The Boston Phoenix
July 17 - 24, 1997

[The Future of Boston]

Boston's next revolution

The city now has the opportunity to remake itself utterly. Ten present and former Bostonians -- among them urban planners, artists, academics, and a minister -- talk frankly about their vision of what the city can be in the 21st century.

by Dan Kennedy

It was a moment that would shape Boston's destiny for the next half-century. In the early 1950s, city and state officials finally agreed -- after two decades of talk -- to build the Central Artery, a massive, elevated expressway that would bring the city into the age of the automobile.

The revolution that project symbolized came to be known as the "New Boston." Along with the Artery (opened in 1959), landmark developments such as the Prudential Center and City Hall Plaza gave Boston a new face and fueled the economic dynamism of the 1970s and '80s.

But the New Boston was a triumph with an enormous downside, a tale of good intentions gone awry. The Artery sliced Boston in two, cutting off the North End and the harbor from the rest of the city. City Hall Plaza is a cold, uninviting expanse, a public space that repels the public. And the West End, a vibrant neighborhood, was bulldozed to make way for soulless Charles River Park. The planners' grand schemes to remake Boston left little room for the human dimension.

Now the city stands on the brink of a new revolution. This one, though, holds the promise of being true to the city's roots -- to its neighborhoods, to its small, livable, walkable scale. Rather than slicing through the city's heart with more highways, the Artery will be buried. Thus, 27 acres of open land will appear in the heart of Boston, an unprecedented opportunity for a major city.

And though the rebuilt Central Artery is clearly the most dramatic change coming in Boston's physical development, it's hardly the only one. A convention center is planned for South Boston. The Red Sox want a new stadium. South Bay, in Roxbury, is slated for job-producing commercial and industrial development. Mayor Tom Menino says he wants to turn City Hall Plaza into what it should be: the town common, where people gather and feel welcome.

Mayor Tom Menino
James Howard Kunstler
Thomas O'Connor
Robert Pinsky
Rosabeth Moss Kanter
The Reverend Eugene Rivers
Bruce Marks
Gail Snowden
Mary Bonauto
William Bratton
Larry Moulter
Taken together, these and other developments amount to a change as dramatic as the urban-renewal era of the 1950s and '60s. Not since Frederick Law Olmsted conceived of the Emerald Necklace, in the 19th century, has the city had such an opportunity.

But with this opportunity comes risk. The old Artery is supposed be left as mostly park land, reconnecting and reorienting Boston toward the sea. Will that promise be kept -- and what will the rest of it look like? The South Boston waterfront is the city's most important site for future development. How can the city build a huge convention center that actually enhances that area? Where should a new baseball stadium be built, and what should it look like?

If you are not involved in answering these types of questions, you might not like the answers. The first stage of the mayor's plan to rehumanize City Hall Plaza, for example, is to build a large hotel.

In the end, these plans concern more than the city's physical future. Done right, remaking the city's face can improve its character, reflecting and enhancing changes that are already lifting Boston out of its tribal, inward-looking past. For instance, the black community, historically isolated from the rest of the city, will be physically joined with it in several years when the MBTA's planned Silver Line connects Dudley Square to Downtown Crossing. And Menino, in a recent speech at Harvard Business School, proposed an Inner City Trail -- a "linear green park," reserved for pedestrians and bicyclists, that would extend from Roxbury to Boston Harbor.

Though Boston faces enormous challenges, it has made substantial progress on problems that had long been though intractable. Racial tensions have eased. The school system, thought still appalling, has improved. Violent crime has dropped dramatically. Immigration and the increased visibility of lesbians and gay men have given the city a more open, diverse feel. Such achievements give the city time to pause, to catch its breath, and to plan ahead.

On the following pages, 10 Bostonians, past and present -- among them urban planners, artists, academics, businesspeople, a human-rights activist, and a minister -- share their visions of Boston's future, and how to get there. The ideas range from the grand, such as restoring Storrow Drive to a pedestrian-friendly boulevard, to the down-to-earth, such as getting the city's colleges and universities -- the engine of Boston's youth and energy -- involved with the public schools.

The American Revolution began in Boston more than 200 years ago. But the revolutionary thinking that first shaped the city originated in a much earlier time: in 1630, when John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, proclaimed Boston's mission to be an example to others, a "city upon a hill."

Fewer than three years before the millennium, and just three decades before the city's 400th anniversary, Boston can once again rebuild itself as an example to others -- to escape the worst of its past while preserving its best; to build a Boston that is a living, breathing organism.

All it will take is a revolution.

[Feedback] What do you think would make Boston a better city?

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