“Downtown’s dark heart” (Boston Globe 3/22/09)

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In this case, the Globe is talking about Boston’s Downtown Crossing. After dark, this pedestrian-only mall empties out and gets pretty sketchy (pretty different from the artist’s rendering of this mall above). The reporter says opening up the mall to car traffic is the solution. The readers seem to disagree (see interesting comments). For more on planning for community walkability, Mark Fenton, host of new PBS series called “America Walking,” is offering a workshop in Springfield, hosted by the Department of Health and Human Services and Partners for a Healthier Community (April 13th, 10-12, location TBD). And if you’re interested in the economic argument for widening sidewalks and adding bike paths, check out this new study from Toronto (PDF, 28 pages). As Holyoke considers a “complete streets” campaign, these stories may be instructive.

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2 Responses

  1. A hub’s pulse and grit
    By Yvonne Abraham
    Globe Columnist / March 25, 2009

    The debate over how to fix Downtown Crossing shouldn’t obscure one important fact: There is much in this part of the city that is seriously cool.

    Yes, the immense pit where Filene’s used to be is a depressing sight, a monument to poor planning and bad luck. The empty stores that dot the streets make the whole area seem down-at-the-heel. And it’s barren at night.

    But despite all of that, if you like your city quirky and real, Downtown Crossing is packed with gems.

    Spend an icy Monday afternoon on the corner of Winter and Washington streets, and the whole city passes by: an elderly woman and her daughter, in furs. Men saunter in jackets and ties. Women push wide-eyed, bundled-up babies in strollers. Tourists consult maps and squint at the gargoyles above the storefronts.

    School kids parade in threes and fours, boys in baggy jeans, girls in tight ones, trying to catch each other’s eyes. Police officers on bikes and horses watch them to make sure there isn’t any trouble. There usually isn’t. Despite a shooting in December, police say, the area has about as little crime as the Back Bay.

    The kids know people think there are too many of them down there, that some see groups of black and Latino teenagers and feel threatened. They don’t have much patience for that.

    “At one point you were our age,” says Anna Rodriguez, in the 11th grade at the Academy of Public Service, at Dorchester High.

    “There are cops everywhere,” says her friend Joshua Nixon, a high school senior. “How can you not feel safe?”

    People come here, too, for the cheap food. Downtown Crossing is full of it.

    At the top of Winter Street, devotees line up at the Falafel King. Kadhim Al Zubaidy greets them all with “How are you brother,” and “Hello my friend,” and hands them free, hummus-dipped falafels. “I always give the falafel, one in the hand, one on the plate,” he says.

    There are similar lines for the epic reubens at Sam LaGrassa’s, and the killer Chilean steak sandwiches at Chacarero, both on Province Street.

    At the Corner Mall food court, customers shovel gyros, chicken curries, greasy fries, or a dozen other cuisines from plastic foam containers. They sit alone, their heads buried in novels, or in groups, wearing business suits or paint-spattered pants. It’s an enormous mix of people – blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians – sitting shoulder to shoulder. And that’s rare in this still-tribal city.

    With its blue neon and glass-brick decor, the Corner Mall is utterly dated. But that’s the charm here, and all over Downtown Crossing.

    As other neighborhoods have yuppified, countless beloved institutions have been polished to death (R.I.P. Bob the Chef’s, the old Cornwall’s). At Downtown Crossing, you still have character: Here, preserved partly by hard times, there are not just a couple of funky, independent businesses, but dozens, made great by history and a narrow focus rather than corporate strategy and a redesign.

    Many of them are on the side streets between Washington and Tremont: The Brattle Book Shop on West Street, its three floors stacked with books and filled with the smell of yellowed paper. Or Windsor Button, on Temple Place, where surly sales assistants offer every imaginable size and color of button alongside the grosgrain ribbons and boas. Or the Watch Hospital, on Bromfield, where Norm Rubin has been healing ailing timepieces for 50 years.

    A solution probably will be found for Downtown Crossing’s problems. The economy will recover, eventually. Somebody will give developers a loan to fill that hole on Washington Street. New residents will move in. Maybe traffic will be allowed. Suburban visitors will feel at home.

    But whatever the new Downtown Crossing looks like, it should save room for the scrappy, unpretty, old mainstays.

    Without them, the area would have everything a shopper wants but lack the one thing a great city needs: heart.

    Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com
    © Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.

  2. Thanks for the additional article. Great point about retaining a neighborhoods identity and uniqueness. NYC–Times Square and 125th Street–are cases in point. After a whole lot of resources were poured in to mitigate a bad situation, many feel the areas have “gone corporate.” In many cases, blight and elicit activities have been replaced by soul-sapping big box stores that you could never imagine possible in a quintessential urban neighborhood. Others offer an implicit or explicit elitism critique: Everywhere else gets to have big box stores, why not us?

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