Investigating a Site in the Boston Region
The city itself provides a text richer than any other you will read this semester. Using old maps, prints, and photographs, but primarily your own eyes and mind, you will have the opportunity to apply the knowledge gained in the course to "reading" a site of your choosing. This semester-long project will be due in four parts; the assignments vary in length from two to eight pages, a total of approximately twenty-six pages. One of the four assignments must be revised and resubmitted; each student, in consultation with the writing tutor, will choose the assignment to revise and resubmit. Along with the assignments, weekly journal entries are required.
Each assignment will be posted to your Web site, which will be linked to the class Web site. Students may not make changes to an assignment between the submission date and receipt of grade. After receiving your grade for an assignment, you are free to revise the assignment.
You are required to keep a journal throughout the semester, submitted in weekly installments. The journal is a place to record observations of individual sites and reflections on readings, lectures, and class discussions. It also serves as a source of ideas and written material for the more formal assignments.
From time to time during the semester, we will discuss the role of journals and writing as a form of inquiry.
Start your journal right away. The first journal is due in the first week of class, and a subsequent journal entry is due every week. Journals represent 20% of the final grade.
Assignment 1: Select a Site
Describe your site and reflect on why it interests you. What questions does the place raise for which you hope to find answers this semester? The text should be about 600 words (approximately two typed pages), accompanied by a map.
Your site can be anywhere in Boston, but should be a place you can easily visit from time to time throughout the semester. It should be between four and eight blocks. Ideally, it should include more than one type of land use. And it should be a place that intrigues you. Reflect on why it interests you, why you are drawn to it. What questions does the place raise, for which you hope to find answers this semester?
Generally, the more diversity your site has, the more interesting its development over time is likely to be. This is not a hard and fast rule. If you pick a site in downtown Boston, for example, the uses may be all commercial, but the development over time will still be very interesting.
A land use means a type of use, for example residential (single family homes, apartments), commercial (stores, offices, movie theaters), industrial, institutional (schools, hospitals, churches, post office), recreation (park, playground, golf course). Two different land uses could mean two different kinds of the same use (single family homes and apartments) or it could mean two different kinds of use altogether (residential and commercial).
Assignment 2: Your Site and Natural Processes
Find evidence on your site of its environmental history and ongoing natural processes. The objective of this assignment is to discover how natural processes shape cities over time. The text should be equivalent to about 2400 words (approximately eight typed pages, double-spaced), accompanied by illustrations (which you should be sure to source).
This is the second part of a four-part, semester-long project. The first part consisted of finding a site. Now the task is to find evidence on your site of its environmental history and ongoing natural processes. The objective, through the examination of your site and its context, is to explore how natural processes shape cities.
Lecture notes and required readings will be helpful in identifying and thinking about how natural processes have shaped and continue to shape your site; by now, you should have read Close-Up: How to Read the American City and should finish reading The Granite Garden.
Start your investigation by locating your site on early maps of Boston, such as those shown in lectures (several of these are depicted in John Reps, The Making of Urban America; many can be found in other books, such as Alex Krieger, Mapping Boston). Do these maps depict any natural features on your site itself? These may include rivers or streams, ponds, hills and valleys. If so, did these features (or the absence of them) influence the settlement of your site? Examine your site's location in relation to the natural features of Boston as a whole. Do you think this context influenced the development of your site?
Take a walk through your site looking for signs of its pre-urban landscape: topography, for example, or water features. Look also for signs of ongoing natural processes of air, earth, water, and life (for example, light and wind; water flow and erosion; plant growth and animal movements). How do these relate to some of the larger environmental issues discussed in lectures and The Granite Garden? Make a map of your site with field notes of your observations.
Successful papers are well organized, cite specific examples to make each point, put examples in context, make reference to required texts, and are illustrated. In organizing your paper, focus on the patterns of change you found and the important issues they raise; consider using subheadings to highlight your key points. Choose your examples carefully. They should be specific and significant, illustrative of the patterns of change you found. Illustrations (copies of maps, prints, photographs) should be apt and clearly linked to your reasoning; quality is important, not quantity. Include a map identifying the boundaries of your site. Do not forget to list the source of each illustration.
Assignment 3: Your Site Through Time
Trace changes over time on your site by comparing its character at several points in time, using different types of sources. What changes do you find? How would you characterize them? Are the changes gradual or do they seem to happen suddenly? Do changes within a time period seem related? How about from one time to another? Can you find patterns in the changes? What might explain the changes you found? Were they merely an outcome of actions by individuals or do they reflect broader forces (social, cultural, political, economic, or natural processes and conditions at local, regional, national, or global scales; policies; events; technological changes)? The text should be equivalent to about 2400 words (approximately eight typed pages), accompanied by illustrations.
This is the third part of a four-part, semester-long project. The first assignment was to find a site, the second, to find evidence of its environmental history and ongoing natural processes. Now the task is to trace changes on your site over time by comparing its character at several points in time, using different types of sources. You may find different kinds of changes: land use, density of settlement, additions to buildings, ownership, and transportation. The types of sources you will find helpful may include nineteenth- and twentieth-century atlases; old maps, plans, and prints; and photographs.
Start your investigation by locating your site on maps in several atlases of different dates. Include at least four different time periods in addition to the present, including at least one from the nineteenth century. By comparing your site at different times, you are likely to find that changes between some dates are more significant than others. Record the changes you think are important or interesting. You may want to modify your site slightly by shifting it a block or so to include interesting material that you have found or to make the site a bit larger or smaller. The site you end up with should contain four to eight blocks.
What changes do you find? How would you characterize them? Are the changes gradual or do they seem to happen suddenly? Do changes within a time period seem related? How about from one time to another? Can you find patterns in the changes? What might explain the changes you found? Were they merely an outcome of actions by individuals or do they reflect broader forces (social, cultural, political, economic, or natural processes and conditions at local, regional, national, or global scales; policies; events; technological changes)? Review Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier for material to test, substantiate, or revise your hunches.
Describe what you have found, the causes you have identified, and your reasoning. Focus on what seems most significant and interesting; look for patterns. Don't try to cover everything. This is an assignment that could occupy you for an entire semester. The objective of the assignment is to give you a sense of how cities change over time, to prompt you to question why, and to search for answers.
Start on this assignment right away. It requires finding your site on old maps before you can even begin to puzzle out the changes and their possible causes. Map collections often have their own hours and may not always be open when the rest of the library is. Leave yourself plenty of time.
It is important to include copies of the illustrations used to analyze the changes on your site. If you use the atlases on microfilm, copies are easily made. If you use bound atlases, which may not be reproduced on a copy machine, you may need to make drawn copies or photograph them.
- Getting a map of your site to make notes on. This is useful for taking notes on and for illustrating points in your paper. Current Boston Redevelopment Authority maps are available at Boston City Hall. For other cities, like Cambridge and Somerville, check with the local planning commission.
- Finding your site in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century atlases. MIT's Rotch Library has numerous atlases that you may consult and even copy. You probably will not find all the maps you need in the MIT collection, and there are other sources in the Boston region, such as the Boston Public Library, the Cambridge Public Library, and the Harvard Map Collection in Pusey Library. Atlases of note are: G.M. Hopkins (nineteenth century); Bromley (nineteenth and early twentieth century); Sanborn (mainly twentieth century).
Assignment 4: Artifacts, Layers, Traces, and Trends
Walking around your site, what clues can you find to past, current, and potential future uses and residents? What different kinds of traces can you find and what period and population of the site's history do they belong to? What do they reveal about the past and the present? The objective of this assignment is to give an appreciation for how past owners, functions, events, and ways of life leave traces and to give experience in "reading" the site by learning to recognize these traces and work out the puzzles of their significance. The text should be equivalent to about 2400 words (approximately eight typed pages), accompanied by illustrations.
This is the last assignment in a four-part, semester-long project. The task of the third assignment was to trace changes on your site over time using old maps, plans, prints, and photographs. Now the objective is to find traces of these changes present in the current environment and to interpret their significance. Many of you were attracted to your site because of some anomalous features that puzzled you and made you wonder why they were there and what had caused them to be. This is an opportunity to explore some answers to such puzzles.
Take a walk through your site looking for clues to the past and to what the future may hold. You will find it helpful to refer to the old maps you analyzed for the third assignment (and old prints and photographs if you have them). Walk through the site several times, once for each period for which you have a map, and compare the site today with what it was like at the time depicted on the map. This will be easier than trying to compare three or four maps from different time periods all at once. Look also for traces of past populations. Make notes on what you see. What different kinds of traces can you find and what period of the site's history do they belong to? Do they relate to one another in any way? Describe the traces you think are most important or interesting. What do they reveal about the past and the present? Why did they survive? Are they still fulfilling some original purpose? Do they reveal anything about the present and/or future? What additional clues can you find in the present that hint at potential trends for the future?
Describe what you have found. Focus on what seems most significant or interesting to you. Look for patterns. Don't try to mention every trace of the past you find or every clue to a trend. The objective of this assignment is to give you an appreciation for how past owners, functions, events, and ways of life have left traces on your site and, based on this understanding, to give you the opportunity to speculate on how the site may develop in the future.
Illustrate some of the artifacts, layers, traces, and trends that you found. These illustrations may include old maps, photographs, and prints, but should also include some drawings or photographs of what you saw and found significant. Do not feel intimidated if you doubt your artistic skills. The object is to record what you see and highlight what is significant about it. The illustrations will be graded on quality of content; your grade will not be reduced for lack of artistic skill. Illustrations are another way of recording and thinking about your observations. Organize the illustrations and present them neatly. Be selective: quality is more important than quantity. Do not use dozens of photographs, hoping a few will hit the mark.