Tag Archives: Boston Elevated Railway

Think Like an Archivist: A Public Historian Processes the Washington Street Corridor Coalition Collection

By: Caroline Littlewood

Recently, the University Archives and Special Collections in the Joseph P. Healey Library at UMass Boston acquired the papers of the Washington Street Corridor Coalition (WSCC), a local organization committed to transport justice. The WSCC, a community group active in Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, the South End, and Chinatown during the 1980s and 1990s, advocated for adequate replacement of the Elevated Orange Line along Washington Street.

The Elevated Orange Line on Washington Street south from Corning Street, ca. 1908. Courtesy of Boston City Archives. See City of Boston Flickr albums for more historic photos.

The group also facilitated community involvement in the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) planning and development process and orchestrated protests when MBTA service did not meet their community’s needs.

Flyer, produced by the WSCC, announcing a silent vigil to express a sense of community loss over the El’s closure.

Three decades after the Coalition’s founding, the WSCC records provide a treasure trove for researchers interested in community organizing, grassroots activism, and resident resistance to development.

Along with three other collections, the WSCC records were entrusted to the graduate students of Professor Marilyn Morgan’s Archival Methods & Practices class in spring 2017. On the first day of class, I was assigned to process the WSCC collection. I spent the rest of the semester preparing it for researchers and preserving it for the future. To do these things, I needed to produce a finding aid that described the contents of the collection and the value of the story it tells.

A carton of the Washington Street Corridor Coalition collection, in February 2017, before it was processed.

The first time I set eyes on my collection, I confronted a single cardboard box with dividers and papers and spiral notebooks and more papers. Next to the box was a pile of bound reports, inches thick. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, and I knew next to nothing about the WSCC. I had the urge to research my collection the way one would a person or artifact. But I couldn’t. Nothing had been written yet; the research materials weren’t in an archive or library. They sat in front of me, thousands of pages thick and unprepared for use by the public.

As a public history student and genealogist, I’ve learned how to interrogate a document from every angle, wringing every last drop of evidence. The urge to analyze is so ingrained, it’s practically instinctual. When faced with the WSCC collection, I wanted to pull up a chair and get to reading. However, I would not be assessing and describing every individual item in the collection. This would take too much time and prevent timely public access to the documents. It would be unnecessary and a waste of resources. Instead, I would be describing groups of documents.

To do this, I had to train my brain to work a little differently, to seek different kinds of information. Scanning each document, I had to consider intellectual content. Was it a letter, a memo, a map? Was there sensitive information? A date? What was it about? I also had to consider physical content. Did the document need to be photocopied, moved to the oversize folder, or rid of a rusty staple?

At first, this was an uncomfortable process for me. I couldn’t simultaneously assess the physical and intellectual content. But after practice, I began to see in a new way.

MBTA map showing the Washington Street Elevated route, as it existed from 1938 to 1975. Wikimedia Commons.

I scanned for the names and acronyms of key players, following the gist of their correspondence without reading every word, and understanding the general findings of reports without flipping through every page. By the end of the semester, I knew that the Elevated Orange Line train was a vital transport link which ran along Washington Street, through downtown Boston and neighboring communities.

When the MBTA moved the Orange Line to the southwest corridor and closed the “El” in 1987, community groups came together under the WSCC name to hold the MBTA accountable to their 1973 promise that they would replace it with equal or better service.

Excerpt of a publication concerning the replacement of the El.

I learned that the WSCC had launched an extensive letter writing campaign in support of Light Rail Vehicles and worked with other organizations to hold community dialogues about replacement options. I also knew that the MBTA finally replaced the old Orange Line with the Silver Line, a Bus Rapid Transit system the WSCC deemed neither better than, nor equal to, Orange Line service. And as the Silver Line expanded, WSCC activity waned.

Newspaper clipping reporting on the community reaction to the closing of the EL, 1987.

I was inspired and challenged by this collection. It was my first experience facilitating access to archival material, rather than mining the material, myself. The primary purpose of my investigation was to aid and encourage the investigations of others. This was a new goal for me, but, at the end of the day, it fit. As a public historian, I want to connect people to history and encourage historical thinking. Maybe, with a little more brain training, I can do this from within the archives, too.

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