Behaving Like Bostonians

You’ve probably read about the Esplanade Association’s vision for the Esplanade for the next century. The goals are sound, and the plans are ambitious. As with any civic project, the financial requirements are significant. Responses have often been laudatory, especially when they concern reducing the impact of Storrow Drive.

But another reaction has been what you might expect from Boston’s typical band of curmudgeons—contempt for flamboyance like the Ferris wheel, skepticism that any project can be pulled off, complaints about how much a plan costs and that the money can never be raised, assertions that things are fine the way they are, accusations that neighbors weren’t consulted, and a deep suspicion that if a project promotes fun something must be wrong.

Some people expressed such views when the Esplanade Association presented the vision to more than 325 people at the BPL a few weeks ago, but the audience was generally more enthusiastic than later reports. Just read a Boston Herald report of Esplanade 2020 and the comments that follow it if you don’t believe me.

I haven’t lived in another city for many years, so I can’t say for certain this is only Boston Behavior. Chicagoans or Angelinos might complain like this too, although somehow I don’t believe they would.

Another Boston Behavior is the hedging of bets: The Esplanade Association has assured everyone this is just a vision, not a plan, heaven forbid.

The negative reactions call to mind other interesting proposals. You may remember what happened in December of 1999. A group of Back Bay residents and businesses raised money to install underground electricity that would enable the parks department to wrap lights around the trees along the Commonwealth Avenue Mall to brighten the dead of winter. Oh, the complaints! The hue and cry! Two hundred fifty signatures were slapped onto petitions.

The lights went up anyway.

People love them.

You also might remember the initial proposal for burying the Central Artery. “It can’t be done.” “It’s too expensive.” “It’s not needed.” Well, it was done. It was expensive. And our city was transformed from dreadful into something wondrous.

Right now in another park negativity is at work when some Bostonians complain that the Greenway’s dream to install a unique, contemporary carousel in place of the older, rented version that operates there now is wasteful, too far-reaching and unnecessary. I imagine when the new carousel is finally built and installed it will be a real crowd-pleaser.

Sometimes the pessimism is too great to be borne. Remember when banker John Hamill led an effort in the early 1990s to bring the 2004 Olympics to Boston? Two reasons the effort failed was contempt for what the rest of the world thinks is fun and the conviction that the money could never be raised.

Despite facing characteristically Boston Behaviors, the Esplanade Association is plowing ahead. Good for them. Executive Director Sylvia Salas said that after creating project standards, the group will select a couple of projects on which to move forward. She thought the café and the Lee Pool were two that might make the cut.

The Esplanade Association is likely to be successful in transforming the Esplanade according to their vision because two other Boston Behaviors were on exhibit. One was the good number of people who were participants in or supporters of the vision who have stuck it out in Boston through thick and thin. This city does that to people despite its problems. Tony Pangaro once worked at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, but many years later as a real estate developer is now on track to fill Filene’s hole in the ground. Ted Landsmark once was attacked on City Hall Plaza by a bigot brandishing an American flag, but he is now one of Boston’s revered elder statesmen. Craig Halvorson, whose 30-year-old landscape architecture firm is responsible for designing such gems as Post Office Square Park in the financial district and City Square Park in Charlestown, is still at it and advising on Esplanade plans.

Another reason for hope that the Esplanade Association can pull off this vision was the happy atmosphere in the room when the association presented its vision. Like the Greenway, the Esplanade Association’s staff receive salaries. Like the Greenway, running the Esplanade is a public-private partnership, although the mechanism for the partnership is different.

While meetings of the Greenway have often been cantankerous, accusatory and generally unpleasant, the Esplanade Association and its government partner, DCR, seemed to have the trust and support of the BPL audience, even when the audience was criticizing the vision. Maybe the Greenway folks should study the Esplanade Association to learn how to replicate its success.

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