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January 21, 2009
Originally published in The New American Home

The heart of the American Revolution, Boston became home to midnight rides and at least one wild tea party. Yet this spirit of rebellion is tempered by a deep conservatism that has shaped the urban landscape since the 19th century. Drive through the South End, with its rows of Victorian-era townhouses, or up past the brick federals on Beacon Hill, and you might begin to think that the independent spirit of the city’s founders lives on mostly in the local driving habits.

The Institute of Contemporary Art, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, sits harborside, backed by the financial titans of the city skyline. The surrounding parking lots will disappear as the district is developed in the coming years.
The Institute of Contemporary Art, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, sits harborside, backed by the financial titans of the city skyline. The surrounding parking lots will disappear as the district is developed in the coming years.
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Artists and others who live and work along the Fort Point Channel were less than pleased about the massive Vent Building 5, one of five structures that deliver power and fresh air to the Big Dig’s underground highways.
Artists and others who live and work along the Fort Point Channel were less than pleased about the massive Vent Building 5, one of five structures that deliver power and fresh air to the Big Dig’s underground highways.
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In the centuries since Boston’s founding, Deer Island has been used as an internment camp for Native Americans, a point of entry for Irish immigrants, and a prison. Now it’s home to a waste-water treatment plant and a state park.
In the centuries since Boston’s founding, Deer Island has been used as an internment camp for Native Americans, a point of entry for Irish immigrants, and a prison. Now it’s home to a waste-water treatment plant and a state park.
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One of the dozen small public spaces that dot the South End, Blackstone Square is a lively center of civic life—filled with yuppie dog owners and young parents with children.
One of the dozen small public spaces that dot the South End, Blackstone Square is a lively center of civic life—filled with yuppie dog owners and young parents with children.
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Brick bowfront rowhouses, most constructed in the mid-19th century, are a South End signature.
Brick bowfront rowhouses, most constructed in the mid-19th century, are a South End signature.
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Cherries, fava beans, fiddlehead ferns, and other organic local treats for sale at Plum Produce.
Cherries, fava beans, fiddlehead ferns, and other organic local treats for sale at Plum Produce.
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Orinoco restaurant is loved as much for its warm, casual environment as for the traditional Venezuelan cuisine.
Orinoco restaurant is loved as much for its warm, casual environment as for the traditional Venezuelan cuisine.
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The bare cabin where Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden is long gone, but the pond still offers an escape from urban life.
The bare cabin where Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden is long gone, but the pond still offers an escape from urban life.
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Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius lived in the house that bears his name from 1938 until his death in 1969.
Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius lived in the house that bears his name from 1938 until his death in 1969.
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True to the quirky vision of its founder, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s collection mixes major with minor. Titian’s Europa, on a wall upholstered in French fabric, holds court over an 18th-century Italian chair and other assorted pieces.
True to the quirky vision of its founder, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s collection mixes major with minor. Titian’s Europa, on a wall upholstered in French fabric, holds court over an 18th-century Italian chair and other assorted pieces.
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The Titian room at the Gardner Museum overlooks an interior courtyard.
The Titian room at the Gardner Museum overlooks an interior courtyard.
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The windows of the ICA's theater offer an expansive view of the harbor and the cantilevered galleries above.
The windows of the ICA's theater offer an expansive view of the harbor and the cantilevered galleries above.
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The Institute of Contemporary Art, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, sits harborside, backed by the financial titans of the city skyline. The surrounding parking lots will disappear as the district is developed in the coming years.
The Institute of Contemporary Art, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, sits harborside, backed by the financial titans of the city skyline. The surrounding parking lots will disappear as the district is developed in the coming years.

The heart of the American Revolution, Boston became home to midnight rides and at least one wild tea party. Yet this spirit of rebellion is tempered by a deep conservatism that has shaped the urban landscape since the 19th century. Drive through the South End, with its rows of Victorian-era townhouses, or up past the brick federals on Beacon Hill, and you might begin to think that the independent spirit of the city’s founders lives on mostly in the local driving habits.

Now, galvanized by the Big Dig—the nearly $15 billion effort to push underground a grim elevated highway that cut through downtown—Boston is undergoing the most radical urban changes in its history. Not only has the city center been reunited with its waterfront for the first time in 50 years, but the reclaimed land along the shore is being developed into a greenway (albeit with less green than originally expected). In a ripple effect, the Seaport District, a wasteland of parking lots on the far side of the highway, is being redeveloped along with the South Boston waterfront, where old industrial buildings are being converted into lofts and restaurants.

Alongside these megaprojects, smaller-scale change is transforming the neighborhoods that make up metropolitan Boston. With no room left to grow in Cambridge, Harvard University is expanding across the river into Boston’s Allston neighborhood. Up the river, a building boom at and around MIT has produced Frank Gehry’s Ray and Maria Stata Center, Steven Holl’s Simmons Hall dormitory, and Behnisch, Behnisch & Partner’s Genzyme Center, which pushed the envelope on green building.

Bostonians typically cast a skeptical eye on urban change. When the oil company Citgo tried in 1983 to dismantle its corporate neon sign, opponents mobilized to have it declared a historic landmark. More recently, defenders and critics of City Hall have come to blows over its 1960s Brutalist-style architecture. And the Big Dig is not exempt: Before the delays and the cost overruns, and long before a woman was killed in the collapse of part of a new tunnel last summer, civic discontent had convinced the transportation department to erect a sign reading, “Rome wasn’t built in a day. If it was, we would have hired its contractors.” But what kind of city will Boston be when the hard hats go home? It’s a question of great interest to Nicholas Baume, chief curator of the new Institute of Contemporary Art.

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