Preservation and affordability advocates call truce in JP

It’s an odd alliance at first glance. The Boston Preservation Alliance and Occupy JP have united to oppose demolishing the “Knight’s Children’s Center” on Huntington Ave. The Home for Little Wanderers is relocating to Walpole, and the latest plan for its site is to tear the buildings down and put up a high-end apartment building.

Here are the basics of the dispute from the Jamaica Plain Gazette:

Occupy JP calls for the space to be filled by owner-occupied triple-deckers, a homegrown remedy to poverty with a proven record,” the statement continued. “Spread the wealth or find the homeless, orphans, widows and others sleeping on your doorstep.”

Curtis Kemeny, whose Boston Residential Group is planning the high-end apartment building, previously told the Gazette that the existing buildings cannot be reused due to their age and the difficulty of reconfiguring them.

That includes a 1914 brick building at the core of the complex. Neiswander, a Jamaica Plain resident who said she was writing with the permission of the BPA’s board and executive director, noted that several other S. Huntington Avenue institutions have reused historic buildings. She noted that the 1914 building is “a sturdy brick building of human scale that should be eminently adapatable for residential use.”

It’s worth pointing out that the proponents of historic preservation and the proponents of affordable housing are not always natural allies. Often as not, for example, in the case of St. Aidan’s in Brookline, finally converted to affordable housing in 2010, housing advocates come up against preservationists and others who don’t want to see changes made.

Today, Tim Fernholz argues at GOOD that, “Local policies about land use and transit make America’s most productive places—our largest, wealthiest cities—prohibitively expensive for many people.”

The people already residing in those cities have enacted policies that have, in essence, built a wall around them. Limits on the size of buildings mean that fewer apartment units are built; demands that the needs of cars take precedence over the needs of people create vast parking lots that take up valuable land; zoning restrictions make it harder to create thriving neighborhoods with many types of housing and businesses. In his polemic, “The Rent Is Too Damn High,” Matt Yglesias notes while residents fight to preserve the character of iconic neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Park Slope or Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown, those neighborhoods would be illegal to construct today.

Fernholz argues that high costs of living, combined with rising college debt, keep people from making the move to one of the country’s historically magnetic cities, like New York. Forget Georgetown. More dramatically, there’s the height restriction on all buildings in Washington DC, which gets a lot of blame for that city’s rising rents.

In the JP case (which, just to clarify, doesn’t involve affordable housing) the figurative keys to the bulldozers currently rest in the hands of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) after the Boston Landmarks Coalition (BLC) imposed a 90-day moratorium.

So, JP-ers, keep an eye on the alphabet soup and ponder this one awhile.

Photo shamelessly stolen from the Home for Little Wanderers’ incredible Flickr stream. If you like that one, check out the kids occupying this tree house on Halloween. The Thanksgiving turkey drive. Man, I could go on and on.

The first home of Sylvia Plath

One of the disappointing realities of historical signage campaigns is the signs themselves just don’t have all that much impact unless you know what you’re looking for. We expect them as part of any normal historical preservation effort, but a discreet metal plaque on a wall with some dates – it’s sort of anti-climactic.The backstory’s usually better told in detail, told aloud.

At the same time, it’s a surprise to learn that the Sylvia Plath’s first residence doesn’t have a marker. No ‘Sylvia Plath lived, slept here.’ Nothing. The author of The Bell Jar and the book of poems, Ariel was born in a Boston hospital on October 27 of 1932.

Plath biographer Peter Steinberg commented below: “Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, at a building at the corner of Harrison Ave and Stoughton St (02118) at what is now the Boston Medical Center. The building where she was born was still standing a few years ago and presumably still is. Sylvia Plath was not born in JP, she just lived there. Plath’s brother Warren, however, was born at the Faulkner in JP.”

This blog is a not turning into a historic buildings blog in a here’s your obscure, picturesque Victorian of the day sense. Don’t worry.

But for now, more on that house: It’s on JP’s Prince Street. The home’s a fairly non-descript suburban stand-alone with a porch, near the Arnold Arboretum. A convenient walk for Plath’s father, a Boston University botanist who studied bees.

Plath’s family moved to Winthrop when Plath was four. As an article in the Jamaica Plain Gazette muses (this is the real fodder for your imagination):

Had she lived there longer perhaps her nautical poem “Point Shirley,” which poignantly details the coastal terrain of Winthrop, where the family moved, would instead be about the Arboretum or the historic Unitarian Church in JP center, where the family worshipped. Perhaps the seacoast iconography would have been replaced by images of the spartan Jamaica Plain Monument or the undulating terrain of Forest Hills Cemetery. [link added]

That would be different. See photos of all Plath’s homes throughout her life collected at Steinberg’s website Thanks to him for the correction.

I thought to myself they must be crazy in America

Italian immigre Angela DiChiara, age 84, Jamaica Plain recalls her arrival as a child in Boston’s North End around the turn of the twentieth century in Not So Long Ago: Oral Histories of Older Bostonians, collected by Lawrence Elle.

Inevitably around the holidays, these sorts of stories tend to turn into what is this cranberry jelly stuff, but they’re still pretty charming.

I soon made friends with a little girl and in a few weeks we started to go to school. She could speak both Italian and English and she had a lot of explaining ot do for me. When I met the teacher for the first time she told her I had just come from Italy and did not speak any English. The teacher said, “That’s all right, she’ll learn,” and I did very fast.

Now it was around Christmas and the teacher was getting the room ready, starting to fix the windows with all kinds of pretty things before Christmas and I saw them carrying in a great big tree. I was all eyes. I did not know what they were about to do with it because no one had told me anything about the tree.  I thought they were going to plant it in the room and I thought to myself they must be crazy in America. I asked my friend what were they going to do and she explained it all to me. When the tree was up everybody in the room helped to put all the trimmings on it. It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw in all my life. But the next day when we went to school I got the surprise of my life. I saw this nice big fat man all dressed up in red and a big white beard and he said, “Ho, Ho, Ho”, and sat under the tree with dolls and all kinds of toys and candy. In a little while he started to call all the girls by name and gave each a beautiful doll and a bag of candy. When I saw I had a doll in my hands I was so excited I was shaking because I had never seen a doll before. And to think it was mine to keep. I could hardly wait to get home to show it to my mother and father, and when I got home I could hardly talk I was so excited telling them all about what had happened at school.

Image: Children’s Aid Society Italian House, Five Points, NY.

The Jamaica Plain-born Pineapple King

This advertisement ran in a Spring 1939 issue of LIFE Magazine advertising Dole Pineapple Gems, as served in Hawaii–in case you couldn’t place that strange costume of hers.

James Drummond Dole, was called the ‘Pineapple King.’ The man who founded the Dole company whose juices we all know today  grew up in Boston’s Jamaica Plain. After finishing his degree at Harvard, he set off for Hawaii at age 22, with his total savings of $1,500. He arrived in November of 1899 to an outbreak of bubonic plague. Nevertheless, he stayed, and opened a small cannery for pineapples, not yet a Hawaiian export.

The Honolulu Advertiser called it ‘a foolhardy venture.’

Even more on Dole from the Roxbury Latin School newsletter.