Sunday, October 04, 2009


Ah! Dorchester! It wakes some people up like a slug from a mug. For other people, it is home to sweet dreams.

In a realm of countless delights, can a discerning topophile whittle down a list of just five things that showcase and show off Dorchester’s inherent, characteristic goodness? It’s greatness? …Goodness gracious! The mind reels, the inner cinema goes dark, the imagination’s flood lights spark and then…all the Dot’s a stage:

One. How many dreamers have climbed the Stairway to Jones’ Hill? When they turn at the summit, they look out over the glittering street lights below and the stars over Dorchester and they know they are a few meters closer to Heaven. From Hancock Street at Jones’ Hill’s base (across from Cameron) 145 steps run up a slope too steep for a roadway. They end at a playground on Downer Avenue, the most inappropriately named street in Dorchester and not just because it’s located so high above sea level. People climb to reach their goals in Dorchester, Mass., a place where human potential is exercised and endurance is tested.

Despite the fact that its territory is vast, Dorchester is a warren of smaller sub-neighborhoods and parishes, each of them self sufficient. Each is interconnected by surreptitious shortcuts that those in the know use to get where they want to be. You can get lost in Dorchester but you will eventually find your way. The infrastructure is in place: stairways and pathways and sidewalks and alleyways. Every dead end has a way out, and you learn to navigate without ever feeling trapped. Every day in Dorchester has its own charm and lessons. Living in Dorchester is more poetic verse than prose sentence, more meander than straight shot.

Two. Dorchester was founded by farmers and its population exploded by the sweat of working men operating according to the schemes of streetcar line financiers. Once the roads were laid out and the houses were built someone had to make use of them. Dorchester is not only home to workingmen. It is home to their mates and the children that inevitably follow. Dorchester holds womankind in a particularly fine regard and that is why a little north of Codman Square, on Washington Street, is a comfortable, welcoming park called Mothers’ Rest.

Dorchester’s landscape is a collection of voluptuous undulations, hills and vales. Mothers’ Rest enjoys a vantage that looks out on the flatter lands at Field’s Corner and the far more expansive flatness of Dorchester Bay farther beyond. The park’s location is between Codman Square, the site of Dorchester’s second civic center which grew into it’s most active commercial node, and the first street downhill to the residential neighborhoods that line Codman Hill’s east face. Naturally, like on Jones’ Hill, Mother’s Rest doesn’t only contain benches and playground equipment. It contains a shortcut to Alpha Road. Alpha Road, though it isn’t much to brag about unless you live there, would be an apt name for Dorchester’s Main Street if Dorchester had a main street. All addresses are equal in Dorchester because all are exemplary.

Three. Dorchester’s boundaries are contentious, its identity is fluid. Being an agglomeration of smaller neighborhoods, the farther you move from Dorchester’s core the more confusing your coordinates. Is Ashmont part of Dorchester? Yes. Is Lower Mills? Yes. Savin Hill? Yes. Then things start to get fuzzy. Dorchester bleeds imperceptibly into Milton and Southie and Roxbury and Mattapan, which used to be considered a part of Dorchester until fairly recently. Is the Franklin Park Zoo part of Dorchester? Some say yes, some say no. I’ll side with yes.

If you go past the active zoo on a back trail through the woods to the southwest, you will come across some abandoned cages far removed from the main gate. There are neglected, concrete habitats, pits ringed with spikes, and a stepped, granite plaza overgrown with weeds and litter. What animals were housed here? I don’t know, but I am pretty sure the main pen held bears. There is a bas relief of two bears flanking the city seal set in the wall of the main pen. Though posed to seem stately, they are lumbering, awkward creatures, carved almost as large as life.

Is it appropriate to superimpose the likeness of a bulky, inarticulate creature of intimidating power flanking the symbol of what is supposed to be the most enlightened city in United States, the Cradle of Liberty, the Athens of America? Sure. This is a democracy.

Four. The puddingstone on Quincy Street that protects Fernald Terrace is the most majestically shaped piece of puddingstone in all of Boston. Whether approaching from downhill or uphill, from Columbia Road or from Bowdoin Street, this puddingstone rears out of the ground like the barnacled humpback of an ancient leviathan cresting in stopped motion as it makes a tectonic journey so lengthy it seems still to a human observer. I pass this stone often, zipping by on a motorcycle or on a bicycle, sometimes in a car, sometimes on foot. It never fails to humble me and define this neighborhood. Quincy Street is a typical street and Fernald Terrace is a tidy cul-de-sac lined with regular-seeming homes with nothing in particular about them. They are special though, graced and guarded by a totem of Dorchester’s bedrock. The puddingstone that underlies the foundations of three deckers and duplexes rears out of the fertile earth. A rounded slab of millennial, sedimentary rock forms a protective barrier for Fernald Terrace and a natural monument that children scamper over and passing motorists admire. Nature, in the rough and at its most raw-boned is present and exposed. Boston and Dorchester are not only human creations. They have had a long prologue.

Five. Between Columbia Road and Blue Hill Avenue, along Quincy Street, is more territory that may be Dorchester or it may be Roxbury. In the end, does it matter? If you ask the people who live there, they’ll tell you it’s Dorchester, and anyone one who is Dorchester by Choice (DBC) is okay by me. In an infinite list of good things, Ma Siss’s place ranks as fifth from the top. Not a bad ranking when you consider the Dot Tavern ranks #477 no matter how fond I am of it.

I admit I know two things about Ma Siss’s Place. It was featured in a series of articles about it in the Boston Globe and that series of articles is one of the few things that has stuck out of all the fluff I’ve read stuffed between the Globe’s pages. The other thing I know is that despite its scruffy appearance, Ma Siss’s mission is vital to this well worn, humdrum part of the city. Change is the only constant in a living metropolis and polyglot Dorchester undergoes a perpetual, quiet revolution.

There is an outdoor Buddhist shrine behind the Field’s Corner library and it represents some of Dorchester’s cultural diversity. It is exotic and eye-catching. Ma Siss’s Place and the church with which it shares space in a converted garage, is just as exotic to some people though it lacks much aesthetic allure. Its role in the community isn’t to be pretty, however. Its role is to nurture the soul of its surroundings. Its role is to add to the well being of anyone who is hungry either in body or spirit. Its role is to make Dorchester more livable, through one small act after another, out of the limelight on the all but invisible corner of Quincy Street and Baker Avenue. It is the little things and the people who do them that make Dorchester good.

Here are a few other people who ADORE-chester! A kaleidoscope of views:


Can-Can said...

Such an eloquent post. I have noticed the Roxbury puddingstone you mentioned but I will now look at it with renewed eyes. As for Franklin Park - it is bordered by Dorchester and Roxbury and JP and a tiny bit of Roslindale. It truly belongs to all of us.
Thanks for this post and for getting the Adore-chester party started!

Adam Pieniazek said...

Where is that bear plaque?

Whalehead King said...

The abandoned zoo cages are hidden in the woods across from the stadium. There is a paved trail to the stairs. Good luck!

Whalehead King said...

I can't keep the borders on the far side (to me) of Franklin Park straight either. Thanks, Can-Can.

Jef Taylor said...

The abandoned zoo enclosures were bear pits.

The zoo's zip code is in Dorchester.

Whalehead King said...

Nice detective work Jef. Thanks.

Lauren Ames said...


I just wanted to let you know -- The Dot Matrix is now listed here:

I hope you enjoy the site! Please let me know if you have any concerns about being listed or if you have any comments about mydorchester.

Lauren Ames, SCI Dorchester @ DotWell Outreach and Technology Coordinator (


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