Boston: Bridges & Boundaries

One day in and i’ve found no graffiti. Some stickers on lampposts, sure, but nothing else. Which is unusual. This puts it on a level with Singapore or Dubai, both largely motif free zones. Maybe i’m walking in the wrong places, or maybe it’s something about the demographic. Whatever the cause, it’s surprising in a city this size. Especially a city evolving so fast.

Boston views

I wake early to heavy rain: the pounding on my window gives implicit permission to tap out the alarm and go back to sleep for an hour. By the time i emerge, it’s still only seven AM, but to my jet lagged brain it’s a lie in and the day starts with coffee, served by a women too ebulliently excited about the weather for this time of day. I like excitement, but, for preference, after nine.

I walk South, my sandals splashing through the puddles, but i don’t mind: to my English sensitivities, the warmth forgives a thousand sins. I’m used to rain being wet, cold and blown in my face. I pass the piers, familiar from yesterday’s exploration: Burroughs Wharf, Union Wharf, Lewis Wharf, bygone remnants of trade and war. History is never far away in Boston, both old and new.

I’m heading for the Boston Tea Party ships, a museum commemorating the time when the locals cast bales of tea into the river in protest at yet another English tax: it wasn’t the amount that they protested about, but rather the notions of control. The exertion of power.

On the way, i pass the aquarium: a utilitarian concrete box that i realise, with little excitement, is probably owned by the same people who own aquariums in London, Paris and Shanghai. The aquarium experience is ubiquitous these days. I guess the curiosity is universal: what lies beneath. Me, i find the boundary between river and piers troubling, especially when the water sucks and gurgles beneath me, weaving fingers through gaps in the granite and wooden stakes. It’s not a comfortable sound, reminiscent of the eternal erosion and darkness beneath. Today i don’t feel the desire to explore it and walk on by.

As i continue round the peninsula, i pass a bridge, abandoned. It’s a significant structure, marked on my map as ‘Northern Avenue’, a name that belies the steel structure before me: a latticework of girders and massive wooden beams, heavily rusted and splintered. Abandoned.

This is my first taste of derelict Boston: the old in limbo before it’s swept away by the new. I note that even on Google maps it’s in transition: Seaport Boulevard, the bridge i eventually cross is lit up and bright, whilst Northern Avenue bridge is greyed out, fading slowly from memory.

It’s open, a swing bridge of traditional design, so boats can pass through. It’s massive, yet ignored. There’s something desperately futile about a bridge without purpose: engineering without intent. It reminds me that yesterday i found myself walking down the Greenway: an elongated park created through the centre of the city when they demolished and buried a raised highway, leaving a series of disjointed parks in a broad sweep through the city, tranquil as the lorries roar through tunnels underneath. I like it. Later i’ll have cause to glimpse what used to be, when i venture to the North West of the spit and find myself trapped by highways, dereliction and building sites, seconded in true US fashion to a mere pedestrian in a city made for cars. But more of that later.

Boston views

I leave the decrepit bridge to it’s twilight slumbers and pass the Intercontinental Hotel. A panel nearby tells me about the building it replaced and how it’s glass towers mimic the tall ships that used to be… but it’s just blah blah blah. Another senseless tower, reflective and soulless. No sails here: no glory of bygone days, just commerce and business. Why pretend it’s anything else?

As the Boston Tea Party museum hoves into view, i become lukewarm: two sailing ships and a central museum building, housed halfway across yet another bridge. Floating in every way. But as i near, i hear the sounds of reenactment and mirth. I sense a show in progress and, as actors in fancy dress loom forth i retreat. To the cafe. I’m not in the mood to play revolutionary, preferring instead to watch from a distance with a scone and cup of tea. Boston tea. Historical tea. Apparently. The whole thing is Disney without the charm, although with free WiFi it holds my attention for an hour as i brush away real life and plan my adventure.

I cross to an area that may be called Fort Point, or then again, may not be: i’m relying on Google here. In any event, i’m off the main peninsula and into new geography and new architecture. Three historic warehouses provide space for trendy coffee shops, but everything else has been uprooted. It’s all new building here: apartments going up by the minute. There’s a real energy and it feels good: different, but buzzing.

Boston Institute of Contemporary Arts

I find my way over to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, an appealing building rising up from the waterside, welcoming and surprisingly airy. I have an uneasy relationship with modern art: determined to enjoy it, but occasionally scathing. The elastic of my tolerance is fragile at best, but today’s exhibitions hold me well: an extensive display of ceramics and some performance art. I’m only lost when i hit the highly experimental section, including an alter to contemporary consumerism, in the dark, on gravel? I think? Honestly, i’m just dreading that one of the many youthful ‘guards/docents‘ will ask me what i think, forcing me to either lie or engage. What i really think is ‘rubbish‘, but that would mark me unworthy.

Boston Institute of Contemporary Arts

In the next room i’m invited to don headphones and listen to music, whilst i’m also invited to leaf through some vinyl, but instructed not to pull the records out. I listen. I flick sleeves. I pause what i gauge to be a decent amount of time (longer than the old people, less time than the two dudes who stand there nodding along to the music) and make my escape. It was ok. Whatever it was.

For fear of being branded heathen, i enjoyed it. On the whole. Certainly there was a great gift shop, mainstay of any gallery experience. I bought a keyring, thus validating both my own worth and the museum itself. Immortalised on my garage key.

I realise that progress has been slow, so i pick up the pace before almost immediately being sidetracked by a salad bar: in true hipster style, it’s selling salad at a crippling markup but, again, with WiFi it sucks me in. I recognise the lurching nature of my day reflects the landscape: Boston is divided. You move unusually fast between sectors here: historic to business, building site to park. Old to new.

I pass through a succession of spaces: Chinatown, the Financial District. The Public Gardens and the Common. I enjoy the flickering view as it passes by, but nothing hold my attention for a good hour. As i walk through the park, a busker plays guitar. A young girl stops to throw a dollar and the old man calls out to her ‘what’s your name little girl?‘. ‘Tiffany‘, she says. ‘You’ve got a good heart Tiffany‘, he replies, before continuing. Validation for a dollar. She skips off, slightly bemused, but smiling. Transactions of dollars and heart.

As i cross the road to the Charles River, the footbridge catches my attention. It’s a strange curving affair, no steps, but rather a walkway that loops round twice, before achieving escape velocity and crossing the highway, landing through another couple of tight loops on the other side. It’s painted peach, but cracked and peeling concrete. In need of significant love. It feels very 1950. A strangely neglected remnant. It’s at this point i realise that Boston is about bridges: it seems to have many, anchoring it to it’s past, to the other peninsulas, to it’s aspiration.

Boston Park

Boston Strong‘ is a theme: resilience after, i assume, the bombing of the marathon. It suits it: a plucky city that wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve.

I pass under the Longfellow Bridge, for the second time today daunted by dark voids and riverside noises. I dislike the dank and enclosed space as i pass under it, speeding my walk until i hit the sunshine to the north.

From here, i become purposeful: in search of an Apple store as my cable died last night. So off i go, past the Science Museum and across yet another bridge until i arrive in that most American of inventions, the Mall. Unlike the UK knockoff malls, which tend towards sophisticated and computerised maps to let you find what you want, American malls seem to rely on Brownian motion to eventually ricochet you into any given store. Fortunately my circuit is mercifully short, allowing me to browse the aluminium glory, grab a cable and exit fast.

Back into the city proper and i become disjointed: not lost, i know where i am, but am unable to progress. In this part of town, cars take precedence and highways wend above my head and beneath my feed. At one point i hit a dead end, trapped between railway line, deserted hospital and the river, innocent enough in the sunshine, but i feel caged.

On my retreat, i find skateboarders at last, filming themselves by the river: one with video camera (old school, the size of a briefcase), effortlessly crouched at speed whilst his chum jumps steps and walls. There’s a whole crew of them, half a dozen cameras and i sense YouTube will be buzzing tonight. If only he didn’t keep falling off.

Suddenly i escape, past yet another hospital, huge building sites and around the edge of the Ice Hockey stadium, back to civilisation. Or what passes for it in the city. I celebrate with a coffee from the promisingly entitled equality coffeeshop, a fair trade venture with cake.

Boston Building

Dude! The Californian behind the counter loves my Austin City Limits T Shirt and won’t let me order until i’ve noted down a range of music recommendations, all of which veer dangerously towards Country. That noted, it’s another stint of WiFi and the real world before the final haul home.

I hit Yoga time: there are several points in a Boston day when lycra abounds: 7:30AM runners and 5PM yoga mats. That is this time. I’m surrounded. Maybe it’s obligatory here?

As i ponder, i round the headland and find myself back to Battery Wharf, suddenly home. The sense of location is startling, as i thought i had a way to go still. But that’s the thing with Boston, for all it’s noise and rattle, it’s small. Big hearted, but small.

Boston sunset

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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8 Responses to Boston: Bridges & Boundaries

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