It’s nearly cliché now to say that Boston is a city of neighborhoods. From the bodegas of East Boston to the green precincts of West Roxbury, we are proud, even proudly parochial, about the distinct identities of the streets and squares we call home. When I first moved out of the student districts into a “real” Boston neighborhood in the 1980s, the gimlet-eyed regulars quizzed me on my address: what section, what precinct, what parish? I learned quickly that Boston’s local loyalties run deep.
Of course, Widett Circle already is in a neighborhood — the official Arrow street guide for Boston lists its location as Roxbury, though claims also can be made for South Boston and Dorchester. But the purveyors of this neo-hood want a new image and a shiny new address. They’ve come up with “Midtown” — inoffensive, generic, a place that could be anyplace.
That would be their first mistake.
For one thing, Boston real estate agents already have claimed Midtown as the neighborhood defined roughly by Downtown Crossing and Government Center. (“Meet me in Midtown,” said nobody, ever.) More importantly, the name fairly screams “marketing focus group.” Neighborhoods need time for their characters to deepen. You can’t just add water, even if it is Voss artesian.
The end of Boston’s Olympic dreams shouldn’t end planning for a new neighborhood south of downtown. With easy transit connections, the area once envisioned for an Olympic stadium still holds enormous potential. By thinking big, the Walsh administration can turn a little-used parcel into a key part of 21st-century Boston.
If Widett is to become an authentic neighborhood, its developers may want to consider another instant zone, the South Boston Seaport — a/k/a the Innovation District — as a cautionary tale. Walking from the funky Fort Point Channel area to the Seaport is like going from a cozy, human-scaled nook to the moon. Super-sized parcels are built out to the edges with bland, looming buildings. Multilane boulevards are terrifying for pedestrians to cross. It’s a street grid laid out by engineers, not urban planners.
Widett has some natural advantages, notably its proximity to both the Andrew and Broadway Red Line stations, each under a mile from the center of the current industrial zone. But no one is going to walk along the South Boston Bypass road. As they erect the costly decking above the rail yards to create developable land, the builders need to design workable connections to the existing streets that flank the district, like East Canton Street or Flaherty Way.
There’s no lack of urban-planning principles to guide Widett’s developers. Buildings should snuggle up to the street front, not sit back behind windy plazas. Retail or other active public uses should be on the ground floor. City blocks should be short, which creates more corners. That, in turn, slows traffic and encourages walking and bicycling. The public realm — parks, streetscapes, sidewalk seating — should be integrated into the neighborhood fabric from the beginning, not stuck on like an ornamental brooch.
Neighborhoods need variety. The urban critic Jane Jacobs wrote that districts should “mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones, so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce.” Great views and manicured “public spaces” do not a neighborhood make. Where are the hardware stores? The corner spa? The nongourmet groceries?
Where are the children? Some of Boston’s new neighborhoods look like the Pied Piper has marched through, sweeping everyone under 21 into the sea. A public school would attract families, adding all kinds of economic, demographic, and ethnic diversity. A public library branch would attract curious minds of all ages.
Most of all, neighborhoods need neighbors. Modern amenities — underground parking, concierge services, even air conditioning – have isolated us, making us less likely to engage. On hot nights when I lived in East Boston, my neighbors would drag their television sets onto the sidewalk — orange extension cords snaking out first floor windows — and sit on lawn chairs watching the ball game and catching the breeze. They provided what Jacobs called “eyes on the street,” making the neighborhood safer, livelier — and yes, noisier.
Neighborhoods are human enterprises, developing their distinct identities over time, a complex and intricate order no developer’s rendering can capture. That’s the mysterious alchemy I want to see created in Widett Circle: a place with a beating heart, not just a gleaming skin.
Renée Loth writes regularly for the Globe and is editor of ArchitectureBoston.