Presence, Absence and Transformation
To see Mission Hill is to look beyond the surface, to overlays of space and time, sign and signified, presence and absence.
Members of the INFocus Camera Club have different connections to Mission Hill. Some of us are occasional visitors seeing the neighborhood with fresh eyes. Others are past residents, or current residents who’ve been living in the neighborhood for a long time. All of us apply ourselves to the craft of photography, engaged by the neighborhood, especially by whatever triggers the act of looking more closely.
In photographs taken over the past six years, club members see in what’s plainly visible, but also something else, whether it reflects Mission Hill or resonates with another place or time. To stop and look at numbers on houses and names on front doors is to see a story of neighborhood transition, in which the present—or at least the more recent—stands out as a makeshift improvisation. For the photographer, the connection is objective, but also subjective.
At Diablo Glass School, the eye is drawn to base materials and tools, but also to the fluid incandescence of one thing becoming something else, even how it flows from the grip of the arm and hand of the artist. The byproducts are more refined, like the school itself, converted from a plant that once made machine parts.
In other transformations, chairs are exiled to stand guard over a parking space. Even when people are not visible, they are implied—or implicated. A space outside the Tobin School can look deserted, but it is also populated by the faces of students in a mural--an image that, over time, can fade or be outgrown.
To see can also mean to observe what’s not usually noticed. Trees flower every spring in McLaughlin Park, at the top of the hill, but they’re rarely encountered in the dead of night in a deserted playground. With its uncanny play of intense light and darkness, what’s visible here draws attention to what is not, upending the normal distinctions between day and night or time of the year, even between the ominous and the serene.
Under snow, the particular of Mission Hill merges with the universal. As its dimensions and boundaries dissolve, a man walking along Tremont street stops to bow and pray outside the Mission Church. Clutching his jacket against the wind and the faint patter of snowfall, he is turned toward the puddingstone, toward what is present and absent, visible and not.
History of Mission Hill, Boston
Once part of the Town of Roxbury, Mission Hill is a former “streetcar suburb,” an extension of city and countryside, if only in microcosms of land or features of design. The present-day urban neighborhood is tightly packed with multi-story buildings, often divided by chain-link fences, defended by wrought-iron, or signed with graffiti. Whether it is a long-term home with the feel of a community, or a transitional adjunct to higher education, the residential is never all that far from the industrial or the institutional, the personal from the impersonal, the material from the aspiration.
True to its name, Mission Hill is very much defined by topography. Streets slope, curve and slant with the land mass, or come to an abrupt stop. Starting from the late 1800s, the proliferation of brick rowhouses and three-deckers made it possible for more people to live near public transit or jobs, including those at breweries near Stony Brook in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. On a similar scale was the Romanesque Revival Mission Church, serving German and Irish immigrants, and built with material from the neighborhood, Roxbury puddingstone.
By the mid-20th century, Mission Hill would become home for African-American, Latino and Asian residents, just as the area was increasingly sought after for institutional expansion or base for students.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the diverse population includes long-term residents, people in transition, or people who identify with the neighborhood because they lived there in the past.
What remains the same is the feel of a separate place, whether in tight quarters at close range or panoramic distance from the rest of the city.
Mission Hill Storytellers
Quiet Night in Mission Hill
A warm, quiet night in Spring, but the playground without a child’s laugh remains languid and distant. The serene landscape is distorted by hollow, dark space. Even blooming flowers look plastic and lifeless. The perception of beauty, vanished. A desire to be embraced, disappeared.
Mission Hill in the Snow
These photos were taken during walks around Mission Hill during and right after snowfalls between 2014 and 2018. Whether by accident, choice, or necessity, I have taken walks in the snow in different places and terrains since I was growing up in another part of Boston. During part of that time, my family lived in a house on a hill with a view that stretched out for miles. Looking out the window, I would spend time scanning at the changes after a snowfall, even training binoculars on some walking figure in the distance. Even fifty years ago, this kind of landscape already seemed familiar when I first came across a reproduction of The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Breugel the Elder.
A snowfall creates its own landscape and acoustic, but also a state of mind. Flat, hard surface gives way to new contours tapered by wind; and dark, bare branches sprout layers of white. The props of daily life in Mission Hill become less apparent: cars, bikes, trash containers under a smooth, unbroken shroud. With the padding of snow and less traffic, there’s a quiet that makes way for other sounds: the patter of snow touching a coated surface and the granular thrust of the wind. Even the usual numbers of people on the street thin out to a few isolated figures--in surroundings that seem uncharacteristically spacious, yet intimate. If only for a few hours, the fresh snow can be a plaything, an added chore, even the awe that marks the intersection between heaven and earth.
To me, Mission Hill represents renewal and regeneration, a place that has melded and fused together the residue of its past with its vision for the future. As with any neighborhood in the state of change it is human intervention that ultimately carves out a new state. Generations come and go making their contributions, leaving behind the remnants for others to create something new.
When I happened upon the Diablo glass studio and saw the artists forging their creations, I was struck by the metaphorical nature of it – the scrap glass reflecting the discarded “debris” of a neighborhood in transition, and the hopeful, human manipulation of it to recreate something that endures and strengthens. My intent was to capture that “rescue” of Mission Hill’s past and its transformation into a thriving and culturally kaleidoscopic neighborhood through the swirl of colors and form of this beautifully crafted glass-work.
Still in Mission Hill
These are images from around the Mission Hill neighborhood, which are just about devoid of people but which illustrate the varied activity of the residents of the neighborhood and what they leave behind in public spaces. The photos are street still-lives, pictures of objects and spaces that communicate the presence and agency of the people who live here, what they have touched, made happen and changed in their environment. I hope the images suggest multi-faceted experiences that people have had, simply by working and living in Mission Hill......
I grew up just north of Boston in the suburban Merrimack Valley city of Haverhill Massachusetts. The distinct memories I have of that neighborhood and the people who lived there are largely connected to the fact that I delivered a local newspaper “The Haverhill Gazette” on my street. To this day I can remember the names, faces and houses of each those neighbors. On a daily basis I walked the steps of each of my neighbors’ homes delivering the papers with pride. Fine visual details related to this daily experience are forever engrained in my memory.
Over twenty years later my family and I now reside in Boston’s urban neighborhood of Mission Hill. Oftentimes, as I walk my street I reflect back on my time as a child, and the connections I developed with so many of my hometown neighbors. While I have fostered many connections with many in my new community, it simply does not compare to those I had as a child growing up in Haverhill. As I walk down my street in Mission Hill, it’s diverse occupants remain largely anonymous to me. Many of them are students, or transient workers, and all but a few of them remain here beyond a few years.
Throughout 2018, with camera in hand I made a commitment to walk the steps of each house on my street and to explore the relationship between the community I grew up in, and the one that I live in now. Fittingly my neighbors did not become the subject of this photographic body of work, but rather the focus over time became the numbers on each house. By focusing on the numbers, I am seemingly “de-humanizing” these residential structures by accentuating this idea of anonymity. And yet, in the formal sense I submit that the opposite occurs. Layers of paint, weathered cracks, color, dirt, repair, and care reveal a deep, humanistic story.