The North End is Boston’s oldest and arguably most interesting neighborhood. It was settled in the 1630’s and has been a residential neighborhood continuously since then.
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Paul Revere’s house is still standing, as is The Old North Church.
Paul Revere slept here. Every night.
One if by land, two if by sea…
In more recent times, it was where the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 happened. And the Brinks robbery. It was the home of Honey Fitz, JFK’s grandfather, and Charles Ponzi, inventor of the you-know-what scheme. At various times it was the neighborhood of Boston’s African-American, Irish, Jewish, and, most recently, Italian populations.
This is where the Brinks robbery happened
Some say you can still smell the molasses in summer
For fifty years, the North End was physically separated from the rest of Boston by the monstrosity known as the Central Artery, an elevated highway that sliced through downtown Boston, blocking out the sun and creating a daunting obstacle for any pedestrian who was bold enough to try to reach the North End on foot. In the picture below, you can see a couple of foolhardy tourists risking their lives walking from downtown on the left to the North End on the right.
In 1991, the Big Dig started, a huge infrastructure project that completely changed Boston. It added a new tunnel under the harbor to carry I-90 traffic to the airport and beyond, a new bridge to carry I-93 traffic across Charlestown, and lots of other stuff. The centerpiece of the project was the removal, finally, of the Central Artery, and the building of a network of tunnels under Boston to carry all the displaced traffic.
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All of this meant 15 years of chaos and disruption for downtown Boston and even more isolation of the North End. It’s been a decade since it’s been completed, and, by and large the traffic objectives were met. The 24-hour traffic jam that had existed in Boston was greatly mitigated and the monstrosity that had divided the city was removed. It was once again possible to walk to the North End.
The Central Artery, before and after the Big Dig
All throughout the project, one of the most interesting questions was what would be done with the open space created by the removal of the Central Artery. As usual, everyone in Boston had an idea, but most agreed it should be green space in some form. In 2008, The Rose Kennedy Greenway was finally opened. The slogan on their website is “Boston’s Ribbon of Contemporary Parks”
OK. Finally to the point of today’s post. The Rose Kennedy Greenway is not all that green and not in any sense a “way”. It is, rather, a more-or-less contiguous chain of 23 parcels of land, each developed separately with no real over-arching theme or cohesion. You’ve got the Armenian Park, the Chinatown Park, the Dewey Square Park, and so on. And while it does reduce the danger of reaching the North End on foot, it does little to “invite” you to do so.
It is a failure and a perpetual finalist for the Stewie Award.
The biggest problem with the Greenway is that it replaced the car-centric planning of the Central Artery with a car-centric open space. To be fair, it at least does have a few blades of grass growing on it. And it looks good from a helicopter.
The Greenway is bounded by a three lane road on each side of it, and the 23 parcels are divided by active cross streets, each with a set of traffic lights that has Greenway users begging for a few seconds to pass from one rather bland and joyless parcel to the next. The car is still king, and therein lies the problem.
As the above photo clearly demonstrates, the more accurate name for the Rose Kennedy Greenway is certainly the Rose Kennedy Median Strip. Or perhaps the Rose Kennedy Lost Opportunity.
Three of the twenty-three parcels are shown in this particular picture, and the one in the top left reminds us of the car-centricity of the Median Strip. It is a ventilation tower for the tunnels below, and gives off the expected “keep out” vibe when passing close by. There are also several other of the parcels that are nothing but on- or off-ramps to the tunnels.
Ramps: click to enlarge
This next before-and-after composite gives you an idea of what the Greenway really achieved for pedestrians and “park” users. Not all that much.
It’s better, of course, but think of what it might have been! Other big cities have dealt with similar challenges and have come up with ideas that really do invite the pedestrian in and keep the automobile out. New York’s High Line comes to mind.
In Paris, you have the Promenade Plantée, the “first elevated park in the world”.
But we’re talking about Boston here, not Paris or New York. In Cambridge, right across the Charles, we know how to make life better for pedestrians. All you have to do is set aside a few hours every week, say Sunday afternoons, and prohibit cars from the place you want to enjoy. Check it out:
It would be so easy to improve the Rose Kennedy Median Strip, too. Just close off a few of those pointless cross-streets to traffic on Sundays. That would be a start. The traffic on Atlantic Ave. is practically nothing then, and everyone could still get where they want to go just by driving an extra block or two to make their turns.
All those businesses in the North End would be happy about it. They waited half a century to be re-connected with the city they started, and we didn’t really deliver on the promises made. But, again, we’re talking about Boston. Not gonna happen.