Harbor-making Practices in the Port of Boston

This project looks at the ongoing dredging of Boston's shipping channels, which is just as frequent and significant as the “wharfing out” of Boston's land mass. Over time, the channels get more and more defined, so now the north and south channels are clear in bathymetric charts, where a hundred years ago they wouldn’t have been discernible. But the channel isn’t a place delimited by physical barriers, really. It’s, among other things, a geographic location marked by buoys and coordinates, a physically maintained infrastructure, and a set of plans and policies—an ongoing collection of practices working to produce it.

Anthropologist Vyjayanthi Rao writes about the “fundamental disconnection between the ‘real’ of infrastructure as the organizational medium of urban life and the various models and propositions from which urbanism is seen to derive.” To explore this “fundamental disconnection,” for today, I touch on just two sets of actors in shaping the harbor and how they respond to plans to dredge and deepen it.

First, the harbor pilots. These pilots are members of a small, exclusive group, with highly specialized knowledge of the harbor floor. When an international container ship or tanker arrives at Boston Harbor, it’s only allowed to enter after a pilot greets it, takes command, and navigates it in. The purpose of dredging is to remove obstacles to the capacity, efficiency, and therefore the competitiveness, of the Port of Boston. The pilots, who are intimately familiar with the deepening plans, see dredging and deepening as essential to the survival of the harbor. This dredging, they say, will “make turns easier; easier equals safer.”

Meanwhile, the town of Chelsea’s resistance to dredging projects underscores another side of harbor development. The Army Corps disposes of dredge spoils beneath the channel itself, in sub-sea-floor pits that are called confined aquatic detention cells or CAD cells. The community doesn’t want them in Chelsea Creek. “If they dredge the creek it benefits these industries but do these industries benefit us? No,” says environmental justice activist Roseann Bongiovanni. The community worries about invisible contamination from the CAD cells. At first, Massport offered to meet their concerns by hanging signs warning that the channel was unsafe for fishing or swimming. But finally, in 2015, activists were successful in lobbying to prohibit Massport from storing contaminated material under the Chelsea Creek channel. It’s unclear though through how many proposed dredging projects their success will hold.

Comparing these two sets of actors makes clear how contingent and contested the production of the shipping channel is. Designated shipping channels are meant to help ships travel without collisions, to increase Boston’s competitiveness and reduce obstructions to the flow of goods, but in their planning and maintenance, the logic of the smooth movement of capital meets the material and cultural realities of facilitating this flow. Examining the “real” of the shipping channel as an organizing infrastructure, we can begin to see how the notion of Boston as a node in the global shipping network acts as one of Rao’s urban propositions, in tension with the lived reality of its production.