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Digging the Dig

Mention the Big Dig to anyone from the Boston metro area, and you're sure to get a response. The decades-long project to move Boston's highway traffic (the Central Artery) underground has been much maligned and dissected in the local media. Today's post, from John Hanson Mitchell, gives an overview of Boston's problematic relationship with vehicular traffic and reminds us of why the Big Dig is a boon to the city. Mitchell is the author of numerous books, including The Paradise of All These Parts: A Natural History of Boston, and editor of the award-winning magazine Sanctuary, published by the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

In spite of skyrocketing budget overruns, delayed construction, floods, ceiling collapses, and all the other ills that big construction projects are prone to, the Big Dig is far better than what used to be there. A short walk along the Rose Kennedy Greenway on a weekend after noon in summer is a case in point -- families picnicking, flowers blooming, grass growing, and children sporting under the classical Italianate water spouts.

It's been a while since the Central Artery came down, newcomers to the city may not even remember it, but in my mind, that THING, that veritable Berlin Wall, was the symbol of all that went wrong in this city back in the dark hours of the 1940s and 1950s when auto-crazed urban planners began to construct what they called without a hint of irony, "the New Boston."

The story of the auto-induced decline of Boston probably begins with the creation of Storrow Drive in 1949. There had been a certain amount of protest from the residents of Beacon Hill when the news was announced that a highway was to be riven through the green parks of the esplanade. This was, and long had been, a favorite walking place for local residents and was the site of the band shell where the Boston Pops Orchestra performed on summer evenings. It was also the location of a popular playground for local children, and when the news of the new highway was made public, a single Beacon Hill mother, pushing her baby carriage through the streets of the Hill, managed to assemble a company of mothers. Gossip spread, and as the highway proposal moved through various stages of permits (such as they were in those days), the women, organized themselves into a group they called "Mothers Against Storrow Drive." Pushing their carriages ahead of them, they ascended into the marble halls of the State House, forced their way into the august offices of the governor himself and presented their case.

The best that was offered was a compromise.

Jhmitchell_2The city officials promised to expand the banks of the Charles into the river and recreate the park and the shell and the playground rather than bury the whole embankment in asphalt.

In her will, Helen Storrow had specifically granted the funds to complete the riverside park along the Charles on the condition that no road ever be constructed through the greenway. But shortly after her death in 1949, the city fathers saw fit to construct a public road anyway. As it was, thanks partly to the baby carriage brigade, the bill was defeated in the first round of voting. Nevertheless, the scheming, politically-savvy highway forces endured and managed to push the bill through on a late-night second try. And then, as if to add insult to injury, they named the road Storrow Drive.

The decline continued in the 1950s. City agencies and the Boston Redevelopment Authority began the usual clearances and improvements. What this meant, generally speaking, was that the neighborhoods of the poor and disenfranchised would be cleared, and the brave new world of the automobile and the corporate high-rise would move in. Frederick Law Olmsted's accessible and much used oasis, Wood Island Park in East Boston, was cleared in order to expand the local airport, which had already overrun the historic Governor's Island, Bird Island, Apple Island and all the flats between. In order to create the New Boston, it was also necessary to destroy an active neighborhood of the city known as the West End, a warren of narrow streets lined with butcher shops, bakeries, taverns, and crowded tenements housing a mixing bowl of Poles, Greeks, Italians, and Eastern European Jews, with a peppering of practically any other immigrant community that was attempting to establish itself in the city. The poor were moved elsewhere, and a great Soviet-era block known as the Charles River Park arose. Ironically, given the heartless, faceless, cold and sterile look of the structures that replaced the interesting, though squalid, historical buildings, the new high rises won architectural awards. Not only that, the plan -- which was intended to lure the middle class back into the city-- worked, and Boston began to regain population.

Following this the great Behemoth of new construction rolled over that nasty hive of depravity and perverse pleasures known as Scollay Square, which for more than a century had provided entertainment for visiting sailor boys and Harvard boys, and in a few cases, the occasional Brahmin male as well. The beast bulldozer cleared the area and in its place created the wind blasted urban desert known as Government Center.

Then the machine rolled onward and took out a row upon row of splendid old nineteenth century buildings in the South End, evicting in the process, a working community of African Americans. Then it rammed southward and cut directly through the city in the form of the now extinct, Central Artery.

This ingenious work of urban planning effectively cut off the historic North End, cut off the city from the waterfront, and sliced in half the tightly knit Chinese American neighborhood. Not only that, it turned out to be a failure. Layered with centipede-like on and off ramps that spidered down into the city from the elevated highway, it only made downtown traffic heavier. And it got worse decade by decade as the automobile replaced public transportation and traffic expanded to three times the highway's carrying capacity. By the 1970s, the cityscape below the overpass was a living version of a Piranesi prison scene, a dark iron cage, devoid of even a hint of sun, foul in all seasons, but worst in winter, dripping polluted ice and meltwater down upon the few scurrying tourists who attempted to make their way from Quincy market to the North End.

It was only in the late 1970s, thanks to the rise in environmental consciousness, that the age of new highway construction slowly began to diminish. But it did not go out without a fight. The steamroller of highway building, aided by generous federal subsidies, was still moving in these decades.

Following a master plan devised in the late `40s and early `50s at the very height of the auto fever, city planners called for construction of a ruinous "Inner Belt" highway system that would extend Interstate 95 from Route 128 southwest of the city and blast through the thriving little working class neighborhoods of Hyde Park and Jamaica Plain, and then wedge directly through the South End, cut through the Fenway, cross over the Charles, and then ram through Cambridge.

In the South End section, the plans called for an immense five storey interchange that would connect with a new highway to be called the Southwest Expressway. It was an ingenious design, perfectly tuned to invite resistance, proposing as it did, the destruction of small neighborhoods, the eviction of poor people, the ruin of yet another graceful Olmsted Park, the visual destruction of the Charles River viewscape, the wreckage of Cambridge, and the visual pollution of an immense swirling highway clover leaf, winding down into what was once a living city of human beings, now to be granted over to machines. It was classic 1950s thinking. But the timing was wrong.

There arose then the old revolutionary spirit of Boston, and strange unification of blacks, Brahmins, and Irish, plus an eclectic company of community activists joined together to fight against the tyrant and in the end, the newly-elected governor, Frank Sargent responded and ultimately cancelled the project, even though it meant a substantial loss of federal funds.

There should be a lesson in all this. Other cities around the world have been slowly evicting the automobile from their centers. Seattle, Portland, Oregon, Copenhagen, and even beehive London are moving towards the new model of the so-called pedestrian city. Here in Boston, the old Shawmut peninsula, upon which the original city was built, would be a good place to begin. The streets here are narrow; you can walk from one side to the other in twenty minutes or so, or take the T, and all that would be necessary would be to work out a few parking arrangements and a system of monitoring to keep cars out, something London has managed to do by imposing a fee for any vehicle entering the center city.

It would be hard to argue that banishing cars would be bad for the city. All one has to do is take a walk on the Rose Kennedy Greenway on a summer afternoon to make that point. And it is perhaps hopeful -- metaphorically at least -- that during the Big Dig phase of highway building, Boston chose to bury the odious automobile underground in tunnels rather than proudly elevate it on high, as was the case in the past .

Further reading: other Beacon Broadside posts on Boston history include Stephen Puleo on the Boston Italians and Helen Deese on Caroline Healey Dall . For a truly fascinating collection of photos of the West End, Scollay Square, and other areas affected by the Central Artery, take a look at this discussion on Cyburbia.