JP authors write Orange Line history book

November 8, 2013
By

The MBTA’s Orange Line, one of Jamaica Plain’s defining features and the product of its early political activism, is the subject of a new book by JP residents Jeremy Fox and Andrew Elder.

Their “Images of Rail: Boston’s Orange Line” is a photojournalism history of what is now a subway and light rail line.

“This is not a book you pull out at a party,” said Fox, a Boston Globe correspondent and previous Gazette contributor, with a laugh during a recent interview. But its wealth of JP photos will fascinate any local history fans, and it tells a story of a rail line that ultimately reshaped the neighborhood.

Running between Forest Hills in JP and Oak Grove in Malden, the Orange Line began over a century ago as an elevated train built on Washington Street.

In the 1960s, the state planned to extend Interstate 95 through JP and other Boston neighborhoods, seizing and demolishing many homes and businesses to clear the path. JP activists joined others citywide to successfully kill the highway plan, a triumph still commemorated by JP’s annual Wake Up the Earth Festival. The highway route was filled instead by the Southwest Corridor, a linear park and sunken railroad line. Some rails are used by Amtrak, others by the Orange Line, which was relocated from Washington Street in the 1980s.

“This history of the Orange Line in particular interesting since the train line had been entirely rerouted,” Fox said. The focus of the book, he explained, is how the city changed because of the transit system.

The book includes photos of some historic remnants of the former elevated train, or “El,” such as the electrical substation building in Egleston Square that now serves as headquarters for Boston Neighborhood Network TV. Long-gone history is mentioned, too, such as the El’s Green Street Station, which stood near today’s police station at Green and Washington streets.

“There is a historical trend in transportation of moving from elevated to ground or underground systems,” said Fox, relating the Southwest Corridor to such other recent projects as the “Big Dig” to bury the Central Artery highway downtown. Another similar project, he said, is the Casey Arborway plan to replace the Casey Overpass at Forest Hills Station with new surface streets.

“We have new ideas about city planning since the ’50s, and traffic patterns have evolved,” said Fox.

Relocating the Orange Line kept rail service in JP, but shifted the rest between here and Back Bay Station from central Roxbury to Mission Hill and the South End. The book looks at the impact of that change, too. That includes the MBTA’s recent introduction of the Silver Line in Roxbury, which has a subway-style name, but is a bus route. According to Fox, the naming of Silver Line may have been a marketing tactic of the MBTA in efforts of consoling neighbors.

The book uses photos from an exhibit commissioned in 1985-87 by the MBTA to document the El before its demolition. Five photographers were selected for that project. David Akiba, a Jamaica Plain resident, was one of them.

“Most people are happy that the screeching train isn’t above their heads anymore,” Akiba said about the El in a recent Gazette interview, “but people in Roxbury feel short-changed because the Silver Line isn’t anywhere near as fast or efficient.”

He also recalled that riding the elevated train provided a pleasant view of the city, while the new Orange Line travels through JP in a trench and underground.

The book is part of a series from Arcadia Publishing that previously covered the MBTA’s Blue and Red Lines. Fox and Elder pitched the Orange Line idea to the publisher and began work last year. Fox read history books and interviewed rail historians, Fox said, while his coauthor and boyfriend Elder amassed historic photos. Elder is an archivist at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a board member of The History Project, which archives New England’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender history.

The book is available through all major booksellers. The authors hope to hold a local book-signing event. For updates, see bostonsorangeline.com.

The cover of “Image of Rail: Boston’s Orange Line.” (Courtesy Image)

The cover of “Image of Rail: Boston’s Orange Line.” (Courtesy Image)