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Genius Loci

The Unplace

Over the Zakim Bridge, past Boston Sand & Gravel and its orbit of swooping ramps, there is an unplace.

The expanse between East Cambridge, Somerville, Charlestown, and the Charles has no name. It is notable for what goes through it: I-93, the Orange Line, the Gilmore Bridge, commuter rails bound for North Station. Few riding by will look twice, if they look at all, at the tilt-up warehouses and access roads; at the train tracks looping through acres of dirt, scrubby greenery, and asphalt.

This urban flyover country is part of every city. Its universal look is low, flat, gray-beige, depopulated. It can be called brownfield, drosscape, or no-man’s-land, terms that suggest a wastage and uninhabitability, which the view from a car speeding through seems to confirm.

I am drawn to these areas for their opposition — topographical and logical — to the City on a Hill. Tens of thousands of citizens hold stakes in the respectable blocks next door; here hardly anyone bothers to see a never-ending and messy evolution of economy and technology writ large. It is a case study in what the landscape architect James Corner calls Terra Fluxus, revealing “the entire metropolis as a living arena of processes and exchanges over time.”

One such exchange was in 1633, when a Native American village on what is today part of Bunker Hill Community College was wiped out by smallpox. Not long before, a group of Massachusetts Bay Company colonists had laid out their town on the deeper waters of the Charles.

More colonists arrived from England, but a summer epidemic pushed new settlements elsewhere, including one across the river named Boston.

Nancy Seasholes’ book Gaining Ground documents how the marshy flats were put to work. From 1645, a tidal dam powered a grist mill. The Middlesex Canal opened in 1803 and emptied into the Mill Pond south of Sullivan Square in Charlestown.

The same year, the state bought the point where the Native American village had been, enlarging and straightening its shoreline. Granite for a Charles Bullfinch–designed prison was quarried in Chelmsford, floated along the canal, and towed to the point along a floating towpath (later Rutherford Avenue). A group of Charlestown residents financed a bridge from Prison Point to Cambridge on the route still followed by the Gilmore Bridge.

If these early large-scale interventions suggested a future defined by infrastructure, the railroads’ arrival in the 1830s ensured it. For the next century, they filled in the shallow bay with causeways, islands, and shore extensions to hold train yards, freight sidings, and engine houses. In 1895, the Boston and Lowell line cut down the hill where McLean Asylum had marked the southernmost tip of Somerville; today the area is an industrial park.

By the 1930s, the eddies and flows of the tide had been redrawn in steel, all but erasing Miller’s River, the original Cambridge-Somerville line. A riverine border remains where the river no longer runs, its stunted remnant hidden under the concrete pillars of the Zakim Bridge.

Environmental groups say that runoff from the MBTA’s vast Boston Engine Terminal brings metal compounds, phosphorous, and oil into the river, and the volume of discharge sometimes causes flooding in Somerville. Restoring Miller’s River and its wetlands could clean up the watershed and even re-create a riparian landscape. On the former flats off Lechmere Point, the beachhead of apartment towers and sculpted green called Northpoint suggests a market-driven alternative.

Both visions say far more about us than the site, for the unplace has never dealt in the aspirational. From brick factories and slaughterhouses to server farms and testing labs, the unplace is a horizontal backstage, the coulisse for the stage sets of the designed city, hiding in plain sight.

On an otherwise dystopian walk along the Gilmore Bridge, look north into the present tense of urban ecology. The horizon offers only decks of high-speed traffic and steel-pylon billboards, but on a warm afternoon in September, you can look down and be the only one to notice the wind rustling through a ragged stand of trees. When the traffic breaks, you can faintly hear it, too.