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Boston’s artery of commerce now sacred ground

New York City has Fifth Avenue. Paris has the Avenue des Champs-Elysees.

Boston — the newer, modern Boston, anyway — has Boylston Street, a vibrant nexus of commerce and culture threading its way through the heart of the Back Bay. And then the Marathon bombings cut this hub of the Hub in half.

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“It was eerie to look at our busiest street and see it swept clean, a ghost town,” said Boston historian Jim Vrabel on Friday, after visiting the area the day before. “To be closed down like that, really, the only parallel would be what happened in New York after 9/11.”

The 1.2 miles of Boylston from the corner of Massachusetts Avenue to the corner of Tremont Street is a stew of urban grit and upscale luxe, where one can buy a lottery ticket or a latte, catch a softball game on Boston Common or a musical at the Colonial Theater, take a course at Emerson College or the Berklee College of Music, or stroll all the way from Chinatown to the Fenway.

It’s where the old (the Boston Public Library’s palatial McKim Building, opened in 1895) and new (the sleek, glass-fronted Apple store, opened in 2008) sit cheek by jowl, inspiring millions of visitors annually to marvel at the city’s past, present, and future. High-end retailers like Gucci and Hermes maintain outposts here. So do City Sports and Marshalls.

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Since Monday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line, though, it’s no longer business as usual along Boylston. A six-block stretch was shut down, and officials have not yet said when the area will be reopened to the public.

For now, traffic lights blink on and off, yet no vehicles go by that don’t have lights and sirens on their rooftops. Empty, windblown trash barrels roll past shuttered storefronts. From Berkeley to Hereford Streets, sidewalks, shops, offices, and restaurants stand vacant.

‘It was eerie to look at our busiest street and see it swept clean, a ghost town.’

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It is a scene — a crime scene, technically — unlike any that Bostonians have witnessed in their lifetimes. Friday morning’s citywide shutdown amid a massive manhunt for one of the alleged bombers only served to heighten the sense of unreality many are feeling, that the barren boulevard and its surroundings have been cut off from the rest of the planet.

Vrabel notes that Boylston Street has not always been the Hub’s central artery. Only since the Green Line extension to Kenmore Square (and beyond) and construction of what he calls “the high spine of the city” — the John Hancock Tower and Prudential Center — in the past few decades has Boylston assumed its current centrality.

Late Thursday afternoon, the Rev. Patrick Ward of Trinity Church in Copley Square stood at the corner of Boylston and Berkeley streets, near a makeshift memorial to the Marathon bombing victims. Ward had just led a church group in singing “Amazing Grace” and “America the Beautiful.”

Trinity Church itself remained inaccessible, he said. But that did not stop nearly 200 of his parishioners from turning out to sing and pray, mere blocks from where sidewalks are still stained by the victims’ blood, bearing evidence of a wound that may never fully heal — certainly not anytime soon.

“We scrapped other plans and wondered what we could do in the street,” Ward explained. “This seems to be holy ground now. I’ll never think of it the same way again.”

Nearby, the Conca family from Grafton — Jake, Elizabeth, and the couple’s three daughters, Emma, 8, Chloe, 6, and Finley, 4 — cautiously approached the memorial, bearing flowers.

A year ago, Elizabeth Conca left her job at Bain & Co. Her office was located near the corner of Boylston and Dartmouth streets, where the explosions occurred. Each April, she watched the finish to the Marathon.

She had brought the family to the Back Bay this week, she said, because it was important to absorb what had happened here. For all, even the youngest, to process it as best they could.

“We wanted the girls to understand [the losses suffered] and pay their respects,” she said, as the crowd around the memorial continued to build.

To wander along still-open parts of Boylston Street this past week was a reminder of the city’s vibrancy — and variety — notwithstanding the sorrow and numbness that remains so widely felt.

Daffodils bloomed along the Boston Common side of the street. Sidewalk conversations in Spanish, Japanese, and Mandarin could be overheard.

Rollerbladers and baby strollers were on the move. Ice cream and falafel trucks were parked alongside TV news satellite trucks lining the street and its borders. When a Duck Boat cruised by, it instantly summoned memories of victory parades, when Boston teams ruled the sports world.

Meanwhile, smaller memorials bloomed at nearly every cross street feeding into Boylston’s closed-off portions. “Please Have IDs Ready,” read a sign at Exeter Street. The tents in Copley Square looked like scenes from a Civil War battlefield.

Friday morning at the Boylston Street offices of the Massachusetts Historical Society, librarian Peter Drummey looked outside at the intersection with Mass Ave. In his 35 years here, Drummey said, he’s seen many changes come to this part of Boston, a part of the city that keeps reinventing itself.

Boylston Street is “recapitulating the history of Boston itself,” Drummey observed, by preserving the old while accommodating the new.

Will it be permanently scarred by what happened there this week?

“When we think about places, it’s not always about happy stories,” Drummey said, citing the 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire as one example. “But they’re all part of our story.”

For those who catalogue and study Boston’s history, he added, “We may be more reluctant than others to say things will now be changed forever.”

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.
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