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Nira Rock: a brief history
300 million years ago – give or take a few million years – Jamaica Plain was situated squarely on the earth's equator. Conditions were ripe for the formation of a unique kind of stone. It was made up of small river rocks, cemented together deep inside the earth by natural mineralization. This particular structure gave the stone the appearance of an old-fashioned, fruit-studded Christmas pudding. Over millennia of glacial activity, surface erosion, and continental drift, these stone formations were eventually exposed here in what is now known as Massachusetts, where they were dubbed "puddingstone" by early settlers. The Boston basin, between the Blue Hills and the Atlantic Ocean, is one of the few places in the world where this particular puddingstone can be found – along with parts of Western Africa, to which the Massachusetts coast was attached before it's long drift northward. This puddingstone is so unique, "Rox"-bury is named for it, and it has been dubbed the "official rock of Massachusetts."
Farming in Jamaica Plain (Jamaica Plain Historical Society / www.jphs.org)
A few hundred
million years
later, in the
early 1800s,

the Hyde Square area of Jamaica Plain was largely farmland. Records from that period reference farmhouses, barns, a tavern, a slaughterhouse, and near the dividing line of the extensive landholdings of Phineas Withington and Peleg Heath a prominent ledge of rocks. Known then as "Bleiler's Ledge," it's still the dominant landscape feature of the neighborhood: Nira Rock.
Later in the same century, puddingstone became a desirable building material. In the 1870s, Boston accepted Frederick Law Olmsted's bid to design a sinuous system of linked city parks in the "picturesque landscape" style.
Frederick Law Olmsted
Now known as the Emerald Necklace, it would require copious amounts of the puddingstone boulders that Olmsted favored, as well as many more smaller pieces for bridges and walkways. Other notable projects used the material as well; Forest Hills Cemetery, New Old South Church, and The Brattle Square Church are just a few. To satisfy the appetite for puddingstone, several quarries opened in the Roxbury area. By the turn of the century, most had already closed, as fashions changed and architects turned to other materials.
In the early 1900s, Jamaica Plain was being transformed from a pastoral escape into a suburb of Boston, and the Hyde Square neighborhood was no exception. The large farms in the area were divided into small house lots, which were filled with Queen Anne single-family houses and the triple-deckers that are still a hallmark of Jamaica Plain's architecture. The upper meadow of Nira Rock was itself slated to become twelve tidy house lots. Though city maps of the site still clearly show the outlines of these lots, they were never built on. Presumably the steep climb of the terrain – and the inpenetrable bedrock of puddingstone – made the area inhospitable to construction. Whatever the case, Nira Rock was spared, and left as public land for future generations to enjoy.
Typical WPA quarry (Greenfield Chamber)
The Great Depression of the early 1930s brought with it an imperative to get people back to work. As a result, the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) was passed in 1933. It authorized the government to create jobs for unemployed workers. One relatively small undertaking of this enormous initiative was the reopening of one the puddingstone quarries closed years before. The quarry became known by the acronym of the act that re-enlivened it: Nira Rock. Though much of the quarry's puddingstone was eventually removed, a dramatic outcropping was left behind, which is now at the heart of the Nira Rock site.
Over the next decades, Nira Rock languished as a forgotten, overgrown place. Its seclusion – with no abutting major roads – made it the perfect place for young people to engage in play (or less innocent pursuits) away from the watchful eyes of parents and police. Oral accounts from neighbors indicate that the spot was a favorite for high school drinking, as well as Sunday-night bonfires attended "by the whole neighborhood." In the 1970s, neighborhood children affectionately called it "Gilligan's Island." But by the late 70s and 80s, the site took a darker turn, as much of the city was affected by the burgeoning crack epidemic.
In the late 1980s, a number of new residential projects were developed in the Nira Rock area. Partly in response to this, Boston Natural Areas Network (BNAN) conducted a community forum to discuss the potential utilization of a number of local city-held properties. In addition to the creation of a neighborhood park and community garden, this process led to the transfer of Nira Rock's ownership from the Boston Department of Neighborhood Development to the Boston Parks Department – and its official recognition as a protected Urban Wild.
Through a city-funded grant, BNAN initiated the recovery of Nira Rock, including the removal of years of illegally dumped trash and debris, the installation of formal entry gates, and the planting of native shrubs, trees and perennials. This important initiative laid the groundwork for further improvements.
In 1990, Earthworks planted a small orchard on the site. In 2000, a handful of neighbors began to discuss how to continue to improve the condition of the site and address crime. Shortly thereafter, Friends of Nira Rock was formed, and regular site cleanups were initiated. The Parks Department's Urban Wilds Initiative embraced Nira Rock as a priority and, in 2004, COGdesign created a landscape design for the site. In 2005, the founding member of Friends of Nira Rock received a Community Service Award from the Boston Police Department, in recognition of her contribution to turning Nira Rock around. Momentum grew with the award of grants and donations from several sources – including the city as well as private and non-profit organizations – for infrastructure improvements and ambitious native plantings.
Today, Nira Rock is managed through a partnership between the Urban Wilds Initiative and Friends of Nira Rock, with lots of help from our many partners and supporters. It has been transformed from a derelict, foreboding place into a beautiful natural sanctuary for wildlife and people alike. Regular social events like outdoor movies and climbing workshops have added a new dimension to the site's place in the community and there more improvements and events in the works! Please check back regularly to see what's happening at Nira, or subscribe and we'll keep you posted on what's coming up.