Let’s take a break from the poisonous lunacy radiating from our nation’s capital to celebrate something good, and lovely, closer to home.
The Rose Kennedy Greenway turns 10 this year. Regular readers know that this column has long had a crush on the ribbon of little parks running from the North End to Chinatown.
The Greenway, which lives where the ugly, elevated I-93 expressway once loomed, punches way above its meager acreage. Reconnecting the city to its waterfront, it has also become a destination unto itself: a serene respite from bustling streets, a place of immense beauty, a platform for adventurous public art.
Even on a frigid Monday in January, the place has charm, and food trucks, and plenty of sky. An installation of old neon signs from storied Massachusetts businesses surprises and delights. A few blocks down, a sculpture of galvanized steel and LED lights seems to follow pedestrians who pass beneath it.
This narrow strip of open space was mostly unloved when the Greenway Conservancy first began programming it. The parks at its ends, in the North End and Chinatown, were popular gems right away, but the rest of it seemed like an open wound. The massive cost overruns of the Big Dig were still painfully fresh. And ambitious plans for the Greenway’s middle parcels — cultural institutions and a huge garden under glass — were doomed by the recession, among other afflictions.
But something interesting happened while the trees were getting taller: Where disappointment once lay, innovation grew. Gorgeous organic gardens took the place of some of the buildings that never materialized; an edgy, dynamic series of art installations inspired and challenged visitors; one food truck became 35 and helped lead a little revolution in the way Boston eats lunch; the free Wi-Fi that drew folks to the Greenway popped up elsewhere in the city; Conservancy alumni carried their place-making lessons to other places — innovating on the Esplanade, in the neighborhoods, and beyond.
No longer a monument to what might have been, the Greenway became what is: a centerpiece for the city, a place not just for tourists, or the residents of swank condo buildings that now use it as a marketing tool, but for ordinary people, too. Together with the Conservancy, the state, the city and the abutters even came up with a funding plan that should keep the parks running for a while.
Part of the reason all of this seems so remarkable is that expectations for the place were initially so low.
“People talked the parks down, and so they’re sort of boggled,” said the Conservancy’s executive director Jesse Brackenbury. “They think the Conservancy has worked some sort of alchemy.”
On Thursday, the Boston Society of Architects will give the Greenway Conservancy its Commonwealth Award, recognizing its transformation of that part of downtown, as well as the nonprofit’s contributions to art and community engagement.
For its tenth anniversary year, the Conservancy has big plans in addition to its usual offerings. On one of the unfinished parcels near Faneuil Hall there will be a new wildflower meadow and beehives filled with residents that will revel in it. The Rings Fountain, one of the most effortlessly diverse places in the city, will be upgraded with a razzle-dazzle light-show synchronized to the water-display that so captivates kids. The summer’s major events will feature nods to the park’s traffic-clogged history, including an augmented reality experience that will allow visitors to see images of this place from long ago transposed over the Greenway of today.
Lord knows what will be happening in the rest of the world by the summer, but this at least is something to look forward to.
The Greenway has a ways to go. There are parcels still to be transformed. And Brackenbury hopes it can become more of a destination at night.
But for now, because we really need it, let’s celebrate what we’ve got.
Beyond its endearing beauty and potential, the Greenway at 10 also represents something vital and comforting in these strange, upsetting times: a refuge from ugliness. A reminder that even something that starts out a disaster can give way to something wonderful.