Pavla Simková, “Urban Archipelago: An Environmental History of the Boston Harbor Islands” (U Massachusetts Press, 2021)

The Boston Harbor Islands have been called Boston’s “hidden shores.” While some are ragged rocks teeming with coastal wildlife, such as oystercatchers and harbor seals, others resemble manicured parks or have the appearance of wooded hills rising gently out of the water. Largely ignored by historians and previously home to prisons, asylums, and sewage treatment plants, this surprisingly diverse ensemble of islands has existed quietly on the urban fringe over the last four centuries. Even their latest incarnation as a national park and recreational hub has emphasized their separation from, rather than their connection to, the city. In this book, Dr. Pavla Simková reinterprets the Boston Harbor Islands as an urban archipelago, arguing that they have been an integral part of Boston since colonial days, transformed by the city’s changing values and catering to its current needs. Drawing on archival sources, historic maps and photographs, and diaries from island residents, this absorbing study attests that the harbor islands’ story is central to understanding the ways in which Boston has both shaped and been shaped by its environment over time.

Simková’s clear and articulate writing style is accessible to academics and the general reader alike, and the book functions almost as well as a historically-informed travelogue as it does a serious academic overview. An environmental history, this work very much focuses on the shifting landscape and every-changing relationship between the islands and the urban centre, but we cannot help but discuss the social currents that both underpinned and were subjected to these shifts. There are many more avenues worthy of future exploration, most notably, with the book beginning in the 17th Century we learn a great deal about the Boston Harbor Islands’ development under European colonists and settlers and how they specifically impacted the development of the area — but much less about their earlier history under Native civilians, some of whom were forcibly relocated by settler-colonialists. As Simková herself notes, her specialisation is more contemporary, but she nonetheless touches on the issue in an earlier article for Island Studies Journal (2021). 

Pavla Šimková’s Urban Archipelago: An Environmental History of the Boston Harbor Islands was published by University of Massachusetts Press in 2021. 

Aliide Naylor is a freelance journalist, editor, translator, and the author of The Shadow in the East: Vladimir Putin and the New Baltic Front (Bloomsbury, 2020). I traditionally focus on Russia, Northern and Eastern Europe.

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