In-Depth & Data

Left to rot: Massachusetts’ nuclear fallout shelters

Fallout shelter signs around BU campus. (Photo by Lincoln Currie/BU News Service)

By Lina Levein, Thalia Lauzon, Jared Jacob, and Lincoln Currie

Boston University News Service

From the mid- to late-1900s, the Cold War dominated the Eastern and Western hemispheres, and, although not in plain sight, relics from the era still exist today throughout Boston’s architecture.

In Massachusetts alone, there are over 350 remaining shelters identified by citizens around the state, according to Fallout Five Zero, a website dedicated to tracking the status and location of public shelters primarily in and around Boston in the Northeast. At least 65  locations of the shelters found have been demolished or lost to address changes since the operation’s establishment.

Explore the nuclear fallout shelters in Massachusetts (Boston and Quincy), according to data from Fallout Five Zero, a website chronicling public shelters in the northeast. From popular landmarks to apartment buildings, nuclear fallout shelters have transformed from federally designated safe havens for nuclear power in the mid-1900s to everyday buildings that millions of people unknowingly walk by and use around Massachusetts today. However, some citizens have tracked and submitted their findings of these historical structures through Fallout Five Zero. (Map icon graphic provided by Jud McCranie)

Other shelters have lost their key black and yellow signage on exterior and interior walls, making the buildings that were equipped to handle nuclear debris of the 1900s difficult to track after the 20th century throughout time.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy urged Americans to build nuclear fallout shelters in the event of nuclear catastrophe. All across the United States, resources were funneled to line basements of everyday buildings with fallout shelter procedures to try and shield people from the worst of potential nuclear blasts.

“The Federal Government is moving forward to bring into operation fallout shelter space for large groups of people under very austere conditions,” Kennedy said in a press release to the Civil Defence Committee of the Governor’s Conference on Oct. 6, 1961. “Many homeowners, communities and business firms can and will provide more adequate and better located shelter space for their own needs.”

Bunkers today are sporadically found in schools, apartment buildings and popular tourist spots around the city. For example, Boston’s Faneuil Hall has served as a meeting space for city officials for hundreds of years, but it was available as a shelter for 100 people in the early 1960s.

As threats from the Soviet Union died down in the 1990s, the U.S. began to forget about the safety shelters, eventually becoming an obscure factoid for most of the public. Boston University is home to several of these shelters, but many students walk by without realizing its existence.

BU School of Theology faculty member and managing editor of Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics Brandon Jones said he never knew the theology building on 745 Commonwealth Ave. was one of the many fallout shelters around campus and wondered about its present viability in case of an emergency.

Although many buildings have been maintained and are still recognized around the city, most shelter spaces cannot function as a safe haven anymore due to supplies and changes in function –– as many basements are used as storage or work spaces.

Matthew Kearney, the Director of Operations and Support Services for the City of Boston Office of Emergency Management, said the program as a whole has fallen by the wayside.

“I am not sure as to when exactly or what the direct cause was, but I can see a host of factors playing a role,” he said. “Cost of maintaining the supplies, lack of adequate space in these shelters for a large number of individuals, lack of amenities or resources to support individuals being in these spaces for a duration of time and minimal to no accommodations for individuals with access and functional needs.”

However, despite the shelters’ lack of use today, the hundreds of remaining nuclear fallout areas provide a hidden glimpse into the comprehensive history of Boston’s involvement in the Cold War when frightened citizens roamed the streets and public safety was at the forefront of city planning and architectural decisions.

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