by Miles Shugar

How did a failed 1970s highway project in the heart of Boston, Massachusetts bring generations of diverse individuals in contact with their city’s roots in the 19th century over jerk chicken and rice?  The answer lies in historical archaeology, which can serve as a focal point for community enrichment in ways that might not seem obvious from the onset. When we uncover new information about the past, we prove the axiom that we never live only in one time. Fieldwork leads to data, and data is interpreted, contextualized, and finally published in academic circles. That often marks the end of archaeology’s journey into contemporary conversation. Sometimes, however, data can be resurrected and take on a new life in the neighborhood where it was recovered.

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A busy lunch at Haley House Bakery Cafe. Photo reused with permission from Haley House Bakery Cafe.

In the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury, southwest of the downtown core along the centuries-old artery of Washington Street, a humble but powerful bakery cafe is bringing history to the forefront of community enrichment.  Haley House Bakery Cafe is a wing of the non-profit organization called the Haley House, whose members made it their mission for six decades to promote the physical, economic, and social well-being of underprivileged members in the greater Roxbury community. The Cafe is entirely staffed by men and women who have faced significant barriers to employment, such as incarceration or economic hardship, and enthusiastic volunteers from around the greater Boston community. Thanks to lively events programming and a unique partnership with the Roxbury Historical Society, Haley House Bakery Cafe has been able to feature historical programming to its customers, joining sustainable business practices with historical advocacy and public education.

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A mural on the wall of the bakery cafe. Photo reused with permission from Haley House Bakery Cafe.

Haley House also serves as a platform for local advocates to communicate their passions to their neighbors through arts and educational programming. Roxbury History Night is a monthly event where local historians give a lecture on topics ranging from the lost beer breweries of Lower Roxbury in the 19th century to the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the neighborhood.  The café is often packed to standing-room capacity when local history is brought back to life with photographs, artifacts, and lively lectures delivered by those most passionate and knowledgeable about it.

In October 2014, as part of Archaeology Month, the Haley House Bakery Café and the Roxbury Historical Society hosted “Roxbury’s Southwest Corridor: Archaeology of Industry and Transportation.” The event featured legendary local archaeologist Beth Bower, the supervising researcher for the massive urban archaeology project from the 1970s known as the Southwest Corridor Project.   In the 1960s, plans were made to construct an eight-lane highway through the heart of some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, including Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and the South End. In preparation for the highway, entire blocks and neighborhoods were completely demolished and left barren, forcing many to leave behind their homes. Boston’s citizens fought back against the highway, and in 1972 the highway was cancelled. Later in that decade, the strip of land cleared for the highway was repurposed into an urban corridor of parks, and the ground below it was reserved for a new subway line. With the recent inception of the Environmental Protection Act, archaeology took place to determine the extent of and plan for the mitigation of sensitive historic resources affected by the subway line.

Beth Bower and her team of archaeologists uncovered myriad sites and thousands of artifacts from breweries, factories, foundries, and workers’ tenement housing from the 18th-20th centuries. Their work became the foundation for a cultural, social, and industrial history of a thriving area known as the Stoney Brook Valley, named for the old waterway that fed ts tanneries, breweries, and factories.  The Phase II and III excavations there told the story of Roxbury’s emergence as an industrial hub in the 19th century.

That same Roxbury History Night in October 2014 featured me, a recently graduated student of the UMass Boston Historic Archaeology program who had reinterpreted Beth’s work for my Masters’ thesis. Together, Beth and I talked about the history of the movement to stop the Southwest Corridor Highway, the fieldwork that produced the rich history of the Stoney Brook Valley that we enjoy today, and the interpretation of a particular site from her work–the Metropolitan Horse Railroad Company.

 

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Photo of some of the first electrified streetcars in Boston.  Reprinted with permission of author.

The Metropolitan Horse Railroad Company site was first a horsecar and then an electric streetcar station during the heyday of the trolley in greater Boston from approximately 1850 to 1920. Halfway through its life, engineers innovated powering streetcars with electrified lines, and from 1891 to 1893 nearly all of the horses and horsecar railway materials at the station  were sold to the public at auction. By 1895, the complex at large had transitioned from a bustling horsecar hub to a rather quiet electrified station. The horse railroad buildings were demolished around 1925 with the advent of the automobile, and over top of it was built an auto repair garage. My work introduced Beth’s archaeological work to new documentary sources to suggest that, contrary to popular narrative,  horses were still employed at the station after its streetcar lines were electrified. Instead of pulling the actual streetcars, horses now probably served as a power source for the exciting leisure activity of sleigh riding, or for the ongoing task of track upkeep and repair.

When Beth and I had concluded our presentation, the audience was eager to ask questions and initiate a lengthy discussion of old Roxbury.  Some audience members even remembered elements of the old Roxbury landscape and shared how they had seen their neighborhood undergo many substantial changes.  Many of the questions centered  on the actual technology of the horse railroad and later electric trolley or on the lives of the horses during the height of the Metropolitan Horse Railroad Company.  These types of questions about the structure and operation of mass transit are especially valuable in Boston today as we continue to struggle with an aging public transportation system recently crippled by historic snowfall. The layout of Boston’s early transit lines influenced the growth and development of Boston’s neighborhoods, including Roxbury. Many of the same lines that were laid in the 19th century are still used by Boston commuters today, and they still influence who has access to Boston’s economic opportunities.

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    Author’s photo of the detail of a riveted leather horse collar worn by draught horses of the Metropolitan Railroad Company recovered by Beth Bower’s team

Reexamining and recontextualizing previously excavated archaeological sites is a valuable practice not only for archaeologists, but for the communities in which archaeologists work. The collaboration between local Boston archaeologists, the Roxbury Historical Society, and the Haley House Bakery Cafe is a successful example of how these studies can take on new life. The Haley House is an important  venue that provides a hub and a meeting place for a growing and changing community. Its location within the community of Roxbury and its mission to employ outreach and teach demonstrates that archaeology can be presented to the public at a venue outside the walls of a university where a diverse and community-conscious audience can learn about a part of their neighborhood’s past. These gatherings serve not only to enrich and educate our neighbors but also to strengthen archaeological study though first hand knowledge and vibrant discussion around a space that has been home to some for generations.

Where else is archaeology shared with diverse communities in unique venues?

 

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  • Sara Belkin

    This is so awesome! Is there any published research we can get our hands on? I work in Milton, MA and I am looking for sources on Boston area transportation at the turn of the 20th century. I would love to read your work!
    – Sara Belkin