A few months ago, I calculated that between March 13 (roughly the beginning of the pandemic) and mid-August I had driven my car fewer than 20 miles. I don’t usually drive a lot; my 14-year-old Saab has just 55,000 miles on it. (I haven’t been on an airplane in nine months.) With the pandemic lockdowns and our work-from-home routine, I spent all of my time in my South End neighborhood in Boston. Almost immediately I began a habit of daily daytime walks around my neighborhood. I went to places I had never been to or noticed, deliberately wandering down laneways to streets and blocks that I had never ventured to. I discovered a wealth of interesting places, all within a 15-minute walk: There is a grocery store, bakeries, coffee shops, restaurants, pharmacies, a barbershop, community gardens, small parks, a cathedral, an orthodox church, even a gas station (which I don’t seem to need). But I have enough to keep me going. As we think about cities and what makes neighborhoods great, I can’t help realize that my own backyard presents a model worth considering. In terms of the pandemic, the neighborhood has been quite resilient.
The South End is famously made up of townhouses (or rowhouses) that allow for a diverse array of arrangements: small flats, studios, multilevel dwelling units. These brick buildings, with their curved or angled bay windows, front steps, and simple architecture front elegantly onto tree-lined streets.
Once in a while, the street opens up into a linear park, making a small oasis in the dense city. The best is probably Union Park, shown here in the summer.
By October, the place becomes electric yellow as people start to decorate their houses for Halloween.
In late March, my local grocery store installed these rather elegant square frames to provide a screen between customers and store cashiers. I was reminded of the Donald Judd show I had waited for years to see—and was now missing as MoMA shut down. The screens here could have been crude or merely functional, but here a bit of artistic quality made my shopping a little brighter.
For years I had driven by a place I learned is called the Berkeley Community Garden (on Berkeley Street), just a few blocks from the famous Hancock Tower at Copley Square. From Public Alley 705, the small allotments support a multitude of vegetable plots and flower gardens for local residents. Occupying the length of an entire city block, it is a testament to community values that the site has not been developed into expensive condominiums.
On May 25, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. This triggered protests across the country. One of the most remarkable protests occurred on Washington Street. The crowd stretched all the way to Nubian Square in Roxbury as they marched toward the Boston Common about a mile north. The power of the crowd was exhilarating.
The linear blocks of the South End are generally made up of four- to five-story buildings that face the street. Down the middle are laneways, which have more restrained facades with fire stairs, balconies, terraces, and back gardens. While the streets are fairly regular in their building form, the laneways are filled with surprises and unexpected discoveries.
South End shops are generally small and integrated into the residential blocks. With their more-transparent facades, they provide a relief from the repetitive bay windows and stoops seen along other streets. Here, “Fomaggio” becomes a lantern providing a glow on the sidewalk for pedestrians passing by.
Early in the summer, with better weather, restaurants began to open again, mainly with outdoor seating. Assisted by new city regulations, space normally reserved for parking was taken over by seating and umbrellas. This phenomenon has occurred all across the U.S. and hopefully will become more permanent as the pandemic recedes.
With winter on its way, restaurateurs are becoming creative in how they accommodate customers in colder weather.
On one block there is a surprising small square created by a gap in the row of townhouses. The view opens up a connection to the mid-block laneway.
Most entries are elevated by a half level. The resulting steps, and their iron balustrades, create welcoming shadows in the sunlight.
At one location, the townhouses end before they complete the block. The remaining parcels are a community garden and mini park.
The view from my apartment on a rainy Friday evening. The townhouse rows are occasionally interrupted by five and six story apartment buildings, here next to a Greek Orthodox Church.
All photos by the author. This is the first in an occasional series of photo essays on how people have rediscovered their cities in a time of pandemic. We invite you to share images of your neighborhood. Contact Martin C. Pedersen at firstname.lastname@example.org.