as a residential area. Competent engineers have endorsed this plan as both sound and highly desirable."

Ralph U. Brett, head of Timothy Smith Co., a major retailer at the intersection of washington and Warren streets in Dudley square, represented Modern Passenger Transportation For Boston Inc., a group seeking the removal of the Elevated structure. Mr Brett told the Trustees of the Metropolitan Transit Authority that the substitution of a subway would have many benefits. It would clear up Washington street and relieve automobile congestion. It would rejuvenate the area and increase property values, providing the city with increased income. It would improve the living conditions of those living near the line, and improve as well the riding conditions of thousands of passengers per day. Finally, it would both reduce maintenance costs and remove accident hazards caused by the Elevated supports.

The trustees of the Metropolitan Transit Authority came to a different opinion, reporting: "The removal of the Elevated structure along Washington street is not a top priority." While recognizing the benefits of removing the structure, the Trustees reported to the Legislature that in view of the high estimated cost of the project, the difficulties involved with the project were too great to make the work a priority. The existing structure would have to be supported while the underground work was being done, adding to the cost.

So the effort to replace the elevated line with a subway failed. John Collins became Mayor of Boston in the 1960s, and he seems to have lost his interest in the effort. It was the time of the "New Boston" and massive urban renewal projects, so I imagine he had larger fish to fry.

Source: Jamaica Plain Citizen, March 18, 1948
The pictures above and more can be found here.

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