As a high school student I worked summers on Long Island. First as an orderly in the chronic disease hospital and later on the grounds crew. Privately owned until 1885, the island was once farmland, the site of a lighthouse, fishing village, Civil War installation, and resort. After being purchased by the city, it served as an almshouse, home for unwed mothers, chronic care hospital, Nike missile base and, more recently, a homeless shelter.
I remember standing on a hill on the island looking out on the city and thinking how beautiful it was there. Surely someone will soon realize its vast potential for housing and recreation. There is no more attractive location in the city if the access problem can be solved.
That was 60 years ago. Now the largest and most beautiful of the harbor islands stands deserted, having been abandoned suddenly in 2014, when the long neglected bridge to Moon Island was deemed unsafe and later removed. So there the island sits, 214 acres, almost two miles long and a quarter-mile wide. The buildings are decaying, and the grounds are overgrown. The harbor’s aging dowager is asking for help.
Neglect cannot mask her now fading beauty. From her rolling hills there is a spectacular view of the Boston skyline. Silently she looks out over the harbor, pondering her fate. Her only joy is when the children visit Camp Harbor View each summer. The rest of the year she maintains a lonely vigil, remembering the past and hoping once more to be discovered.
She sees the Seaport development and thinks: “Do you realize how much more beautiful and quiet it is from my vantage point, just a short, 15-minute ferry ride to downtown. I watch the sunset behind the skyline each night and in the morning see it rise from the sea. Island living is prized elsewhere. Here I am! What are you waiting for?”
Don’t rebuild the bridge. Cars should not be allowed on the island. Who needs them when the ferry is available?
The island is walkable and golf carts could be used to get around. The city needs more low and moderate income housing, not another wealthy enclave. Why not create a village on the island? It could include a few stores, pier, marina and harborside restaurant. It would be a short water-shuttle ride to the UMass Boston campus, so consideration should be given to using a portion of the island for dormitories. The facilities could then be used as a summer camp for city kids.
Given its history, space should also be reserved for a first-class homeless shelter and drug/alcohol rehabilitation facility. I recall standing in the island’s small cemetery with a handful of workers, none of whom knew the name of the poor soul about to be buried. The “forgotten,” living and dead, deserve a share of her peace and tranquility.
Surely the city’s planning department, perhaps in conjunction with local universities, can devise a plan for an experiment in urban-island living. Portland and Seattle are two cities with experience in this area. At some point the island will be developed. Suggested as a casino site, it may one day become an urban resort with condos, a golf course, and marina. I think the dowager would regret being the site of another high-end development.
Her history suggests she is most comfortable when serving the poor, sick, dispossessed, and, more recently, children. The rich have resources to find beauty elsewhere. She prefers to welcome those less fortunate. Let them walk her trails, enjoy her views, smell the salty air ,and fish her shores.
Like an aging grandmother, she patiently waits for her grandchildren to once again notice she still has a purpose, a role to play. Across the bay, the city is alive with activity while she remembers when she was able to offer comfort, solace, and the simple joy of a beautiful place to those who came to visit.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.