Downtown View:Passive vs Active

By Karen Cord Taylor

Boston is an odd city in many ways. We do have a lion and a unicorn, but our favorite icons are a grasshopper (Faneuil Hall) a cod (State House) and ducklings and swans (Public Garden). Those creatures might seem insignificant in some cities, but we’re going with what we’ve got.

Amid sixteenth-to-nineteenth-century street patterns we have plunked City Hall Plaza, the JFK building and a Brutalist city hall.  And one of the old streets, Hanover Street’s extension, still runs under that plaza. So odd.

Who would guess that in this sports-crazed town, 4.5 times more people visited art and cultural institutions than attended Celtics, Patriots, Bruins and Red Sox games, according to a 2014 study by ArtsBoston?

If we’re so intellectual, why don’t we have bookstores? I can name only four within subway distance from my neighborhood.

But a contrasting attitude toward city life is also oddly on display here. It has to do with active versus passive—the level of noise, activity and general disorganization prized by some and detested by others.

A few years ago one of my neighbors announced that our neighborhood has too many restaurants. Another neighbor was astounded at that attitude. They never resolved their disagreement.

I won’t even mention the arguments about liquor licenses, which some people think will destroy Boston as we know it and others just want to be able to order a martini when they go out.

Helicopters are a center of conflict. Some downtown residents complain about them constantly. They fly low. They’re noisy. Helicopters landing on Mass General’s rooftop are secretly abhorred even though the abhorrer realizes they are life-saving. But how do you know it’s a legitimate rescue helicopter or one sent out by a TV station to capture some news?

Others either don’t notice the helicopters or get a thrill when they realize they are converging on the Common. Something exciting must be going on. Maybe a demonstration at the State House? We’re in the middle of action, and the action people like it that way.

The active versus passive argument gets played out in our public spaces. Recently the two contingents met aggressively over Long Wharf, where vocal critics of the BPDA (formerly BRA) said keep Long Wharf free of commercial activity since it is a nice place to contemplate the dawn. Others viewed the inactive space as unwelcoming.

In 1999 a conflict erupted over holiday lights along the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. A donor provided them, the city began installing them and the passive contingent lashed out. This is just like those ugly lights on Boston Common that city workers sometimes arrange awkwardly, they said. It’s over the top.

The conflict was stopped in its tracks when the venerated Henry Lee, a founder and then head of the Friends of the Public Garden declared, “Christmas can’t be too gaudy for me.”

The opposition knew it had been crushed, and we now have holiday lights on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall as well as the Boston Common.

When the Frog Pond was redone in the 1990s, an undercurrent of complaint arose over too much activity in the Common. The Common and City Hall Plaza are both places that some people feel are reserved for demonstrations, large public gatherings, noise and bluster. Others complain about demonstrations, large public gatherings, noise and bluster.

The Public Garden has gone in one direction. Most people, I think, would agree that it is designed for quiet strolls, horticulture appreciation, and statue gazing. The Common, not so much. And the Greenway has taken park activity to an extreme. It has a lot going on, which is not typical in Boston parks. Compare it to the Esplanade, another linear park with a lot fewer activities. The Esplanade, however, is more active than it used to be now that the Esplanade Association has become involved. But some of the activity is centered around cleanup, always welcome in gritty Boston.

One attitude is not better than the other. Quiet has its appeal as does noise. But neighborhood residents on both sides frame their arguments in moral tones. They don’t seem to realize the bias they have that causes them to take certain stances on public matters. The next time you are at a meeting about some situation in your neighborhood, notice the difference. It can be frustrating, but also entertaining to observe people displaying their bias with little self awareness of where it comes from.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.