Downtown View:Embracing the Greenway

It has been six years since the Rose Kennedy Greenway’s first spring. It has been even longer since the Greenway was established, since the non-profits that hoped to cover the ramps abandoned their plans, and since frustrated horticultural volunteers fled the park leaders as too annoying to deal with.

Things are looking up though.

With a change in Greenway leadership, hostilities are way down. The unfortunate planting beds at the north end of the park are being replaced. The activities in the park are not only interesting; some are memorable. Such activities are a rarity in Boston’s parks, which for better or worse are often lauded for their passivity. On the Greenway, however, a lot is going on. The park itself looks good. And the edges, which are more important to a successful space than most people think, are considerably better, if not ideal in every location.

Four of us took a walk down the Greenway from Causeway Street to South Station in the kind of sunny, cool weather we dream about all winter.

Our strongest impression was that this park is heavily used, and maybe even loved. People were everywhere. Children and adults were tracking the maze in the Armenian Heritage Park. A long line waited to get onto the fanciful creatures spinning on the carousel. The water fountain near the light sculpture looked as if it had not yet been turned on, but children were skirting it, expecting it to start spraying momentarily.

Food trucks dotted the edges of the Greenway. Cookie Monstah had positioned two, one near each end. The Harbor Fog sculpture was fizzing. All the hammocks and tables and chairs were filled, and many people lay on the grass soaking up the sun.

When we rounded a corner, the Janet Echelman fiber sculpture came into view, billowing from its cables attached to International Place and the Intercontinental Hotel. When this sculpture was announced, I was concerned. Similar Echelman works are in other cities. Would the Greenway sculpture be like those blasted cows—shown everywhere, with no sense of place, and ultimately boring?

We decided I had needlessly worried. Something this big and beautiful is engaging, fun, and more interesting than plaster cows, even if it has been done elsewhere.

Underneath the sculpture stood an intricate box filled with reading material, and many people were gathered round. This UNI Project, an outdoor library, is in its second year on the Greenway. Full disclosure: it is our daughter and her husband who conceived of the UNI and had the structure made, but since it is part of the draw of the Greenway, I didn’t think it was fair NOT to mention it.

In Dewey Square the farmer’s market was not operating, since it is open only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But the plaza was filled with people anyway. We turned to look at the artwork on the side of the air intake building. It is fine, but I was nostalgic for the controversy and the attention the provocative Os Gemeos mural had attracted.

The edges of the long park are better than the last time I walked the Greenway with a group to consider its condition. On each side, the trees and shrubs, especially when they are planted on berms, provide a sense of enclosure and refuge from the traffic that still mars the place. Even better are the edges on the other side of the Surface Road. (Can we find a better name for this boulevard? Fitzgerald Avenue?)

It has taken several years for buildings whose blank walls faced the overhead Central Artery to open up. But they are doing so. I started to count them, but gave up because several more may open in the next few weeks.

Some building owners have cut windows into their walls facing the Greenway. Others have opened up the ground floor, and now many outdoor restaurants overlook the park. A few parking lots and dead spaces remain. The worst is the Harbor Garage, whose owner, the persistent Don Chiofaro, has proposed a dynamic, beautiful pathway to the sea between two buildings.

Some still oppose his plan, but his idea to create a path between his buildings from the Greenway to the harbor is exactly what the Greenway needs. Such an opening also occurs dramatically at the Boston Harbor Hotel.  But when one is next to the impervious Intercontinental Hotel and the black fence outside Harbor Towers, there sadly is no sense that an ocean lies on the other side. The shortish, blockish, blackish Intercontinental is evidence that it is not height that matters here—it is permeability.

More pathways need to be open to the sea and to the downtown. Faneuil Hall Marketplace, for example, has not yet taken advantage of its new neighbor.

            All in all, however, the area has much promise. If you’ve lived here long enough you may remember all the negativity and predictions of doom about the Big Dig. Yes, it was expensive and way over budget. It was also the best money we have spent in the last 50 years. Just think of what it would be like in this now beautiful city to have that overhead green traffic monster still in our midst.

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