Sunday, April 24, 2011

Time and Tide in Cambridge

     Picture Cambridge in 1637, or 1700, or 1776. What do you imagine? Perhaps churches, small houses, or the common. Now imagine looking to the east. What you should see in your mind's eye is a stretch of salty, tidal marshland, and then open water for over a mile before you see the town of Boston in the distance. The Charles River as it flows through Cambridge today did not begin to take shape until the early nineteenth century, and it did not take the form it has today until the twentieth. Both Cambridge and Boston underwent land fill projects in the nineteenth century, also called land reclamation, in which solid land is made from wetland or water. Boston's project was massive, doubling the size of the city, but Cambridge's land fill was also very significant, as changed our relationship to the Charles forever.

     The watery gap between Boston and Cambridge was two miles at its widest point before any human interventions, which is three times the current distance.1 Near the present-day site of MIT, there were once oyster beds so large that they posed navigational challenges for boats passing through the basin.2 Just like the harbor it flowed into, the water had a tide; the difference in water level between high and low tide averaged nine feet.3 At high tide, East Cambridge became an island. Surrounding the river itself were salty marshes. Tidal marshes are divided into a higher zone and a lower zone, and it is typical for the low zone to be underwater at high tide and exposed at low tide. The tidal marshes in Cambridge included mudflats, which are created naturally by the buildup of sediment deposited in an estuary or other body of water. Such marshes are typically covered in grasses and rushes that have evolved to fit this unique niche, and they are also the home of a number of animal species, especially shellfish and migratory birds, that are adapted to their conditions.4

    Human alterations to the Charles River and its environs started slowly and snowballed through the nineteenth century. Early Cambridge settlers sometimes harvested the slender grasses growing in the marshes to dry and feed to livestock as “salt hay.” Harvesting salt hay didn't have much of an effect on the land or the ecosystem.5 In the 1790's, as part of an entrepreneurial boom of speculation and development, developers drained marshes and filled them with gravel, dug canals, and built wharves in the area that was becoming Cambridgeport.6 Unfortunately, increased construction created problems on the Charles River. In order to constructors bridges over the wide spans of water between Cambridge, Boston, and Charlestown, builders had to create causeways, altering the water flow. Now, local sewage was collecting in the narrowed river basin, and when the intertidal zone was exposed at low tide, the mud flats had a potent stench. In the following decades, human waste was joined by industrial waste.7 People began to recognize the altered marshes as a sanitary hazard as early as the 1820's, regarding clean, fresh air as a matter of the general welfare of the public.8 Construction and land fill on the Boston side throughout the nineteenth century changed the water flow considerably, making the problems even worse.

      In Cambridge, appetites for land were also growing. A group of property owners, seeking to develop the area for luxury residences, of the Charles formed the Charles River Embankment Company in 1881. and set out to develop the area in several ways. They constructed the Harvard Bridge in 1891. Afterwards, they attempted to build a sea wall on the Cambridge shore, using a suction dredge. The river bottom on the Cambridge shore was too hard for the dredge, but another company used the dredge on the Boston side. It caused a huge stench and a controversy over that stench by pumping up sewage, but the project was completed. 9 The luxury residences never materialized. Once the land was finished, new railroads in the area made it much more inviting to new factories.10

      The made land certainly boosted both cities' economy, but the loss of the marshes had long-term consequences. Wetlands aid in water filtration, including filtering sewage and industrial waste.11 At low tide, when the mud flats were exposed, the smell was awful. It got worse and stronger as the river became polluted by industry.12 The tidal current of the river itself had grown swift and dangerous since all the water from what was once a bay was now channeled into a smaller space.13 In 1873, the state Board of Health reported that Massachusetts had “no territory of equal extent... in so foul and so dangerous a condition” as Miller's River, which was a part of the Charles River area. In the same report, the Board speculated that if an epidemic disease was ever introduced in the area, the river would cause the disease to spread horribly. In 1878, the Board reported that “large areas have been at once, and frequently, enveloped in an atmosphere of stench so strong as to arouse the sleeping.”14

    To solve these problems, Cambridge and other municipalities took title to the shores of the river in the 1880's and 1890's. They built seawalls and scraped the river bottom with dredges, pumping the mud being dredged up into the areas where land was being created.15 Also in the 1890s, marshes west of the Charles were drained to become Soldiers Field.16 By the early twentieth century, the Massachusetts Legislature had gotten involved, forming the Committee on Charles River Dam and later on the Charles River Basin Commission. This bodies undertook the final steps to make that open stretch of water into the river we know today.17 They created a temporary dam by 1908, using locks and sluices to let water in and out. The permanent dam, by Lechmere point, was finished in 1910, and stood until it was replaced by the current Charles River Dam in 1972. The 1910 dam meant that the Charles would no longer have tides, marshes, or mud flats. 18 The land that had once been mud flats was soon built on for use by MIT, which moved from Boston in 1916.

    Creating land to build on and to eliminate the sanitary problems also meant destroying the marshes. This may not have seemed like a loss at the time, but we now understand just how vital marshes are. As mentioned above, salt marshes are a unique habitat, and the plants and animals that make their homes there are unlikely to thrive anywhere else. One example of an ecological disruption is the American Shad, a large herring which used to spawn in the Charles. Shad disappeared from this area early in the 20th century, probably because of pollution and the construction of the 1908 dam. They were reintroduced in the 1980's.19

     One of the biggest environmental and human consequences of making land on the Charles was not revealed until the 1950's, when a few significant hurricanes struck New England. Instead of the absorbent marshland, the river was surrounded by asphalt.20 The city embarked on a difficult and expensive project to replace the 1910 dam. The new dam included sophisticated pumps to prevent future floods, and they were very successful. In 1984, the region faced serious floods, but Cambridge got off lightly: the city had to deal with flooding from the rain, but not from an overflowing river.21 More importantly, the concept of “natural valley storage” began to emerge around the 1970's. This is the idea that we should preserve wetlands because they store water and help to prevent floods, an idea that is now well-established in environmental science.22 In a 1994 study, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that wetlands along the Charles that had been saved prevented flooding that could have caused $17 million in damage.24 Now that Cambridge has learned first-hand the good and the bad that comes of altering a wetland area, we can carefully consider the potential effects of any future project. Today, Massachusetts has strict regulations on how wetlands, including the kind surrounding the Charles River, can be altered.

Earth Day 2011 was this past Friday, April 22. Happy belated Earth Day!

1Haglund, Karl. Inventing the Charles River. (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003), xvi.
2Hall, Max. The Charles: the People's River. (Boston: David R. Godine, 1986), 24.
3Haglund 7.
5Haglund 8.
6 Seaburg, Alan. Cambridge on the Charles. (Cambridge: Anne Miniver Press, 2001), 23.
7Haglund 1.
8Haglund 35.
9Whitehill, Walter Muir. Boston: a Topographical History (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1959), 182.
10Hall 38.
11“Fact Sheet on Functions and Values of Wetlands.” Environmental Projection Agency. September 2001.
12Hall 36.
13Hall 36.
14 Massachusetts Board of Health reports, 1873 and 1878. Quoted in Haglund, 110.
15Hall 38.
16Hall 64.
17Hall 47.
18Whitehill 188.
19Hall 86.
20Hall 68.
21Hall 72.
22Hall 74.
23“Fact Sheet on Functions and Values of Wetlands.” Environmental Projection Agency. September 2001.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Media set in Cambridge

Dear readers,
I'd like to make up for lost time from March and post every Saturday in April, but too much Puritan theology at once will tire both you and me out. The following is a sampling of media set in Cambridge. It isn't intended to be an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination; it's just for fun. (If you're looking for a good Cambridge filmography, another blogger can provide you with that).

Parts of the music video for the lively Born with a Broken Heart by The David Wax Museum take place in Harvard Square, and parts take place on the Red Line. (I don't know about you, but I recognized the Red Line by the upholstery on the seats and the color of the car's floor before the exterior shot of the train...)

This Good Asian Drivers' humor video, a tale of internet dating to the tune of Colbie Calliat's song "Bubbly," is set in Cambridge. One of the characters is seen in a local public park, and when the two finally set up a blind date, they choose East Meets West, a bookstore on Mass Av near Central Square. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the duo, the guy is fully aware he's not the best singer in the world -- he's actually a slam poet, and the woman has her own act as a singer/songwriter. They're both excellent).

You've probably all formed your own opinion of the 2010 movie The Social Network by now... and yes, much of it is set at Harvard, which means lots of shots of Cambridge. Many scenes take place in front of recognizable Harvard buildings, such as the Harvard Lampoon building.

In my opinion, if you're looking for a movie about larger-than-life college antics and ridiculous sums of money that's based on a true story and set partly in Cambridge, The Social Network isn't the best that Hollywood has to offer. The 2008 film 21 is based on the story of an MIT-based team of blackjack card counters, and of course, it has shots of the other famous campus in town.

Of course, Cambridge has also been home to an impressive number of influential poets, including e.e. cummings. Cummings was born in Cambridge and received both a B.A. and an M.A. from Harvard. His childhood home, at 104 Irving Street, still stands, but it is privately owned. Here's an e.e. cummings poem from 1922, painting a beautiful portrait of "unbeautiful" people.

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
by e. e. cummings
the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds
(also, with the church's protestant blessings
daughters,unscented shapeless spirited)
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead,
are invariably interested in so many things—
at the present writing one still finds
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?
perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D
.... the Cambridge ladies do not care, above
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of
sky lavender and cornerless, the
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Anne Hutchinson, Heretic

     Some Cantabrigians believe that Anne Hutchinson, the religious dissenter who was among the first prominent settlers of Rhode Island, should also be credited with causing the Puritans to found Harvard. The General Court of Massachusetts decreed that there would be a school, then called “the College at New Towne,” in 1636. Anne Hutchinson's trial by the church leaders did not begin until 1637. However, until 1638, the school had no buildings, professors, or courses; it was merely an idea. That year, the year that John Harvard willed his library and half his fortune to the school, the first building was erected. Was Anne Hutchinson responsible for the transformation from idea to reality? The short answer, although some find it surprising, is yes. Of course, as with almost every historical question, the full story is more nuanced than yes or no.

Part 1 of this three-part series will look at who Anne Hutchinson was and what she believed. Part 2 will explore her influence on Puritan Boston and Cambridge. Part 3 will examine her relationship to the founding of Harvard.

Anne Hutchinson, Heretic

    Anne Hutchinson came from a family of religious dissenters. Her father, Francis Marbury, was an Anglican minister. As a young man, he was convicted of heresy by a church court and imprisoned several times, because he disagreed with the choices of many Anglican bishops.12 Her mother, Bridget Marbury, (nee Dryden), had relatives who were dissenters. 
    Bridget Marbury was a midwife, and she taught this skill to her daughter. Anne and her siblings were taught at home, and she became quite well-read.3 Anne married Will Hutchinson, whose family owned a textile business, in 1612.

     Despite her husband's relatively affluent income, Anne Hutchinson earned money as well, as a midwife. Both of them were well-respected within the community, and by the 1620's, Hutchinson had begun leading a religious study group in her home.4 These groups were not unusual among like-minded Anglicans. As Eve LaPlante, a biographer of Hutchinson's, has noted, leading religious discussions seems to have sprung naturally out of counseling patients through the life-and-death moments inherent in seventeenth-century childbirth.

     While living in England, the Hutchinsons became admirers and friends of the Reverend John Cotton. Cotton and a number of others in the area were growing frustrated with the Anglican establishment, believing that a number of their practices were sacrilegious. This group took Old Testament rules very seriously; they even considered Christmas celebrations to be inappropriately festive. Orthodox Anglicanism did not take kindly to these nonconformists, and they were often persecuted. The established church referred to this group as Puritans, meaning that they wanted to purify the church. Most dissenters rejected the name, because they felt that they were practicing true Christianity and the larger group of Anglicans were straying from their religion. This was a common theme in nearly all religious controversy of the period: each group believed that theirs was the one true Christianity.

      Puritans felt less and less safe in the Church of England in the first few decades of the seventeenth century, and it eventually pushed them to establish a settlement in the New World. In 1634, the Hutchinsons left their home to join this group in Massachusetts. During her transatlantic voyage, Hutchinson paid careful attention to the sermons of Reverend Zechariah Symmes. She began to disagree with Symmes's messages on a few important points, and soon, she spoke up about it. The minister was uncomfortable with being challenged by a layperson, and by a woman at that. When they arrived in Massachusetts, he reported her to the Deputy Governor. The only consequence at the time was that Hutchinson had to wait a week longer than her husband to be accepted as a member of the Boston church, but her opponents remembered this disturbance later on, during her trial. 5 In her new home Hutchinson soon took on the community roles that she had held in England: women turned to her for her help as a midwife and gathered in her home to discuss religion. The meetings started out simply as an opportunity for reflection on that Sunday's sermon in church, but as time went on, Hutchinson began to criticize the sermons more and more. In 1637, she was tried in the Massachusetts General Court for “traducing the church leaders” – essentially, she was charged with heresy. The trial took place at the meetinghouse in Cambridge.

     In her disagreements with local ministers, Hutchinson stretched the Puritan idea of “God's elect.” Puritans believed that they were only allowing those who God had saved, or “the elect,” into their churches. New members had to apply, and church leaders could grant them membership.6 This practice implied that church leaders had knowledge of who the elect were; however, Puritan leaders denied that laypeople could also see who was and was not saved. Hutchinson felt that if a minister was teaching religion incorrectly, he could not possibly be a member of God's elect. Thus, she began to argue that laypeople such as herself must also have access to some knowledge of who was and was not elect.7 This belief probably would have been heretic enough to get her tried on its own, but in fact, it was a symptom of a bigger issue. Hutchinson felt that some Puritan leaders were not elect, and were teaching a false version of Christianity.

     The distinctions than Hutchinson and the established church argued over can seem very fine to outsiders. One of the ways Hutchinson disagreed with the orthodox Puritan teachings was that she believed that they were emphasizing a covenant of works more than was appropriate. A covenant of works is the doctrine that actions during a person's lifetime can effect whether the person is saved. Its alternative is a covenant of grace, the doctrine that God has already chosen who is saved, and only God's choice can determine who has salvation. A large part of Hutchinson's trial was over the question of whether she ever stated that local ministers preached a covenant of works more than a covenant of grace. Hutchinson denied that she had ever made that claim. 

     The problem was that Hutchinson was not attempting to start a new sect that believed in a covenant of grace to the exclusion of a covenant of works. The problem was that the Puritans they had already done that, and reluctantly. In fact, the entire religious framework that both Hutchinson and her opponents operated within rejected the idea of starting new sects. All of them believed that there was one right set of rules to Christianity, and they believed that these were the rules they followed and anyone else was a dangerous heretic. Hutchinson felt that certain influential Puritan ministers were teaching incorrectly, and in this way, she could be described as being more Puritan than the Puritans.

  In the next post at Cambridge Considered, I'll take a look at why Anne Hutchinson's dissent shook seventeenth-century Boston and Cambridge, and how this disruption helped lead to the creation of Harvard.

1 LaPlante, Eve. American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans, (New York: HarperCollins, 2004) 22.
2LaPlante 33.
3LaPlante 31.
4LaPlante 86.
5 LaPlante 64.
6 LaPlante 91.
7 LaPlante 105.