Streetcar Suburb Summer

Fenster writes:

Is it possible for planners to create a community with as much charm and character as one that evolved organically over time?  Heck, I suppose it might be possible.  Given enough bandwidth, time and creativity, and with possibly great changes in the worlds of nanotechnology, computer graphics and 3D printing, why can’t a simulacrum be better than the real thing?  My mind is effectively playing tricks with itself in its appreciation of certain things in the first place and it would be a kind of conceit to say it could not be tricked or persuaded at a higher level.

But that time is not on us.  To me, most fabricated communities have an uncanny valley quality–more off-putting than places that try less hard to simulate.  So for now, and probably from now on, I will prefer existing places to newly fashioned ones.

I now live in Newton, one of Boston’s streetcar suburbs.  Back around the turn of the century–the other one–Boston, Newton and the close in towns didn’t have just one streetcar running through them but were riddled with lines spun out like a web.


At each station, a cluster of shops and homes emerged.  And given the web like structure of the streetcar system, Newton developed into a agreeable bunch of villages, some running directly east-west but others here and there on other axes.   A few villages sprung up, too, along the Charles River.

Today, Newton is known as a city of villages–13 in all by most counts.  Some of these are not truly villages since they are not situated where the streetcars ran, with the village designation seeming to be a sop to a suburban enclave with no center.  But West Newton, Newtonville, Newton Centre, Auburndale, Nonantum, Waban, Newton Highlands, Newton Corner, Chestnut Hill, Newton Upper Falls and Newton Lower Falls all have a tie to the streetcar past.

Most of these have gotten quite genteel but there’s the down to earth Nonantum, or “The Lake”, to the mushes who live there (there is no longer a lake there but habits die hard).  The sheer number of small villages makes it easier to find a place with the proverbial “5 minute walk” to shops and activities.

Of course, Newton today is essentially fully developed.  That makes for some interesting time travel as one drives.  Leaving Newton Centre heading west on Beacon Street one moves first from an all-Victorian ambience


to one peppered with more early 20th century housing stock,


then on to post-war ranches,


then back to early 20th century


and then finally back to Victorian on reaching Waban.


It is hard to have a favorite among these if you like Victorian architecture.  One of my favorite areas runs from just west of Newton Centre, along Crystal Lake, over into Newton Highlands.  Here are some snaps from last weekend, at the close of summer.  As Paleo did just recently in writing about his walk through the Village and along the Hudson, I am posting a record of our short walk.  It’s a pretty dense lot of great buildings over the course of about a mile.


Check the pics out relative to Paleo’s recent plea for texture and color.

20150830_165731-001 20150830_165504-001 20150830_165441-001 20150830_165426-001 20150830_165310 20150830_165247-001 20150830_165243-001
20150830_165132-00120150830_165119-001 20150830_165049-001


One of Newton’s somewhat secret gems is Crystal Lake.  It has a beach where residents can pay a fairly steep fee to swim in the summer.  What is even more amazing is that the side of the lake without the formal beach has several open areas where people–dogs, too–can cavort essentially unsupervised.

20150830_163918-001 20150830_163915-001 20150830_163856-001

I take this loose approach to be a wonderful thing.  Twenty years ago in this spot I spied a sign on a tree in the summer that read “No Skating Thin Ice Per Order of Newton Parks Department.”  I took that the be an example of our culture’s overdeveloped reliance on lawyers.  I mean, the sign was silly in the summer and even in the winter there is no way one can reasonably post that the ice will always be thin in a shallow pond.

That sign is no longer there–hallelujah!  And after a dust-up a few years back, characteristically self-rightous on both sides, swimming is generally tolerated in the spirit of don’t ask, don’t tell.  Police swing by from time to time and stare ominously but don’t do much of anything.

20150830_163837-001 20150830_163759-001 20150830_163737-001 20150830_163729-001 20150830_163707-001 20150830_163518-001 20150830_163335-001
20150830_163127-001 20150830_163005-001

Three sisters.

20150830_162944-001And while on the distaff side, Margaretta “Anna” Cobb was the architect for many of the best, and least ostentatious, Victorians in town, in Newton Highlands.

And more on the villages of Newton.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
This entry was posted in Architecture and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Streetcar Suburb Summer

  1. JV says:

    Looks idyllic.

    On a slightly tangential note, regarding the “thin ice” sign, this week is the annual Burning Man Arts Festival. I’m not attending this year (although my oldest son is), but one of my favorite aspects of the event is that there are no warning signs, no waist-high fences surrounding large installations, etc. If something is climbable, then climb it. If it’s on fire, stand as close as you can muster. The individual assumes the risk. It’s unbelievable how freeing that is.


    • Fenster says:

      As a culture we are beginning to grasp we have gotten too overprotective of our kids. We should now turn attention to adults.

      And continuing the tangential theme I wonder how you liked Burning Man overall? Or is like even the right word? Appreciate? Experience? Understand? The recent movie was quite interesting but left this viewer with a lot of questions.


      • JV says:

        I love it. I don’t believe it’s anything other than a temporary festival, I don’t think it will save the world or even has much to “teach” the world, but I completely love being there. Everyone is in a fantastic and open mood. There are no garbage cans or services provided, so everyone is expected to take care of their crap, meaning being thoughtful about what you bring. And there are no overflowing garbage cans to walk by. It is literally the cleanest gathering of people I’ve ever been to, aside from the dust, ha. The event is not centered around sanctioned performances, so there is no standing around in packed crowds staring at millionaires on a stage. Something can and does happen anywhere and anytime. And no advertising or vending. It’s amazing how cleansing spending a week in a city, basically, without being marketed to and without engaging in a single transactional interaction is. And you’ll never see so much multi-generational hanging out. And the engineering and mechanical ingenuity on display is mind-blowing.

        So yeah, I like it, ha. I’ve been 5 times since 2007, the wife and I will probably go back next year. I highly recommend it to anyone who doesn’t mind dust and the constant (CONSTANT) throb of dance music. Hell, Grover Norquist liked it. The fucker.


  2. CMB says:

    I rented an apartment in Newton Highlands on Walnut St for a couple of years when I was attending BC Law. It can be a bit dull for a single guy in his twenties (thank God for the T), but I never got tired of strolling around the neighborhood in the evening, taking in all the beautiful architecture. There’s an enormous Victorian mansion on Lincoln St that’s painted like an Easter egg. It looks ridiculous, but it’s still bizarrely charming. Anyway, enjoyed the post. Brought back some good memories.


    • Fenster says:

      Come to think of it I lived there for a short time too, after a divorce in a small single guy, placed in a house right behind the T station, that little beautiful stone structure that at the time was being used as an auto parts shop. It’s now a boutique or some such. I actually didn’t wander or take photos in my favorite part of the Highlands, just off Lincoln. That will be a future installment and maybe it will take you back as well.


  3. agnostic says:

    The Jews may foist all manner of degrading architecture on the public, but when it comes to where they hang their hat, it’s always a charming pre-Postwar building in a quaint town like Newton, Bexley, Takoma Park, etc.

    Is this a cynical double-standard — cubes for thee, not for me — or colonizing and appropriating the ruins of the defeated earlier civilization? Jews seem uniformly ignorant of and ungrateful for the Celto-Germanic traditions that now serve as their suburban sanctuary from the shvartzes in the city.


    • Fenster says:

      I am not Jewish but my last name often gets me confused as one. I got Menorah candles in the mail several years running from who knows where. Maybe it was that Commentary subscription. . . . go figure.

      Anyway, I chose Newton for several reasons. Housing prices not one of those reasons. They are ridiculous. Quality of schools was number one. Architecture/neighborhoods was second. Third was the prevalence of Jews. Newton, Brookline, Upper West Side–I usually end up where the Jews are. I don’t think that is because of a common interest in nice architecture or ambience. If that was all there was to it I could have chosen Wellesley or Concord. Frankly, I’d rather talk to people about issues and culture than golf.


  4. agnostic says:

    When I began looking into the cocooning vs. outgoing cycle, I wound up figuring that the present cocooning period would start to give way between 2015-2020. The last cocooning period lasted about 25 years, from about the early 1930s through the mid 1950s.

    Today’s period began around 1990, so here’s to hoping the public swimming is heralding the emergence of American-kind from its shell once again.


    • Fenster says:

      As my parents used to say when they didn’t want to cater to my every whim, “we’ll see.” I hope your right and the post was toward that end. I don’t want to make too much of the Crystal Lake situation, though. Here, it seems it was mostly political–the crowd that wanted access was numerous and well-heeled enough to counter the wealthy abutters, and they managed to back the nay-sayers down. Whether that is a bellweather or not I don’t know–hope so.


  5. Slumlord says:


    I think one of the reasons we tend to get an uncanny valley effect in a lot of the modern reproductions is because there is a conscious effort to create a “ye olde town”. The planners of these projects usually have total control over the project down to the smallest detail and thus, the variation from the ideals that you see in most old towns is not there. The effect is too perfect.

    The architecture in old towns was frequently the product of different pattern books, architects and draftsmen. These guys weren’t consciously designing “old” rather they were getting on with building structures and embellishing them with details which were felt to be appropriate to the aesthetic of the time. Hence, in these old places there is still a lot of individual variations even amongst a particular period style.

    One of my problems with the New Urbanism is that while it has a different design aesthetic it still operates within a modernist vision of town planning. i.e. the architects and town planners exert final control over everything down to the smallest detail.

    If I were to use a fashion analogy, the New Urbanists would seek to find the best fashion brand and make everyone wear it. Whereas traditional architecture did care about the brand as long as everything was roughly in the same style.


    • Fenster says:

      Very much agree with your description of why planned communities fall flat. But still am open to the possibility that advances in fuzzier design might well capture the balance between order/disorder, intention/chance, and one/many seen in actual communities.


  6. Pingback: Architecture du Jour: Wilderstein | Uncouth Reflections

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s