What Lies Beneath, Part II

IMG_7405Our recent post about soil contamination on New Street was met with a shrug in some quarters as, supposedly, it’s common knowledge — to be expected when formerly industrial land is redeveloped. But without knowing the complete history of uses a parcel of land has served, one could easily assume that, for example, the site of a window manufacturer — or a public school — would not be heavily polluted. Wrong.

As the Fresh Pond/Alewife area continues to evolve from an “industrial fringe” to a modern urban neighborhood, broader awareness of this history seems critical to informing future land use decisions as well as to shaping public information strategies and citizen activism.

Danehy Park looking north

Danehy Park looking north

Let’s start with what seems fairly well known: Danehy Park was built on landfill over the former town dump. But lost in the lore of The Dump becoming the city’s largest park is the fact that the Danehy dump site, which operated from 1951 to 1972, was just the last in a long line of dumps in our area. For the first 250 years of Cambridge’s history, the city’s northwestern frontier, then known as the Great Swamp, was considered so remote and unusable that it was largely ignored and avoided until the arrival of the brickmaking industry in the 19th century. Mining clay to make bricks left a series of yawning craters, some 80 feet deep, across the area from Walden Street to Rindge Avenue. After the clay was depleted, the pits were repurposed into dumps and filled with tons of unburnable waste and ash from incinerators and fireplaces. In fact, there were over a dozen dumps in the northwest Cambridge, all of them onetime clay pits. And, in case (like me) you missed the memo: all of those dumps were eventually repurposed into public use as parks, affordable housing, and schools between the 1930s and the early 1970s.[1]

One of those repurposed sites is the Tobin School and the baseball fields around it, and it stands as a good lesson in the difficulty of determining what is common knowledge. Although I have lived very near the Tobin for over 20 years and my oldest child attended the school for a year in the mid 1990s, I never knew it was built on top of a former dump.

Callanan Field behind Tobin

Callanan Field behind Tobin

The Tobin area was originally known as Muskrat Pond, and in the late 19th century the pond was renamed “Cofran’s Pit” after brick maker Samuel Cofran. In 1927, the city acquired this former brickyard to use as a dump. By 1933 one portion of the dump had been filled, and a WPA grant helped the city create the Callanan Park baseball fields on Concord Avenue. Earlier generations of Little Leaguers played within clear view (and smell) of the dump that continued to operate right next door on the site that became the National Guard Armory in 1958. Finally, in 1972, the city built a new public school, The Tobin, on the remainder of the former dump at Cofran’s Pit.

Tobin was designed by the dean of MIT's architecture school.

Tobin was designed by the dean of MIT’s architecture school.

Over the years I had heard vague rumors about the Tobin being a “sick building,” but I didn’t know the tainted history of the site until recently, when I read Bridget Corbett Hanna’s thesis. Her choice of a topic, and ultimately her doctoral studies at Harvard in medical anthropology and environmental justice, was sparked by her older sister’s death of a rare childhood cancer. Her sister had attended Tobin for several years, and during the school’s early years there was a high incidence of respiratory and other health problems among both students and teachers, which the city was slow to acknowledge might be connected to toxic fumes coming up through cracks in the foundation and trapped in the tightly sealed building. In 1991, the city eventually took action to remedy the air quality problems by laying a temporary barrier beneath the foundation and installing windows that could be opened, but these steps came only after years of mounting pressure and threats of lawsuits from teachers union and the parents association.

The Armory was once a dump too.

The Armory was once a dump too.

The problems did not end there, however. In 1997 toxic “hot spots” were detected in the school’s playing fields, and since 1999 the site has carried a legally binding Activity and Use Limitation (AUL) that prohibits “any use as a residence and/or activities consistent with residential use” and bars any activity that “involves disturbing the land more than 3 feet below ground without the supervision of an outside analyst.” Small comfort, when you consider that children spend about a third of their waking hours at school. Or that the section of Vassal Lane that Tobin faces was deeply excavated to lay new sewer pipes and storm water drains, and the front schoolyard, street and sidewalks around the school have been under construction for months for the sewer separation project.

I recount this chapter in Tobin’s history not to alarm its families and neighbors, but to prompt broader awareness of the area’s hidden environmental history. The Tobin is one of many public and private sites in northwest Cambridge whose known contamination has earned it a place on the MassDEP’s watch list (a search for sites in Cambridge with AULs on file yields over two dozen in northwest Cambridge alone, and there are many other sites whose problems are documented with MassDEP but do not yet have AULs).[2] Other sites doubtless carry similar risks that have not yet been discovered and reported; the multi-year sewer separation project raises a new set of questions about the potential health hazards associated with the particulates in the dust produced in the excavation of every street in the Tobin-Danehy area.

The law requires contaminated sites to be remediated to present “no significant risk” for a set of activities and uses determined by the owner. The legal standard is not “no risk.” People have different levels of tolerance for risk and different degrees of susceptibility depending on age and genetics, but at minimum everyone should be presented with the same information on which to base decisions, like where to live. The Alewife area’s current zoning incentivizes the redevelopment of these formerly industrial parcels into housing, and it is incumbent on us all to keep asking questions about what’s below the surface.

[1] Principle sources are a thesis written by Cambridge native Bridget Corbett Hanna as a senior at Bard College in 2003 (School of the Future: The Social Construction of Environmental Hazard in the Post-Industrial Fringe) and the Cambridge Historical Commission’s 1976 publication on Northwest Cambridge by Arthur J. Krim. Other information came from the city’s Annual Reports, which are available in the Cambridge Public Library’s Cambridge Room.

[2] Among the former dumps now serving as public housing are Jefferson Park and Rindge Towers on Rindge Ave, Walden Square off Sherman Street, and the Briston Arms in the elbow of Danehy Park on Garden St. It appears that unlike the trash in Danehy Park, which continues to decompose and produce occasional methane releases, the material dumped at these other sites is not subject to decomposition in the same way. Instead, the threat posed by the dumped ash is not the byproducts of the ash’s breakdown but the ash itself, as it contains numerous toxins that were created during the burning process. In addition, it seems likely that the dumping of the ash tended to create dust that then blew into other areas. This may be a reason the soil in our neighborhood shows high levels of contaminants above and beyond just lead from paint and auto emissions, contaminants that may have blown in from the Tobin dump site.

Scenes from the Huron Village "Big Dig"

Scenes from the Huron Village “Big Dig”…across Concord Ave from Tobin

Concord Ave near Tobin

Concord Ave near Tobin

Vassal Lane

Vassal Lane



1 thought on “What Lies Beneath, Part II

  1. I am writing from Southwest Harbor, Maine. The recent blogs and posts about Cambridge and
    Cambridge history seem like an urban nightmare, from this distance.

    I wonder: Do we have a Cambridge map which shows the contaminated sites? An environmental hazard map?

    –Andrea Wilder


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