Life Under the Landing Gear

The approach to Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak Airport was notorious: planes that swooped down toward its runways passed so close to the rooftops of Kowloon City that they practically risked tangling their landing gear in laundry lines. Nearly thirty years ago, life on Neptune Road, hard by Logan Airport in East Boston, wasn’t quite so dramatic. But the noise pollution resulting from planes descending near its closely-packed triple-deckers was bad enough for the Environmental Protection Agency to become involved in monitoring the neighborhood’s habitability.

The EPA’s agents didn’t arrive in the area alone. As part of the agency’s Documerica project, dedicated to chronicling the environmental problems of the 1970s, photographer Michael Philip Manheim joined them, capturing the lives of residents living on and around Neptune Road. Recently, his 1973 collection of photos from the neighborhood became available, along with the rest of the Documerica photographers’ work, on the U.S. National Archives’ Flickr account.

There’s no longer a noise problem in Kowloon City, which has been free of din since Kai Tak Airport shut down in 1998. Neptune Road, too, has grown relatively quiet — but not because of any changes made at Logan. Beginning shortly before Manheim shot its streets and accelerating through the 1970s, the neighborhood was systematically acquired by Massport, the agency that runs the airport, and almost entirely demolished. Manheim’s photos are now among the few records of one of Boston’s long-forgotten corners.

It might not sound shocking that Neptune Road’s eradication happened in Boston, where the city had gone on a demolition spree just a decade before, leveling everything from busy Scollay Square to the village-like West End — and other parts of the city center in between. But these actions had generated a massive outcry. From the 60s on, even the most minor changes to neighborhood life faced serious hostility, suspicion, and scorn. Political roadblocks to redevelopment naturally followed.

But not all Boston neighborhoods are necessarily treated as equals. East Boston, physically removed from much of the city by its harbor, has long had a chip on its shoulder about being Boston’s dumping ground. Logan Airport, in particular, came at an extraordinary cost to the densely-built neighborhood: beyond the obvious noise issues, East Boston lost its signature, Frederick Law Olmstead-designed green lung, Wood Island Park, to the facility’s expansion.

Of all the streets in East Boston, the destruction of Wood Island Park hit Neptune Road hardest. When its houses were first built, they lined a shady street abutting pleasant parkland. By the middle of the 20th century, though, they found themselves squeezed between the airport and the expressways that fed into it. Like any urban renewal project, Massport’s buyout scheme was sold as a means to improve neighborhood residents’ lives, relocating them to less earsplitting environs. The more cynical take is, of course, that they were bought off to squelch activism against the airport.

Logan continues to propose new runways — and flight paths to serve them, angering Eastie residents. The neighborhood has also voiced concern about becoming the proposed site of the city’s first casino, a revenue-generating gambit locals are concerned will bring seediness and crime. The residents of the triple-deckers that once stood along Neptune Road won’t be around to complain, though. They made last stand when the final holdout’s home, the only remaining relic of their neighborhood, was again threatened with demolition, just last year.

Community activists wanted to turn it into a museum of the area’s history, but Massport had other ideas — it’s designated the Neptune Road area as one of a series of future airport buffer parks it’s creating, ironically, to appease its remaining East Boston neighbors. Neptune Road’s last home now survives only, until its next update, in the virtual world of Google Street View.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Thursday October 07 2010at 11:10 pm , filed under Environment, History, United States and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “Life Under the Landing Gear”

  • That’s one way for an airport to deal with noise complaints.

    Somewhat ironically, in the case of Hong Kong, it was the relocation of Kai Tak that has led to the continuing demolition of many Kowloon City buildings — now that the airport-related high limits have been lifted, it’s open season for redevelopment.