More Complex than Wasteland: Reparative Site History along the Boston-Revere Border

In this project, I seek a way to establish a site without emptying a place. I examine the way that project proponents talk about the Suffolk Downs development, Boston’s largest-ever development project along the town border with Revere, and argue that they empty the site through the use of spatial and temporal metaphor. The emptiness of the site allows for, even requires, large-scale interventions that “solve” the “problem” posed by emptiness. I read these interventions in the context of solutionism, a framework that inherits Enlightenment-era ideas of human dominance over the non-human world. I turn to the history of Suffolk Downs and show that there has been a cycle of emptying and improving on this land over the past 300 years of settler presence on it. Previous generations of developers have similarly emptied this place by relying on the rhetorical trope of wasteland, which allowed for human technocratic intervention in the landscape. These interventions, I argue, tended to fail, creating new wastelands that needed improvement. By telling a history of Suffolk Downs, I suggest that, despite the prevailing development rhetoric, the place’s past is not singular and the space is not simply a container for development activity.

I explore “repair” as a development paradigm that resists emptying at the oil storage facility owned by Irving Oil and Global Partners, which is adjacent to Suffolk Downs. Within the logic of repair, sites can be constructed not by emptying them, but rather by embracing what’s already there and what’s been there. At the oil farm site, storage, itself a condition of emptiness, is the stuff of the site, and can be used as the basis for design interventions. More broadly, repair allows for an interdisciplinary approach to site design and discourse and has the potential to include more voices in development processes. Repair is not a silver-bullet solution to development—and that’s largely the point. Because it resists emptying, repair can be radical; and history, because it clearly states “there’s something here,” can be reparative. 

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