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Shirley Leung

Car-free Newbury got Boston out of its comfort zone

Keith Bedford

Please Marty Walsh, tell me you will do this again: Make Newbury Street car-free for a day. It’s not just good for the environment, but also brick-and-mortar shopping, and possibly the future of our city.

OK, it may start to sound like I got too much sun during Sunday’s Open Newbury Street, a one-day experiment to allow pedestrians to take over the popular shopping district.

But much more than that happened. Merchants set up tables and racks to peddle everything from olive oil to summer dresses. Restaurants not only offered al fresco dining on the sidewalk but introduced it on the street. Pick-up games of cornhole and hula hoops took place. The Boston Architectural College set up an inflatable “balloon goon” people could walk through.

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Even Walsh ditched his suit and dared to stroll around in cargo shorts that lit up Twitter. (Check out #cargogate.)

Is it possible Bostonians could just have fun?

Thousands found themselves drawn to Newbury perhaps to do one thing: Experience what it is like to walk down the middle of a street that is normally clogged with cars.

Novelty is nice, but this is why Open Newbury really matters. The event drew people like me into the city to spend money. The damage to my pocketbook: over $200. (No, I won’t be able to expense any of it.)

The city provided street furniture in the form of a few dozen plastic Adirondack chairs on loan from City Hall Plaza. Shirley Leung/Globe Staff

I’m supposed to be Newbury Street’s textbook customer. I love to shop, and I have disposable income. The reason why I don’t is because I have no time. I’m at a stage in my life, working full time and with two little kids, that my brick-and-mortar shopping is confined to grocery stores and gas stations. Most of our household purchases are done through Amazon Prime.

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But the decision to go online goes beyond convenience. The Internet has changed my expectations of shopping. When I’m in stores, I get annoyed that I don’t have a vast array of choices, or that I can’t easily compare prices.

Walking along Newbury Street, I realized my memory of it is stuck in time. Sonsie is no longer the place to be, and models don’t hang out like they once did at (now shuttered) Armani Café.

The upside: Newbury is more inclusive.

The downside: With so many chains it’s not so special anymore.

Beyond the mix of stores on Newbury Street, merchants need to make the shopping experience relevant and exciting. Imagine walking into a store, clicking what you want on your iPhone, and then having the clothes ready for you in the fitting room. It’s not a pie-in-the-sky, but what a Seattle startup called Hointer is is doing for merchants.

Open Newbury gives consumers another reason to come out again, but the idea did not come from merchants themselves. It came out of City Hall after Walsh pressed staff to look for creative ways to energize public spaces.

We are hardly pioneers. Seattle and New York City have designated car-free days and zones; so has Paris, which began banning vehicles from its most famous boulevard, the Champs-Elysees, one Sunday a month to cut carbon emissions. Closer to home, the City of Cambridge has for years shuttered Memorial Drive to cars every Sunday during the spring and fall.

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Still, Open Newbury was not universally embraced. Some businesses resisted, worried it would drive regular customers away. Other merchants raised concerns about the high cost of organizing the event.

City staffers pushed for an organic approach. No expensive programming; let store owners do their own thing. The city would provide street furniture in the form of a few dozen plastic Adirondack chairs on loan from City Hall Plaza. Not much marketing beyond social media in May. Staffers then went door to door on Newbury Street to assure wary business owners.

By most accounts, Open Newbury was a huge success. Now people are talking about a car-free day on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain, or on Tremont Street in the South End, or parts of Roslindale or West Roxbury, says Jerome Smith, the city’s chief of civic engagement, whose department organized Open Newbury.

“The success of Newbury Street opened many people’s eyes in the city,” Smith told me. “This could happen in my neighborhood.”

The Walsh administration has struggled to get Boston to try something new — whether it’s bidding for the 2024 Summer Olympics or hosting the Grand Prix street race.

Spectacular failures both, but not on Sunday. Perhaps City Hall has learned how to get Boston out of its comfort zone. Let’s hope the movement extends past Newbury Street.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.
Follow her on Twitter @leung.

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