On a clear day, the air outside Anthony Cortese’s office in downtown Boston is filled with the unmistakable smell of the ocean — a pungent, brinelike perfume that hangs in the morning air. It floats in from the Inner Harbor, where fishing boats lazily motor out to lobster traps set just offshore.
It’s a pure New England scene, but it wasn’t always so idyllic. Cortese, SD ’76, who grew up in Boston’s North End neighborhood, remembers the harbor very differently. Throughout his childhood in the 1950s and ’60s, few people lingered on the shoreline. Raw sewage and industrial waste often clogged the water, and the air hung heavy with soot from industrial sites and the Central Artery, an infamous stretch of elevated highway that sliced downtown Boston in half after its construction in 1959.
“We couldn’t go swimming because the harbor was so dirty. The air quality was awful, too, and there were a lot of people in the neighborhood with chronic respiratory disease,” he says. “Many of my close friends had asthma, and a lot of older people in the neighborhood had a chronic cough. People spit everywhere because their lungs were so full of mucus.”
Cortese never forgot what it was like to be surrounded by neighbors who directly suffered from these ubiquitous industrial contaminants. For him, it drove home one point: Environmental conditions are inseparable from the public’s health.