Boston’s Weed: The Triple-Decker

Triple-DeckerOne of the first things a visitor sees when leaving Boston’s Logan airport are “triple-deckers” (other-wise known as “three-deckers”) – the narrow, three story, wooden, multifamily homes that surround the city. They are as distinctive to the region as the Boston accent.

Tens of thousands were built all over Southeastern New England, in cities like Worcester, Fall River and Providence, Rhode Island. Boston alone has over 20,000 triple-deckers. They dominate many of the city’s “streetcar suburbs” including Charlestown, Somerville and Medford, which all hold portions of Paul Revere’s Route.

Built mostly between 1880 and 1930, these tall narrow houses attracted and housed the huge influx of immigrant families to the area. Triple-deckers were built on tiny lots and with wood (rather than Boston’s other well-known, but pricier housing material: brick), so they were more affordable. Each house had three identical floor plans with big porches on the front or back and windows on all sides. A family would purchase a house and live on one of the floors and rent out the other two apartments to pay the mortgage. Many triple-deckers held extended families. The triple-decker was a stepping stone for many families, either as a first-time home owner, or as a tenant. I know the story well, because my mother grew up in triple-deckers. So did her parents, and her grandparents too, when they arrived from Ireland. I lived in a triple-decker for a while not long after graduating from college. My older brother owned the house and lived on the top floor with his new wife and child. I lived on the middle floor and another renter lived below. These solidly built multi-family homes survive and serve the same population today.

Triple-deckers, however were not looked upon favorably by everyone. The growth of these multi-family houses filled with working class families (many of whom were immigrants) made the wealthier suburbs of Boston very uncomfortable. “Boston’s Weed” was a nickname for triple deckers at that time. The Tenement House Act of 1912 was the weed-killer for certain towns – stopping growth at their borders. By adopting the new law which prescribed specific zoning and multi-family restrictions, wealthier towns – like my own (Winchester), made building triple-deckers impossible.

So, following Paul Revere’s route, you’ll pass through some towns which are filled with triple deckers, like Somerville, and others with not a single one, like Lexington. And in my own life, I’ve lived on both sides of the divide.

 

Sinners, Saints and Subs

Leones Subs_lo 

I met a woman once who told me that a long time ago, she lived in an apartment above Leone’s Subs, on Broadway in Somerville. (It’s along the route that Paul Revere took to warn that the British were coming – a drawing project of mine.) She remembered that at the time, the owner of the Leone’s was asked if he’d mind if a few wires were run through his property to bring cable t.v. service to the auto body shop behind his property. He obliged without any hesitation. He wasn’t stupid. He knew what that place behind was the headquarters of the Winter Hill Gang – Boston’s Irish mob. Perhaps you’ve heard of the gang’s most famous member – Whitey Bulger. He’s the ruthless killer who was protected by the FBI  for quite a while (in exchange for information). He was tipped off, too, and escaped arrest – living for years on the run before capture in California, where he lived with his girlfriend by the beach. He’s now in jail for the rest of his life. Jack Nicholson’s role in Martin Scorcece’s film “The Departed” was loosly based on him. “Black Mass”, the actual story of Whitey Bulger, was recently filmed here in Boston and will star Johnny Depp as Whitey.

 

The Winter Hill Gang is long gone now. And their hangout on Marshall Street, behind Leone’s, has made quite a conversion. It’s a Pentecostal church now, serving an immigrant population. The neighborhood has changed. The little store that I drew in front of, was “El Valle de la Sultana Market”, with plantains and big bags of rice in the window.

 

As I drew, I watched firemen and truck drivers stop in for subs up ahead, under Leone’s big, funky neon sign. Quite a few times, some tough-looking African American guys with neck tattoos snuck up from the barbershop behind me to see what I was up to. They came back from time to time to check on my slow progress. The owner of the barbershop started coming over too, but he never smiled. He just squinted at the drawing. After a couple of hours the light had changed too much to continue, so I decided to finish things at home. The boss came over to get a last look as I packed up and I told him that I’d send the finished image by email if he’d give me his address. He went back and then returned to give me his business card. 

 

I was more than happy to send him the drawing scan. After all, I’m not stupid. His shop is called “Goodfellas Barber Shop”. 

The Gruesome Landmark

The Gruesome Landmark

Early on in Paul Revere’s ride, as he left Charlestown and rode toward what is now the border with Somerville, he was forced to change course abruptly.

Revere writes of what happened in a letter from 1798:

“I set off upon a very good Horse; it was then about 11 o’Clock, and very pleasant. After I had passed Charlestown Neck, and got nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains, I saw two men on Horse back, under a Tree. When I got near them, I discovered they were British officer. One tryed to git a head of Me, and the other to take me. I turned my Horse very quick, and Galloped towards Charlestown neck, and then pushed for the Medford Road. The one who chased me, endeavoring to Cut me off, got into a Clay pond, near where the new Tavern is now built. I got clear of him, and went thro Medford, over the Bridge, and up to Menotomy.”

There’s a marker signifying the spot where Paul Revere changed direction. It can be found in a surprising spot: across the street from Royal Pizza & Subs (featured in the drawing) by the doors of a Holiday Inn, at the edge of its parking lot. A long time ago, this area was referred to as Charlestown Commons.

The landmark that Revere used to describe where he changed course was quite different from the one outside of the hotel. He wrote that he changed course “nearly opposite where Mark was hung in chains.” That place was certainly a gruesome one.

Mark was one of three slaves who, in 1755, were arrested and tried for the murder of their owner, the Charlestown merchant and former ship captain, John Codman. They were also charged with petit treason, the crime of killing a master. The three plotted and poisoned Codman with arsenic, which they added to his meals seven times. Mark, it is written, was upset with his separation from his family. He had set fire to Captain Codman’s workshop six years earlier in an effort to prompt his dismissal.

In the end, the three slaves were found guilty and suffered different fates. Mark’s two companions were female. Phillis, an elderly woman, was found guilty of both crimes (murder of an owner and petit treason) and was burned at the stake in Cambridge at a site called Gallows Hill, near present-day Porter Square. Phebe was found to be a lesser conspirator and sentenced to be transported to a plantation in the West Indies. Mark, 30 years old, was also found guilty of the two crimes and was hanged (also at Gallows Hill). His body was then tarred, and gibbeted (hung in chains) for all to see, including Paul Revere, who came close to passing the decayed corpse, still hanging over the street, 25 years after the crime.

The President Slept Here

This spring, I’ve started a new series of drawings, thanks to the generous support of Montserrat College of Art, who granted me a sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities this semester.

The project is called “Paul Revere’s Ride Revisited,” and I’ll be drawing along Paul Revere’s historic ride of April 25, 1775. The route took him from Boston to Lexington (and beyond), while he warned American Colonists of the coming British troops on the eve of the first shots of the American Revolutionary War. I’ll be drawing landmarks of the past and present, forming a visual essay that explores, documents and reveals history, preservation and change in America.

The weather has been historically warm this year, so I’ve taken advantage by hitting the streets and getting a good start.

Here’s one of my drawings from along the route of Paul Revere. It’s a perfect example of what I hoped would happen: drawings leading to discovery. This large and handsome brick apartment building sits on a busy city street in the Winter Hill section of working-class Somerville (sometimes insulted by the nickname “Slummerville”).

I found the building to be an unexpected gem on this street, and drew its profile, hoping to capture the warm afternoon light as it carved up the surface planes. Upon leaving the scene, I noticed on the front of the building—proudly spelled, but partially covered in ivy—the name “Langmaid Terrace.”

When I researched the name and address, I found some surprising history. President Barack Obama lived in that building! He had an apartment there when he attended law school at Harvard University in neighboring Cambridge. History rides on.