Monday, June 27, 2011

The peculiarity that is Brookline

If you were dropped in to Coolidge Corner at noontime and I asked you to tell me two peculiar things about the encompassing community, you'd have trouble picking out the two of which I was thinking. Coolidge Corner is the retail center of Brookline (although stores radiate along several streets) and is also bisected by the Green Line light rail (Coolidge Corner happens to be the system's busiest surface stop, with 4000 boardings daily) and the 66 bus line, one of the busiest in the system, with more than 10,000 daily riders. It's typical turn-of-the-century mixed use, with street-level stores and apartments and offices several stories above. There are no skyscrapers, but there are several buildings which, at ten and twenty stories, would not look out of place on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

And if you go a mile in any direction, you remain in density. There are brownstones and row houses and the ubiquitous triple decker, and courtyard apartments and more recent taller (and elevator-serviced apartment towers). There are streets (particularly up nearby hills) with single family houses, but few sprawl over much space. Less than a mile north, another light rail line skirts the border with Brighton in the median of Commonwealth Avenue; to the south, a third spoke of the system runs along a grade separated right of way making fewer stops but at higher speeds since it is not at the mercy of the stop lights.

As far as municipalities go, Brookline is fairly dense: about 59,000 people live in just under 7 square miles; more than 8000 in any given square mile. But it is very unevenly developed. North of the Green Line's D-Line (the southernmost of the transit lines) and Route 9 is the housing described, but south of it, in an area encompassing about four square miles, single family homes, many of them large estates, and golf courses are the rule. If you exclude the southernmost two census tracts, 47,000 people live in 2.5 square miles (18,000 per square mile). If you take out the two tracts straddling this Route 9-Green Line line, the population density of the remaining 2 square miles is over 20,000, with some tracts peaking towards 30,000.

Brookline is not very diverse, being 80% white (and 12% Asian), with large Jewish and Russian-speaking communities. The schools are only two-thirds white, and the 2010 data (which are not on Wikipedia yet) show somewhat more diversity. It's also quite wealthy, with low poverty rates and high housing prices, although there are 2000 affordable units and many rental properties with rents similar to neighboring cities.

So, what's peculiar about Brookline? Well, if you were to walk a few blocks south of Coolidge Corner, you'd get to the town hall. Not to the city hall. Brookline is not a city. (I've judiciously avoided using the word "town" to describe it thus far for effect.) There's no mayor. There are selectmen (they serve as the executive) and a representative town meeting (with 240 members, which serves as the legislative branch).

And if you walked a block down any side street in Brookline later in the evening, you'd assuredly notice the other peculiarity: There would be no cars parked on the street. Brookline bans overnight, on-street parking. During the day, the whole town is two hour parking (and it is enforced). Finding parking in most of the dense parts of Boston (and Cambridge and Somerville) is not an enviable task. In Brookline, it's easy, provided you don't want to stay for more than two hours.

We'll discuss more about Brookline in coming weeks (I lived here last winter and am back for the summer) and explore how these peculiarities help shape the town.

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