Anyone who comes to Boston comes to see some things—the Prudential tower, the Common, theater students sweating in period clothes tossing Styrofoam blocks off a ship that never sails. They hop on and hop off the trolley that promises the freedom to hop on and off at will, and all the while they miss the best thing. Without it, much of what they happily photograph themselves in front of would not exist. The thing they fail to see is the ur-thing. It is Boston Sand & Gravel.
Boston Sand & Gravel deals, as might be readily apparent, in sand and gravel. They are, according to their website, the “leader in the ready mixed concrete and aggregate industries in southeastern New England.” The sand and gravel that comes to Boston Sand & Gravel eventually becomes concrete, which becomes buildings and stuff, which becomes progress. It has been this way for a little over 100 years.
Back in 1914, Boston Sand & Gravel was located slightly west of its current location, over in Cambridge. Then, the sand and gravel that eventually became concrete got to the gravel yard mainly by way of the ocean. A fleet of steam-powered barges cruised through Boston Harbor to deliver their cargo—in fact, Boston Sand & Gravel was even sued by the U.S. government for a collision with a destroyer on a foggy morning in 1918 (TL;DR version is, “Hey, you sunk my battleship!”).
Boston Sand & Gravel’s Charlestown home contributes to the prevailing opinion of it which is, in effect, “What the fuck?” It is, as Bob Vila points out in this extremely extra-special episode of This Old House, “literally ringed” by condos and all sorts of highway overpass, and also my office building. Many people see the spot as primo real estate, assuming (as I once did) that Boston Sand & Gravel must be holding out for a Scrooge McDuck-style pool of money. But, it’s a pretty strategic location for a couple big, not oft-considered reasons.
First, cement dries. If you can’t get to your job site in time, you will be left with an enormous and unwanted concrete rock. So, proximity to Boston is on the list of must-haves. Secondly, the sand and gravel have to come from somewhere. For the most part, that’s New Hampshire! Boston Sand & Gravel owns 40-odd miles of rail, on which trainloads of sand from the Granite State come to the gravel yard on a journey to become different stuff. Pools full of money be damned, neither moving away from the city nor the railroad would be especially prudent, so they stay.
All this said, their peculiar location wasn’t always such—the area’s former nickname is “the lost half-mile,” given it was a kind of lousy place literally everyone forgot. But: the highways? Built with help from Boston Sand & Gravel. My office? Built that, too. Beyond that, there’s the Hancock tower, the Zakim Bridge, the Seaport, most of the Big Dig… the list goes on, and it’s all made with concrete from Boston Sand & Gravel. “I have family who works there,” said redditor Mollasaurus, one of many internet Bostonians who responded to my Boston Sand & Gravel query. “With all the construction projects BS&G has been assigned over the past 25 years, moving piles around based on what’s needed is the most boring job they’ve had.”
Looking out over Boston Sand & Gravel from my office makes it an occasional workplace topic of conversation. After the election, while watching sand collecting into a massive pile, we wondered aloud about the possibility of drowning in it. I have often set meeting locations for “the gravel pit,” and no one has responded to say it was funny. So, when I told one of my coworkers I was writing about the gravel pit, she readily answered—their giant FIRST AND FINEST sign, with its classic typography, is what makes Boston Sand & Gravel so great—but also added, “You have to ask Adam.”
Adam, whose love of things seemingly unlovable approaches religious devotion—a trait you might worry is an affectation until you realize the joy he derives from, like, ash-cured cheeses, is the purest kind of happiness—of course loves Boston Sand & Gravel. He’s also one of the few lifetime Bostonians I know, and so, he shares with some r/boston-ians a sense that Boston Sand & Gravel is ineffably part of something. Etched in memory of drives to summer vacation, the sponsor of a little league team, the location of late-night antics of the kind that could only have happened to you, here, long ago; Boston Sand & Gravel has always been, somewhere, in the background, and feels like it always will be.
“I mean, look at it,” Adam said. He sat facing the window in one of many conference rooms with a view of the gravel pit. I asked what made Boston Sand & Gravel a thing worthy of our affections.
“It is like a giant Zen garden, right?” he said. “Or it’s like watching an hourglass. There’s always sand. You get to the end, and you just tip it over and start again.” He was quiet for a while. The day was almost over, and a warm summer rain was falling outside.
“Oh! And that guy just got to drive through a puddle, that is cool.”
The stories Boston tells about itself—beleaguered sports fans, tea-tossing rebels, [insert location] strong—are the stories that people hop on and off the trolley for. Boston Sand & Gravel does not play a starring role, but it makes an appearance in another popular narrative about the city: the unseemly one. In polling both r/boston and real-life humans, I found jokes about the mob, unsolved murders, and corruption abound. Twice, someone warned me against “digging too deep,” as if I’d unearth a vast, concrete-related conspiracy.
That so many people held this opinion struck me as odd because, on the whole, the people I know to are 20- and 30-somethings who did not live through Boston’s most unseemly years. Sure, we all know who Whitey Bulger is but, beyond that? I mostly blame the Boston Movie.
In the Boston Movie, the city is the domain of sad white men (our favorite kind!). It’s a mostly inhospitable place, save for a few sanctuaries—parks and gardens, Au Bon Pains, the apartments of women who are on paper too good for you but believe in your better self—and Boston Sand & Gravel is not one of them. “I break rocks” is Ben Affleck’s straight job in The Town. It’s near where (spoiler) Jack Nicholson dies in The Departed. It appears in sweeping shots from overhead or in the background while a very tough conversation happens, all in scenes meant to say: here is a place where bad shit happens.
And it is! But it is also not! The city is a place where, for better or for worse, people live all sorts of lives and have for a very long while. I’ve been here 11 of the 387 years Boston has been a thing, and that feels increasingly like a lot of time and not very much at all. Still, in a place that hangs its tri-cornered hat on stuff that happened way back when, I have a long memory for what things used to be.
It’s maybe that I worry about my own sanctuaries. Every time I go to a neighborhood I haven’t been to for some time, it feels like, “When the fuck did this get here??!” It’s not just me being a homebody, either. Reporting on proposed changes to Boston’s shadow laws (sketchy-sounding yet totally normal legislation meant to protect public parks and historic buildings from skyscraper-sized shadows that kill plants and promote mold spore-age), the New York Times tapped into Bostonians’ apparent existential crisis re: building all this shit. The trees in the Common, that weird little church in the Seaport, the tiki bar in the former Howard Johnson’s on Boylston Street (I never went! I am still mad!); it’s all seemingly up for sale. We look around at what has and will come and wonder, if not welcoming of green spaces and cobblestones and chain hotel tiki bars, what are we?
But while we’re struggling to define Boston’s identity by Boston’s rules, there is Boston Sand & Gravel. It’s easy to be indifferent to it or relegate it to gritty set dressing. But, it contains multitudes! It’s there, doling out concrete to projects across the city while its presence is a kind of “fuck you” to the surrounding development. City-life anxieties—greed, crime, urban sprawl, massive public works projects going off the rails—are thrust upon it, while at the same time we make it character in stories about ourselves as originals, the always-beens, the first and finest. It’s the kind of thing that’s usually invisible, and that’s what makes it like a Rorschach test.
You can see whatever you want, but here’s what I’ve got, what makes me think maybe Boston Sand & Gravel is the most Boston thing there is: when I look at it, I’m reminded that things will come and things will go, but some things will stay. Whatever happens, I can tell stories about it; when I get to the end, I’ll just tip it over and start again.