Love(D) That Dirty Water

By Phineas J. Stone

It seemed to escape most news outlets, but a major milestone in Boston’s contentious and contemptuous 1980s history came to a close last Friday.

The once, all-consuming Boston Harbor Clean Up fizzled out in Federal Court over on the South Boston waterfront as the MWRA presented its final yearly update to a federal judge – a report they’ve filed every year since 1987. That report made final peace with the feds regarding the shameful way with which “dirty old Boston” used to oversee its greatest resource – the Atlantic Ocean.

To look back from here is an unbelievable adventure, and it’s too bad more folks didn’t get the breadth of what Friday meant.

The Harbor and every waterway leading to it was so disgusting for so long that it became a beloved piece of our local lore..

So many generations of Bostonians never even knew the ocean or the Harbor was even there – having been warned by parents time after time to “stay away from that water.” Kids being kids, they would find their way to the shore and jump off a bridge or take a dip at one of the forgotten beaches. That often resulted in a trip to the hospital or a fever.

I remember my sibling taking a dip as a child near South Boston on a day many years ago when it was brutally hot – long before people started putting window air conditioners in their homes. Back then, you either sweated it our, or headed for the shore to cool off.

But for years, a trip to the shore didn’t mean getting in the broad expanses of water.

You were told not to, but you also knew not to.

I watched my sister get in unobserved and play around in water up to her waist for about an hour. That’s all it took. Later that night she took a fever and was pretty sick for a couple of days. I still recall my angry mother setting fire to her swim suit and the sneakers she wore into the water – chiding her the whole time about the fact that she should know enough to stay away from “poison.”

In fact that was the case, as I can remember catching Flounder that had lesions on them, black hard spots that must have been some sort of toxic reaction or cancerous lump resulting from whatever was serving as their environment. You only fished for the thrill of reeling in something that didn’t want to be caught; there was no eating that food.

The water smelled too.

Depending on the day, the direction of the wind or the tide, the smell could become much worse. You often didn’t need to be right on the water to smell it.

A memory sticks in my mind from childhood when we had relatives in town from out of state. We were going to take a glass-bottom-boat to Gloucester.

A fine idea.

Except you couldn’t see anything through the glass, and there was this weird film on the underside of the glass that kind of reminded me of cooking oil that gets burnt onto a pan.

One has to understand we literally flushed our toilets right into the Harbor for decades. It was so disgusting we could only laugh about it, and write rock songs that became lovingly colloquial.

We stood for dirty water, an ocean without boats, a soiled jewel.

Those memories are why it’s even more amazing what has happened on the Harbor. The water is clean, and people flock to it.

There are sailboats with skippers, and the water is so healthy that some of the fish that like the muck have left – as there is no more muck. As so, some cranky old salts now complain that the water is “too clean.”

It is a modern miracle what has happened on the Harbor, and that resource is only going to get stronger as we move away from the memories of how bad things were and the taught habits of avoiding all water for fear of being poisoned. As controversial as Judge David Mazzone’s decision was at the time (and how expensive it has made our water bills!), the fact is that outsiders now come here because of our water and want to invest in properties on the water so they can attract luxury residents and five-star guests to boats that travel on our water.

Amazing to me.

More amazing is that you can swim on the local beaches. If you live in the South End or Fenway, it’s not a joke to take a trip to one of the urban beaches approximately 10 minutes away and enjoy the water. You can really do that.

And your mother won’t burn your shoes either.

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