I’ve never run the Marathon, but I almost always watch. Last year, I was standing 30 feet from the second explosion. In the days and months after the bombing, I was often asked to describe what I saw that day. A year later and the answer is still the same; I saw what I always see: the city. My route home from the blasts — on foot and by Hubway — made me see Boston, a city I “look” at every day as an urban designer — in a completely different way.
Boston’s marathon route is one of the most famous in the world, and technology now allows friends and family to track a runner’s progress as they make their way toward Copley Square. It’s no surprise that spectators try to get as close as possible to the finish, timed with relative precision to a runner’s expected arrival. There’s an ebb and flow now to the people on the sidelines – people checking their smartphones, holding up their signs, and then disappearing to greet their friend or loved one. Even with GPS tracking, I’ve always preferred further down Boylston Street. There’s a particular moment where the runners turn a corner and are overcome with emotion as they see the finish line for the first time. Normally a simple intersection, I love that the route is designed so that runners can’t see the finish until they’re nearly there; delayed gratification at its best.
I typically make my way through the crowds using the back alleys behind Boylston Street, stopping to photograph the people in this unlikely space. Rarely occupied by pedestrian traffic, the redundant system of parallel alleys function on Marathon Monday as a relief valve to the activity on Boylston. A quieter alternative for in-the-know residents, they become animated conduits under these event-specific conditions.
When the bombs went off at 2:50 pm, I was standing just inside the storefront of Crate&Barrel, about 30 feet from the second explosion. Within moments, the store had become a critical pass-through, sucking people through the block like a permeable membrane. Between the store and the second bomb were restaurants with fenced-in front patio areas. Unfettered access to the doors of Crate&Barrel had people streaming through like a pipe had burst. Back in the alley, I was transfixed by the rapid transfer of people from Boylston through the back service doors of the retail shops and restaurants. In the moment, it was not lost of me that these alleys were now functioning as a different kind of relief valve.
I walked down the Commonwealth Avenue mall, reasoning that this would be least densely populated east-west connection, the furthest away from any buildings or crowds. This is a wonderful walk, planned in the French style for idle strolling through the heart of the Back Bay; it’s perhaps the classic Boston promenade. It’s beautiful in the spring, fall, and especially during winter evenings when the trees are fully lit. On this day, it was still wonderful, providing comfort as I walked down the center median, through the allée of trees and with George Washington beckoning from afar.
I passed through Boston’s “pinch point” — an awkward tangle of streets where the logical grid of the Back Bay meets the more haphazard streets planned by the British, reflecting Boston’s now-absent topography. Reaching the North End, I found it empty. With no lines outside Mike’s Pastry, I sought momentary refuge inside and am slightly embarrassed by what I did next. Reader, I bought a cannoli. Sitting quietly in Mike’s, I was the only patron in the store.
From there, I took out my Hubway fob, unlocked a bicycle on Cross Street, and biked across the North Washington Street Bridge. From that vantage point, one can see the boats in Constitution Wharf, some still shrink-wrapped and foreshadowing events to come later in the week. Through the grates in the bridge, the brackish water of where the Charles and the Harbor intersect is visible, recalling Paul Revere’s boat trip across the harbor from the North End to the training field in Charlestown, the original ground zero for Patriot’s Day. As legend has it, there began Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride to Lexington and Concord, a route of questionable veracity, but nevertheless significant on that day.
There was no questioning my route. A few days later, I logged onto the Hubway website — a model of data transparency — to find my trip. An otherwise unremarkable data set that includes an anonymous list of all trips logged on the system, this record of movement is like an urban album of digital mementos. My particular trip was just one of the 2,752 trips made that day. I picked up a bike at 3:42 pm in the North End, and docked it 6 minutes and 29 seconds later in Charlestown, almost precisely one hour after the bombs had gone off.
The day after Friday’s “shelter in place,” was supposed to be an open house at the new Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. It was cancelled, but I went anyway, figuring others might go do the same. Indeed, committed staff had shown up and were giving tours of the facility. The space was empty, but I had premonitions of the future inhabitants. A week later, patients moved in, including many Boston Marathon victims.
With the arrival of warmer weather, my regular runs through the Charlestown Navy Yard became more frequent. My standard running loop — nearly as fixed as the Marathon route, but much, much shorter — usually takes me right along the water’s edge, tracing the piers like you’d trace like the fingers of a hand. I’d often pass patients. Many were in wheelchairs, and some were amputees. Initially self-conscious that my running was a flagrant offense to their incapacitated state, I contemplated avoiding Spaulding altogether. But I didn’t want to give up the run next to the water, under the shadow of the Tobin, looking at the tugs over in Chelsea and the skyline that comes into view you turn the bend of the pier. Over time, I realized that the patients weren’t looking at me. They were looking at the water, at the infrastructure across the river in Chelsea and in East Boston, at the boats coming and going, and, like me, at the city. They were planning their own routes to recovery.Corey Zehngebot is senior urban designer and architect at the Boston Redevelopment Authority.