Effects of Mass Transit | James Petty | pettydesign

Effects of a Mass Transit Hub: Boston’s South Station

The current state of the economy, airport security policies, and rising gasoline prices have refocused ideas of transit systems in the United States. Amtrak has announced that it plans to build a high-speed train between Washington DC and Boston that could travel at speeds of up to 220 miles per hour, traversing the Eastern Corridor in just over 3 hours (“The Amtrak Option” 2012: A18). Most of the conversation that has resulted from this announcement tends to focus on the macro level impact of a high-speed train and the implications of bringing Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington DC together as the first American megalopolis. Little attention is given to the micro level implications of this network and what it could specifically mean to the stations and their adjacent areas. The presence of these transit-hubs as gateways to their respective cities will increase with the high-speed rail network and their relation to the city should be investigated. The north end terminal of this network is Boston’s South Station. The history of South Station will be examined as a precursor to understanding the implications of mass transit hubs and their role in a dense urban context over time.

Josiah Qunicy is one of the most well-known and respected citizens of Boston’s history. Quincy was the mayor of Boston between 1823 and 1828 and organized the development of the famous Qunicy Market. While mayor, he also commissioned the construction of a granite monument to be built in Charlestown, Massachusetts in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. In order to transport the heavy granite from the quarry to Charlestown four miles away, Gridley Bryant, a self-educated engineer, devised a horse-drawn railroad line. With the financial backing of Thomas Handasyd Perkins, this was realized in 1826 and was one of the first railroad lines in the United States (Whitehall 1968: 98-99). This construction began to inspire engineers and entrepreneurs to consider the future of rail and its possibilities in cities. Four years later in 1830, the Boston and Lowell Railroad was incorporated to begin development of the first steam train in the state, creating a more reliable and faster transit network of goods from the mills in Lowell to Boston. A year later the Boston and Worcester Railroad and Boston and Providence Railroad were also incorporated with the same vision. All three of the companies opened and ran their first cars within days of each other in 1835 (Whitehall 1968: 99). This was the beginning of rail in Boston.

Over the next ten years, four more lines opened connecting Boston to the west, and through the harbor connecting the west to Europe (Ross 1964: 32). Each of the seven lines of Boston was run by separate companies and had separate stations throughout the modern-day downtown area (Whitehall 1968: 102). The following shows the first seven railroad companies and the locations of their stations (Whitehall 1968: 99-102):

Railroad Company – Station Location
Boston and Lowell Railroad – Barton’s Point
Boston and Worcester Railroad – Lincoln and Beach Streets
Boston and Providence – Park Square
Eastern Railroad – Causeway Street
Boston and Main Railroad – Haymarket Square
Fitchburg Railroad – Hauerhill Street
Old Colony Railroad – Kneeland Street

As early as the 1850s, the land value along the railroad’s path was multiplying which lead to real estate development and a commercial boom in economy. Banks began to invest into the system to encourage the increasing economic trends (Kay 2006: 147). As the years progressed, foods and commodities began to rely more and more on long distance freight trains. The city of Boston also invested heavily in the railroad network, which resulted in financial wealth to the city (Ross 1964: 32-33). Within the first few years of operation, the Boston and Worcestor Railroad was already bringing in over 100 passengers per day in to Boston. This led to developers creating the largest hotel in the nation, the United States Hotel, adjacent to the station (Whitehall 1968: 105). This was the beginning of large scale economic development adjacent to and as a result of terminal stations.

Effects of Mass Transit | James Petty | pettydesign

Fig 1. Map of Boston with South Station and North Station. Railroad Gazette.

In 1893, The City Beautiful Movement at the Chicago World Exposition captured America’s imagination. People across the nation were interested in creating communities that were not only beautiful, but that unified the community as a whole (Kobayashi 1991: 32). At the same time, the thrusts of American capitalism were creating railway cartels that had a new idea of how a station could function economically (Richards 1986: 38). Both the public and private spheres turned their attentions to the multiple train stations surrounding their cities and began to realize the advantages of consolidating their services. In an attempt to minimize disruption to existing urban fabric, the current transportation hubs were kept clear of the commercial heart of a city (Bruinsma 2008: 18). Even with consideration of preserving a downtown district, the seven stations and their associated train lines circumventing the center of town was creating economic and social barriers throughout the urban landscape. The Boston Terminal Company was founded and began to plan a terminal station that would handle the multiple railroad companies at one location. Companies could rent out lines and platforms instead of constructing sole stations, which would lead to vast amounts of land to be made available for new development. This amalgamation was a new idea to the American landscape and its commerce (“Large Terminal Station in Boston” 1897: 13). It was decided to build the new terminal at Dewey Square which was located at Summer Street and Atlantic Avenue (Fig. 1). The site was home to the Bull Inn, a former private home built in 1668, (Southworth 1984: 109) and by 1897 the foundations had been laid for the new South Station designed by architects Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge (Cushing and Urquhart 1982: 118).

Effects of Mass Transit | James Petty | pettydesign

Fig. 2. South Station Terminal, 1899. Library of Congress.

Though not yet complete with its construction, the station was officially opened before a densely crowded dedication on 30 December, 1898 (Fig. 2). The station was 765 feet long and 662 feet wide and covered 13 acres. It was the largest station in the world, and one of the largest permanent buildings ever constructed (“The Boston Station” 1898: 8). The station was built with two levels. On the top level were 28 tracks for both steam and electric trains. On a lower level were four additional tracks that were intended to be used for suburban electric trains (“Boston’s New Station” 1898: 4). The dual level station was an unprecedented design (“Large Terminal Station in Boston” 1897: 13). The underground loop system itself was also the first of its kind in the nation. It was designed as a loop to handle the rush hour traffic when suburban trains would be arriving at the station before the previous trains had left (“The South Terminal Station in Boston” 1900: 66). Even though it was constructed, the lower level and its tracks were never actually used as a station. After nearly five decades of neglect, the lower level was converted into an eighteen lane bowling alley in 1947 (“Eighteen Bowling Alleys Are Opened in Vast Basement of the South Station” 1947: 18).

At the time of opening, the terminal would be used by the Boston and Albany, the Boston and Providence, Old Colony, the New England and the New York, New Haven and Hartford (“Boston’s New Station” 1898: 4). The 32 tracks of South Station would replace the 25 tracks located at the stations that South Station replaced. The new station would be both a culmination of stations and expansion of transit capabilities of the city at the same time (“The South Terminal Station at Boston” 1900: 66). The platforms could handle 25,000 people at a time and it was estimated that all of Boston could be evacuated from the city using the station within a 24-hour period. The impressive engineering of the building along with the social implications of a combined terminal station inspired the population, as was emphasized by a journalist at the time, “the erection of such a building gives us the idea that we are a very capable people and that we can wage a war, or manage a colony or move an army as well as any nation on earth” (“The Boston Station” 1898: 8).

Effects of Mass Transit | James Petty | pettydesign

Fig. 3. Main Waiting Room, 1899. Library of Congress.
The station included a small area for shop stands which sold the daily newspapers and fruit for passengers, ticket sales windows, lavatories, a telegraph and telephone station and barbershop. The general waiting room was 65 feet wide and 225 feet long (Fig. 3) and the station also had a special waiting room for women measuring 34 feet by 44 feet. The women’s waiting room was more refined and elegant than the general room and gave the women an opportunity to separate themselves. A lunch room was on the ground floor with stairs up to a fine dining room above. The first floor of the station included quarters for the conductors of long distance trains and offices for the staff of the trains. The second floor was dedicated to the offices of the Boston Terminal company. The third floor was occupied by the Boston and Albany Railroad and the fourth and fifth floor by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad (“The South Union Station, Boston” 1899: 56). This was the first built in America that combined a station and an office in one complex, something that has been heavily replicated around the nation since (Bergen 1990: 45).

By 1903 the station already had 1,585 movements in and out of the station each day. Even though it was the largest station in the world, it was not operating at full capacity (“Train Movements at Boston South Station” 1903: 376). Initially, the area adjacent to the rail lines leaving South Station were little different than modern day freeway systems. Urban amenities at the point of departure were exchanged for a quick suburban exodus (Kay 2006: 278). While the station wasn’t planned with much retail or economic commerce, private developers quickly saw the opportunity to exploit the surge of people entering the city each day. By 1908, the subway lines near South Station were in operation and the area saw a flood in development. The area which was previously a large wholesale business district was transformed into a vibrant retail community. The combination of South Station and adjacent subway line is credited as the most significant change in the usage of the downtown area and its land value. Land values due to the infrastructure continued to increase until the financial crises in the late 1920s (Wilcox 1950: 10B).

The station had carved out an identity and use within the fabric of the city. It was not only a place to catch a train; it was an economic asset and something to inspire the generation. In her autobiography, Mary Antin describes her childhood in Boston’s tenement housing and the newly created South Station as a place to escape and dream of future possibilities. Standing on a bridge above the terminal yard behind the station, she compares her decisions and desires to leave the tenement houses to the splitting lines of the tracks below. “So would I be, swift on my rightful business, picking out my proper track from the million that cross it, pausing for no obstacles, sure of my goal” (Antin 1912: 298).

Viewed casually, terminal stations may be seen as nothing more than large structures within the urban environment. These insertions have, however, a greater presence in the daily operation of city life. They have played a pivotal, yet quiet, role in the history the arts, society, politics and warfare. These terminal stations can be argued as the modern day equivalents of the medieval city gateways of Europe (Richards 1986: vii). In medieval European cities, the gates were not only the points of entry, but regulators of a flow of people at a specific place. This flow created or supported adjacent business structures and through function, became a gathering place of the masses. Train terminals in modern day cities are not built as buildings, but as engineered machines, efficiently moving people and trains in and out of the city (Stilgoe 1983: 41). They become concentrated nodes of people who are inserted into the city from places outside. This sudden insertion created something new in the scene of city fabric. Many people were brought together, but not for the purpose of being brought together. They were all in one place, but not for the purpose of being in that place. They were in a place of transition.

There are two typologies of people in transit at the station, transit traffic and suburb traffic. Transit traffic is the typology of users who use a station to get from one destination to another. They are visiting the city or on their way to visit another city. These users arrive to the station in a reasonable time, travel with luggage and take use of leisurely services provided at the station. They could arrive to the station, have their hair trimmed and face cleanly shaved, check in their luggage, rent out an umbrella on a rainy day if they had forgotten one or check in their coats should the day turn out nicer than expected. These were the primary users of the waiting room areas and dining halls. They used the stations facilities to prepare themselves to enter the city. For these users, the station was a point of transitioning themselves (Stilgoe 1983: 36). Suburb traffic users are those on their daily commute between work and home. These users create the hustle and bustle environment synonymously known as the general traffic of the station (Fig. 4). They arrive minutes prior to the departure of the train departing, as they know the time tables by heart. They spend little time at this place of transition since their lives are already divided between the two worlds of work (urban) and home (suburban). The proliferation of people moving to the suburban landscape between 1880 and 1930 created a larger flow of suburb traffic, and thus a greater use at the station (Stilgoe 1986: 26).

Effects of Mass Transit | James Petty | pettydesign

Fig. 4. Thornton Oakly. Rush Hour in South Station, c1912. Scribners.

Beyond the formal uses of the station amongst its users, the terminal became one of the great public spaces of Boston. It was the primary meeting space of the city. It was a rendezvous for lovers, a place where a mother sends her son off to college and welcomed him home from war. It was where one would see someone they hadn’t seen in a long while nor would likely not ever see again. It was a place to watch and be watched. Policemen watched out for pickpockets who watched out for their prey. The variation of different types of people proliferated in this one location of all public spaces in the city. Many people saw the terminal as a vision of the future. It was a place where all social classes, ages and race could gather in the same place and use the space equally. Up until the stations began forming private police units in the 1920s, stations became home to many of society’s undesirable (Richards 1986: 120). It was seen by some as an initial attempt at a socially equal society and a reflection of a trending rise of civic spirit (Stilgoe 1983: 44).

People of all types were suddenly and for a moment shoulder to shoulder with people that can be very different than themselves. One might run into a Presidential candidate, foreign prince, group of teenagers showing off or a hobo. The radicalness of variations that one can encounter at a station also creates this unique moment where one might turn to a stranger to make a comment on another person or persons in observance. The social scene of observing becomes interactive as conversations develop and the station has suddenly become more than just a large building within the city. It has developed into what Elijah Anderson would call “A Cosmopolitan Canopy.” It is a place where people of mixed backgrounds are exposed to each other intermediately and have at times moments of interaction (Anderson 2011: 105). Slowly the different groups become more familiar with one another, which in theory could help break down the barriers of class. Anderson argues that by intermixing these different classes and races in one location, that it creates an “ethos of civility” (Anderson 2011: 113). His theory could explain how it was possible for the station to maintain such a diverse cultural standing while not creating mass outrage or violence. People are able to get along in these situations of exposure to cultures they may otherwise fear or preach against back home here within the confines of the canopy. With all of the eyes around the station, and the flow of women and children giving a sense of innocence, strangers become somewhat comfortable with one another enough to enter this space of cultural dynamics and interact across racial lines (Anderson 2011: 120).

At the time of South Station’s inception, Boston was a very homogenous city. It was not only predominately white; two-thirds of the population were Italian or had Italian ancestry (Ueda 2003: 16). It was not commonplace to find yourself amongst people of other races or ethnic backgrounds and easy to keep from exposing yourself to cultures other than your own. Those who were considered different, primarily Blacks, Jews and Chinese, segregated themselves into small communities within Boston (Fig. 6). If you were to eschew those communities, you would for the most part avoid the people who lived in them. There were few exceptions to this around the city. Some churches had mixed congregations, though people of color would be segregated in pews off to the side so that the remaining congregation could not see them (Pleck 1979: 80). But there were public spaces where people of other cultures were not shunned and kept away from the general public, and South Station was one of them. While the train cars were segregated between 3 economic and social classes, the station itself merged these classes, and their respective associative cultures into one melting pot.

Effects of Mass Transit | James Petty | pettydesign

Fig. 6. Ethnic groups of Boston, c1890. Black Migration and Poverty: Boston 1865-1900.

By 1900, Blacks accounted for two-percent of the population in Boston (Radford 1982: 677). The Black population was comprised of either those who had relocated from the southern former slave states, or were descendants of former slaves who had relocated to Boston in the 1800s. When compared to cities of comparable size and economic structure, such as New York, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia, Boston received very few people from the southern Black population. At a total population of 11,591 in 1900, the presence within the city was more muted and less noticeable than what was extensively documented in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City (Pleck 1979: 13). As was the case for Blacks throughout the country at the time, the majority that worked held menial job positions. As many as 80% of working blacks within Boston were in menial positions with little hope of gaining better work within their lifetime (Fig. 7) (Pleck 1979: 122). The color of their skin not only limited the type of work they could obtain, it even limited the locations of where they could work. They were not able to obtain menial work at local department stores or other places where their presence might be noticed which could potentially thwart off white clientele (Pleck 1979: 130). Train stations were one of the few locations where it was normal to find black workers. Most of the shoe shiners of the time were black, and train stations were notorious for having shoe shiners readily available. The shoe shining business, known at the time as bootblacks, were an opportunity for a black person to run his or her own business. This was also an opportunity for the typical Bostonian to interact directly with people of color. The Women’s Waiting Room even had their own women bootsblacks, which would shine and clean the shoes of women waiting at the station (“Hub’s Women Bootblacks” 1900: 32).

Effects of Mass Transit | James Petty | pettydesign

Fig. 7. Occupational Distribution Table. Black Migration and Poverty: Boston 1865-1900.

In the early 1860s, George Pullman decided to use former black slaves as Porters on his train cars for the Pullman Company just outside of Chicago. He recruited these young men strictly because of their history and ability to work long hours for low wages with militant obedience (Tye 2004: 3). Over the years many other rail companies followed suit and Pullman porters became commonplace on train routes throughout the United States. While typically associated with the train journeys themselves rather than stations, Pullman porters were nevertheless a presence at terminal stations and typically lived in the city of one of a train routes end stations. Being that South Station was the end of many lines running from Philadelphia, New York, Washington D.C., it provided many opportunities for blacks living in Boston for a chance to work. These workers would flow out of the station with each train adding to the mixture of people. Groups of young black boys, all employed and free of their occupational duties, would leave the station together exhibiting their sense of youth and freedom within the confines of a station filled with mostly white patrons. While on the train they were living the lives of servitude to their white counterparts and the upper class society, but through the terminal station, they were equals. This job source continued for decades at South Station as entry-level work. Later in 1941, a young teenager by the name of Malcolm Little, later known as Malcolm X, got a position as a Pullman porter out of South Station on “The Colonial,” a train car running between Washington DC and Boston. He describes in his own autobiography the feeling and excitement he would have as he would clock out and leave the station in his zuit suit ready to hit up the town, catching the eyes of on-lookers. “…many white people simply stopped in their tracks to watch me pass.” (X 1965, 91).

The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s led to many new ideas of labor distribution in the United States. In the 1870s, the Sampson Shoe Factory in North Adams, Massachusetts began to recruit Chinese immigrants living on the West Coast to work as strikebreakers in their factory (Murphey 1952: 244). Not long after, 20 percent of the Chinese living in America outside of the West Coast was living in North Adams (Rudolph 1947: 1). By 1900, these Chinese workers, exhausted of the working conditions, decided to leave North Adams and move 150 miles westward to Boston in search of better work. The first waves of Chinese workers arrived in Boston through South Station. Due to their limited mobility options and lack of existing Chinese connections, they began to settle into homes near to the station (Murphey 1952: 246). The opened up laundries and began to setup an infrastructure that would attract more Chinese immigrants from the West Coast to move to Boston. The community next to the station grew larger and the new residents began opening up Chinese shops, restaurants and teahouses (Fig. 8). This infrastructure has continued to present day and is the current location of Chinatown. Throughout the years of development, this adjacent community of immigrants supplied more mixture into the pot of an otherwise overwhelmingly homogeneous community. The Chinese and Black communities were small in Boston overall, but they had nonetheless presence at an important transportation junction and gateway into the city.

Effects of Mass Transit | James Petty | pettydesign

Fig. 8. Chinatown in Downtown Boston, c.1910. Economic Geography.

The economic structure of our current society has drifted away from a model of employment primarily in industry to one of business and personal services. Communication technology development has rapidly increased information which helps promote the fertility of production while fueling consumer demand (Florida 2002: 67). This has not only brought more people to central business districts, it has given them more purchasing power along the journey. Ideas of how a mass transit hub should interact in an ever-changing urban fabric are continuing to be devised and speculative plans by both developers and architects envisioned. High speed train transit has the potential to create the one day return business trip, a critical threshold in the development and usage of transit networks. To be able to go from Boston to Washington DC and return in the same day will, for better or worse, alter the way many people interact and do business. Amalgamating stations in the late 1800s brought more people together. The proliferation of suburb development brought even more people together. The proposed Amtrak high speed transit will once again create mass networks of people and prosperity of the station as a social scene. This scene should constitute some focus in the further thoughts and plans for the proposed network.

Effects of Mass Transit | James Petty | pettydesign

Fig. 5. Thornton Oakly. South Station train shed at night, c1912. Scribners.

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About pettydesign

James Petty is an American architect experiencing and contributing to the Yale School of Architecture.