Boston Police Department Headquarters. Photo by James P Thompson IV.
I have lived in Boston for ten years and have driven past this building as many as three times a week. I’m not sure how I missed the sign out in front, but, just recently, I noticed that the building is the City of Boston’s police department headquarters. Now that I know, many things about the building perplex me, most especially, it’s massive size. Boston is a city of only 617,000 residents; does it really need a police headquarters that takes up an entire city block?
The City of Boston’s webpage boasts of its “state of the art” facility and offers some clues as to what is taking up so much room inside:
The new headquarters – – equipped with perhaps the most advanced ID imaging and ballistics identification technology in the country, a DNA laboratory, Enhanced 9-1-1, and a Computer-aided Dispatch system linked to Mobile Date Terminals — will serve the department and the public well into the next century.
Further research reveals that in 1997 the headquarters was moved from downtown to “the geographic center of the city in the Roxbury neighborhood . . . [t]o meet the demands of 21st century policing.” http://www.bpdnews.com/about/history/
I’m suspicious. I’ve never heard Roxbury’s central location in the city invoked in any other context and don’t recall an imposing edifice for any of the city’s social services – housing, education, health – sited there, despite significant 21st century demand for them. I discover online that in the early days, the police provided social services such as “serv[ing] soup to the poor; overnight lodging for newcomers to the city, and ambulance transport for the sick and injured.” http://www.bpdnews.com/about/history/ But that undoubtedly was at a time when Boston’s residents generally looked like, and shared common culture and identity with the cops.
My sons and I stand in front of the BPD behemoth. They are indulging my newfound preoccupation with the building we have passed without comment for years. The feeling of the building is distinctly hegemonic. James, fresh from his first semester of art theory at Hampshire College, observes that the structure is “almost brutalist.” I recall the concrete buildings our family saw lining Eastern European boulevards a decade ago. Then I remember rumors heard when I was a college student in Boston in the 1980s: the city has a tank deployed under a community center in Roxbury as a hedge against urban insurrection. I can imagine that the supposed tank was moved to the HQ after it was built.
Design detail: building columns do not reach the eaves
James, however, is not finished his critique: “the spire to the right is not particularly functional. It’s kind of aspirational; not my idea of brutalism.” We turn the corner to the front of the building and are all taken aback to see that the structure, which from a distance has telegraphed power and authority, features a truly bizarre design element when viewed close-up. The massive stone columns lined up in front to form what looks like an unbreachable colonnade of support for the building, do not even reach the eaves. It is an illusion. I’m baffled.
When we get home, I scoff to my husband about the city’s patent propaganda: “they say they relocated the BPD HQ to Roxbury to be at the city’s geographic center.”
“It’s true that Roxbury is the geographic center,” he says.
I pause, but get back on my high horse, noting that I have never seen any government social service headquarters in Roxbury.
“How you could’ve missed it?” he rejoins, “health and human services, and the city’s premier public gym are huge buildings in Roxbury.”
Twice in one day I’ve been tricked by illusions.
Dayna Cunningham is the Executive Director of MIT Community Innovators Lab.