Columbia Point is a corner cut off from the rest of Dorchester, and during most of its history, for different reasons to different people, it was little more than a dead end.
The Massachusett Indians called this marshland peninsula “Mattaponnock,” and it’s where the first settlers brought livestock to graze. For the next 240 years or so it was used by and known to Dorchester residents as the Calf Pasture. This pastoral idyll vanished around the time (1870) that Dorchester was annexed to Boston.
From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, numerous landfills changed the shape of the peninsula and the ways it could be utilized by city planners. Landfill made way for Day Boulevard and for nearby Columbus Park (from which Columbia Point gets its name). Landfill was also the consequence of a sprawling dump that dominated the landscape for decades.
In 1884, this remote boundary of the city became the terminus of a comprehensive public sewer system. Pipes carried sewage under Mile Road (now Mt. Vernon Street) to the Calf Pasture Pumping Station, a Richardson Romanesque building that is on the National Register.
Sewage was pumped from there to Moon Island and stored in tanks before being released into the harbor with the outgoing tide. The system served as a model for the entire country, and handled all of the Boston’s waste until it was closed in 1968.
For a long time Columbia Point was a no man’s land, which made it a good place to dump trash – and poor people. One of the nation’s first public housing projects opened on the point in 1954, a “noble government experiment” comprising 1,500 apartment units in 27 identically stark brick towers.
The Columbia Point Housing Development was meant to offer a place for hard-pressed working class folks to get a toehold where they could start to raise their families. Before long, the early residents moved away, most of them to the suburbs, and new, poorer, and in many cases more desperate people moved in.
The projects became the receptacle of neglect and ill will, the unhappy home of a minority community beset by crime and increasingly isolated during the years leading up to the early 1970s heyday of busing. Many people worked hard to improve things, but for most, Columbia Point remained off-limits.
There were some victories, as in 1962 when project residents persuaded the attorney F. Lee Bailey to help them get the nearby dump closed. And in 1965, when the Geiger-Gibson Health Center, the first community health center in the US, set up shop on Mt. Vernon Street. But residents had no success with attempts to have the project’s buildings cleaned up; the area quickly turned into a slum. There were only about 300 families living there in 1984 when the city gave up and leased the property to a private development firm.
This move was another first of its kind. Dorchester native Joe Corcoran had a plan to turn Columbia Point into Harbor Point, a new, mixed-income community that has proved to be a great success. The internationally acclaimed renovation has received numerous awards since being completed in 1990, and is the model for Hope VI, a HUD public housing revitalization program begun in 1992.
The 1970s set off a building spree on the peninsula that has over time produced a university campus, a presidential library, the state archives building, and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate that will open next month. All of this has culminated in a new campus building and landscape plan – a complex of glass buildings that shine like the Emerald City – and the dream of an Olympic Village rising from the ashes of the old Bayside Shopping Mall.
The fact that this area was once a dump is mostly forgotten, but a few years ago I came upon a reminder of that time. When passing through the parking lot of the UMB maintenance department, I saw a large hole dug into the ground to accommodate the tank for a new gas pump. A backhoe had excavated a neat shaft about eight feet wide by ten feet deep, exposing a cross section that was layered like a slab of lasagna.
At the top was about four feet of soil, loose and brown; below that was layer upon layer of tightly packed rubbish. It was shocking to see all the bottles and cans, broken toys, splintered boards, shredded cloth and cardboard, now well over forty years old, looking so fresh in the light of day.
Yet Columbia Point is perhaps the most important spot in our city’s history. This is where Captain Squib of the Mary and John rowed ashore with his cargo of Puritans in 1630, many of them from a town in Dorset, England, named Dorchester. Of course, back then the peninsula was much smaller, measuring only 14 acres, compared with its present size of 350 acres.
And then there was Camp McKay, a makeshift Army base built in 1942 near the site of the bandstand on Carson Beach that served as a POW camp for Italian soldiers in 1944 and 1945. The proximity of the camp made many locals fearful even though the prisoners had helped to erect defenses on the harbor islands and were given liberty passes.
Not everyone felt threatened, especially Italian-Americans who are said to have brought home cooked food to pass through the fences surrounding the camp. A few lucky couples met and fell in love this way, and legend has it that some marriages followed.
Today, across its length and breadth, Columbia Point is a populous place where things are happening. But for a sense of what much earlier residents enjoyed when grazing their animals, take a stroll along the walkway a Harbor Point overlooking Pleasure Bay and gaze out to sea. There is no more inviting promenade and no finer view in the entire city.