Two months ago I went up to Boston to help my son get settled in the Coast Guard. One day we found ourselves driving in the Winter Hill section of Somerville just north of Boston. The area is a magnet for young sophisticates, college students, the newly married, and by people overloaded with duende and cool...in other words people not like me. The narrow streets off Davis Square that we were driving were closely shouldered by a mix of older, single, and multifamily homes. The homes were mostly an off- shoot of the "Irish Battleship" structures...three deckers, three stacked shotgun houses similar to those in the Garden district of New Orleans, except with porches. They were old and honest and for the most part met the sidewalk without the benefit of grass.
At one intersection I looked to my right and just past the chain link fence saw a statute of Mary holding Jesus. The statute was at one end of the small plot, looking outward. It appeared that Mary had suffered quite a few New England winters so that her alabaster halo and soft, blue coating had faded. The size and placement of Mary showed no theological narcissism by the homeowner, no tub thumping evangelism. I like to believe that someone put the statute there so that during our busy day, we could, if we wanted, take a minute of worship and reflection. I delighted at this and hoped that delight pleased God. Surprises like that are what I miss about Boston.
I now live in the Bible belt in North Carolina, so worship is no stranger to the area, but many Southerners (and Northern transplants) also worship procedure and propriety and in the PUD (planned unit development) administrated by the HOA (Homeowners' Association), where I live, Mary would be subjected to a "mother may I" neighborhood meeting which would define the outer boundaries of patience and be subject to all the regulations of any lawn ornament. It's too bad - that tendency makes us smaller. As Mark Twain said, it's "good in the worst sense of the word", and we don't always realize it.
Two weeks ago Donna and I went back up to Boston to visit. I had never paid much attention to the depressing of the Central artery. Officially called the "Central Artery/Tunnel Project", the Big Dig encompassed transforming an elevated highway into a tunnel, freeing the ground space; a southern approach tunnel to the airport, and a northern collection of s-turns, off-ramps, and a warren of signage enough to confuse a NASA satellite. I won't go into the project itself; budgeted at 2 billion dollars, came in at 23 billion dollars - says it all. Supposed to be completed in 1998, completed in 2006 - says it all.
Boston is an elegant city with a sense of history and deserved better. Prior to the Big Dig, the Artery looked like the result of Boston challenging Portland to a knife fight, losing, then being left with a jagged edged, swollen scar that ran across its entire face. The project would bury that loss, improve traffic gridlock, and join the Italian North End with the city's downtown and the financial district.
But at what cost?
In the past when driving the Artery in gridlock, the traffic moved with all the speed of lava flowing uphill, I would look out beyond the guardrails of the elevated road and see the magnificence of the Rowe's Wharf building and the large corner clock, slouching atop the South Station train station. The clock was broken from the mid-sixties to the late seventies (Was time too expensive during those 15 or so years? Or too insignificant?) I would gaze at the Boston Federal Reserve building that was tagged "the Venetian Blind" and it addressed the street at such an odd angle that you would think its front side had changed street location every night. It was also nice to look at the lonely rooftop apartment in the financial district, one side glass walled with palm fronds. I fantasized the renter was a Left Bank artisan from Paris who moved to Boston for better light. These were pleasant and distracting thoughts as the on-ramp car next to me was forced to cant so close that the car's driver side mirror was trying to sexually force its attentions on my passenger mirror. No fun that.
Two weeks ago when Donna, Adam, and I used the tunnel to go through the city, the traffic flowed very smoothly (I'm no fool, I didn't test it in commuter hours), but I wonder if I was wrong in my previous post about the Joni Mitchell song. Perhaps something is lost when something is gained. Years from now, the gridlock will reemerge and if we ask a tunnel tile what color it is, it will plead the 5th Amendment. And there will be no sense of the City, no broken clocks, no rooftop apartments, no statutes of Mary.... just....
...miles of tiles..