Thursday, July 14, 2005
Finding Freedom: Cycling Through Boston's Historic Neighborhoods
Leaving my apartment from Boston's Back Bay, I headed straight down Commonwealth Avenue towards The Public Garden. If you have not had the pleasure, Comm. Ave. is an incredible place to ride a bike. The historic Brownstone apartments and townhomes are simply elegant, and are about as European as American dwelling architecture gets. Moreover, the statue and memorial laden pedestrian mall that runs through the middle of the Avenue (part of Olmsted's emerald necklace) is a real treat for anyone who enjoys civic art and the conviviality of an outdoor room.
After cycling around the Public Garden and through the Boston Common I headed up to Beacon Hill, the home of Massachusetts State Government and some of the richest people in Boston. Beacon Hill might be one of the most satisfying places for a pedestrian to be in all of Boston. It's also a great place to test your leg muscles as a cyclist. The streets are tight, the buildings and homes are elegant, and the urban quirks are tangible, if not fascinating. I cannot help but smile everytime I venture into this American urban wonder. I believe that though the buildings of the Back Bay are very European, the physical layout and design of "The Hill" are even more so. It's like being transplanted back in time, and on the 4th of July where "American patriotism" is celebrated so thickly, I was reminded how well we used to make cities.
Yet as quickly as the pleasure can come in Beacon Hill, it can dissappear in the West End - a neighborhood, or should I say "the artist formerly known as neighborhood," that sits right between Beacon Hill and Boston's first neighborhood, the North End. As I just alluded, the West End used to be a neighborhood not unlike Beacon Hill or the North End. However, it was rapidly cleared for urban renewal. Citiznes homes were condemned and razed for being "slums", and the 93 expressway was put in. This is not an uncommon chapter in the story of American urban life. What exists there today are a bunch of bloated buildings, towers, and institutions that are both ugly, and provide no clear connection from the North End to Beacon Hill to the Charles River basin. As I cycled through this part of Boston, which wasn't easy (big dig construction still lingers) I could only imagine what once was.
After quickly traveling through the West End I happily entered the North End, and the HarborWalk. The HarborWalk is a multi-use paved trail that is suppossed to one day connect the graceful Charles River Esplanade trail with the North End, the South Boston Waterfront, and extend all the way to the Neponset Greenway. However, the connections which would make this such a vital urban amenity are in serious jeopardy because the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority is reneging on the environmental mitigation commitments that it promised to make as a result of the big dig. These committments include three pedestrian bridges, which would be the key connections between the esplanade and the harborwalk. Yesterday, my organization, MassBike, co-sponsored a walking tour with WalkBoston to demonstrate the importance of these connections.
Regardless of the big dig issues, the North End and the HarborWalk are both very pleasant places to be on a bicycle, or on foot. The architecture is historic, the streets are narrow and inviting, and the HarborWalk provides pedestrian access to the waterfront which offers great sites and smells. Note of cycling caution: In some locations, like Hanover Street, it is more appropriate to walk your bicycle because the street life can be very alive, and the pedestrian traffic is thick! However, if pedestrian traffic is the sign of urban health, then the North End is fit, trim, and was built to last. Can you believe they wanted to erase the North End, much as they erased the West End?!
I escaped the North End before the smell of the Italian tasty baked goods got the best of me, and decided to stop for a bit in Christopher Columbus Park so that I could "people watch." Despite being named after a genocidal imperialist maniac, the park is a great urban space! The park was absolutely filled with people of all ages biking, sitting, sleeping, reading, playing frisbee, running in the fountains, strolling along the boardwalk, and even making out. A sure sign of a beautiful and inspirational urban place is when you see people sucking face. Cheers for that. Jan Gehl would be proud.
Well, with no one around for me to kiss I decided to move on after about 20 minutes. My next destination was the South Boston waterfront, which is the fastest developing neighborhood in Boston. Unfortunately, the way its developing does not make it conducive to being much of a neighborhood at all. As I walked my bike over the pedestrian bridge along Summer Street and into South Boston and rode onto Fan Pier, I felt like I had entered a completely different world. What was in front of me was disturbing to say the least.
Though the views along the HarborWalk are excellent, the development and redevelopment that is currently happening on the South Boston waterfront is treacherous. It's on a large scale, and its happening very quickly. Moreover, what has been built, has not been built well. Granted, I have not seen all of the plans for this new district, but as it appears now, it will be more much more like the people unfriendly West End than some of Boston's other rich, textured, diverse, and vibrant neighborhoods. This is made readily apparent as one cycles through the Seaport.
First, the amount of surface parking lots that currently exist between the few new shiny buildings is astonishing, though I am sure that the plan is to build on most of these lots, which is a good thing. Secondly, much of the architecture seems to have forgotten about the needs of the pedestrian, as they seem difficult to access and not very permeable. Third, the new Boston Convention Center is with out a doubt the largest underused boondoggle that I have ever seen built with public money. I attended a conference in this Star Trek Enterprise wannabe, and was completely overwhelmed by its scale, and senselessness. In the Long Emergency, it is the buildings like the Convention Center, which will seem most absurd. And finally, there is no real destination for people! Anyone who lives there must feel like they have been marooned on some distant island that an over zealous leader promised would be great.
Don't get me wrong, I firmly believe that time is the main ingredient for urbanism, and all new development needs time to mature. Thus, I would not completely write the off the efforts of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. However, the waterfront district's current pattern is setting itself up for failure. The new buildings are not adaptable, like those found on Newbury Street (Back Bay), Centre Street (Jamaica Plain), or Charles Street (Beacon Hill). There is no reason for any pedestrian to be moving by foot, and in fact I saw no pedestrians. And as far as I can tell, any and all of the development that is in the pipeline won't create this either. If the planners were smart, they would have extended the dense, walkable pattern of the Fort Point Channel district that is a mere stones throw away.
After leaving the HarborWalk trail, which currently abruptly ends in an overly large surface parking lot next to the phantasmagoric Jetson-esque Institute for Contemporary Art building that is under construction, I was left with nowhere to really go. A quick word about this building: It's like the Convention Center is the mother ship, and the ICA is its fighter pod sent out to ruin probe the earthlings that ostensibly will not be on the Waterfront. Anywho, I meandered around the new buildings, did a few more circles in the parking lots, almost got run over by an empty Silverline bus, and generally felt uninspired by everything that I was seeing. In retrospect, I should have biked on over to the nearby Harpoon Brewery for a drink or two, but I doubt that they were open on the 4th of July. After a few more hearty searches for intelligent life, I got the hell out of South Boston and hoped that what is to come is far better than what exists.
I finished my day by zipping through the financial district, the theatre district, and then on home via the South End. Sadly, I did not have time to cycle the South End, which another historic neighborhood that displays the planning and building skills of those who came before us. For those of you who have never biked through Boston, I highly suggest doing so, as its a great way to see the city in a different way!