Columbia Point and Dorchester Reimagined

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By Chris Lovett

A new constellation of political figures came together March 30 at Dorchester’s Columbia Point, invoking the mechanics of government and the alchemy of place, as they dedicated the Edward M. Kennedy Institute of the US Senate.

Like the adjacent John F. Kennedy Library, the institute was built on land between Morrissey Boulevard and Dorchester Bay. Used by 17th century settlers as a calf pasture, the peninsula was a water-logged buffer zone, set apart from the bulk of the town’s population centers. By the mid-20th century, the peninsula would be used for a dump, a sewage control facility, and a place for lodging prisoners of war.

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Columbia Point public housing in 1986.

After World War II, Columbia Point was used to lodge something that, despite being prized as an asset, many preferred to keep at arm’s length: public housing. If the high-rise structures hinted at the potential of waterfront property, they also reinforced the function of the peninsula as an outland. By the 1970’s, the Columbia Point development was already in extreme disrepair. After many units were  vacated, the public housing was partially demolished and redeveloped as a mixed-income community by the end of the 1980’s.

In 1950, another trend in land use began with the relocation of BC High to a site on the peninsula facing Morrissey Boulevard. The next institutional relocation would come in the 1974 with UMass Boston. Local reaction to the university was mixed, as hopes for community benefits were shadowed by apprehensions about student pressure on the housing market in working-class neighborhoods. Though the campus had the advantage of waterfront property, with views of Boston Harbor, the boxy assemblage of brick buildings, tainted by political scandal and undermined by shoddy construction, looked less like a place of higher learning than a warehouse or factory.

Between the unimpressive beginnings for the Harbor Campus and the deterioration of the public housing development, the Columbia Point narrative for outsiders was mainly about urban decline and the futility of government projects. With the decision to locate the JFK library on Columbia Point, the narrative changed, thanks in part to the Kennedy prestige and the design of I.M. Pei. Grounded in Dorchester by family connection, the library was a coastal landmark that engaged with and celebrated its surroundings, from the waters of Dorchester Bay to the Harbor Islands and the Boston skyline.

The logic of design, with stairs cascading to a walkway along the water’s edge, would be reinforced over the next decade by the Boston Harbor cleanup and its resulting “HarborWalk” segments. By the early 1980’s, local state legislators were advancing their own vision to regenerate a connection to the water that was severed by the Southeast Expressway or eroded by a declining industrial base along the bay and the Neponset River. The connection to water would be reinforced again in 2004, when UMass opened a new Campus Center. departing from the older brick fortress template with a spacious window on the harbor

Despite the family connection to Dorchester through Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, the library was supposed to have been located near Harvard Square, as was noted in an editorial on the dedication by the Dorchester Reporter. After resistance to that plan in Cambridge, community activists in Dorchester tried to have the library built on Columbia Point. For the activists, the library was a badly needed source of pride and a sign of hope. Prominent political figures came to the peninsula for the groundbreaking, then returned in force (headed by President Jimmy Carter) for the library dedication in 1979.

President Barack Obama speaks March 30, 2015 at the dedication of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute of the US Senate.

President Barack Obama speaks March 30, 2015 at the dedication of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute of the US Senate.

To see another cast of political figures (see dedication photos) led by another President–this time, Barack Obama–is to be reminded that the Edward M. Kennedy Institute was an outgrowth of the JFK Library, one more creature of national politics that only materialized with initiative by the local community. Like the past and present US senators who took turns at the rostrum this time, the activists in the 1970’s were bipartisan (though even more skewed toward the Democratic Party). If they took pride in a  building and a rendez-vous with national figures, they also wanted something in return for the community. Though development of Columbia Point never quite achieved the most utopian of plans, the greater sense of possibility and heightened sense of place at the peninsula rippled out along Dorchester’s waterways, including the Neponset River. And community activists could now say it was only right that a monument to legislative process would be built in what many of them consider the birthplace of its colonial antecedent, the town meeting.

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