Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Boston Underfoot

On the Saturday after Marathon Day, we went downtown to Boston to feel the city under our feet once again.
The city, official voices assured us after the famous Friday evening arrest, was back on its feet. We wanted it on ours too.Lots of other people had the same idea.
From Park Street we walked through Boston Common, circling a gentle grassy rise clothed with several hundred young people sitting in small groups facing this way and that. Was it Earth Day? Or merely Turf Day? The youthful gathering had staked out its turf in impressive numbers, and the smell of marijuana wafting on the April breeze was profound.
The nature of this gathering made me think of Central Park on some very (very) youthful occasions. Anne suggested the term "be-in." No uniformed public safety presence was anywhere in sight. We were told later that a crowd gathers in the Common every year at this time to celebrate the Earth by puffing on one of its products.
The uniformed personnel, not surprisingly, were all over on Boylston Street.
Before going there we hiked through the Public Garden, stuffed with people as well, but the Garden has a different personality from the Common. The Garden is for strolling, not for langing. The landscape desgin with its circular, winding paths has the classic Olmstead look, with a new vista at every turn. The design has formal elements as well: massed plantings -- the tulip buds were pursing their lips but not quite open; the pansy beds were turning their happy faces to the transitory sun. And romantic structural elements such as footbridge over the pond where the swanboats play in the summer. The bridge is ideal for picture taking. Pretty much every turn on a Boston Public Garden path is.
The gates of the Garden give way to the Commonwealth Avenue "mall," its green, tree-filled walkway separating two roadways. The west side of the street is lined with magnolia trees blooming last weekend in front of the avenue's classy stone townhouses, perfectly maintained private addresses with pretty public faces. Together they make a unified aesthetic piece, with a little bit of individuality in each tiny courtyard, like separate voices joined in a chorus.
The mall also provides a setting for a quirky cavalcade of monuments to some of Boston's best-known names mixed with lesser known sons whose backers apparently had an in with the city. In the first category, for example, we have an old-fashioned, 19th century "great man" statue of William Lloyd Garrison, accompanied by an inscription with his most oft-repeated declaration: "I am in earnest - I will not equivocate - I will not excuse - I will not retreat a single inch - and I will be heard!" Garrison is a Boston brand, but the monument nowhere states that he was an abolitionist, perhaps the single most important voice in that crusade. I wonder how long it will be safe to say, "Doesn't everybody know that?"
Don't worry. I didn't stop perfect strangers to take a survey.
But I took photos of the well-designed, very contemporary "women's voices" monument, with its images of Phyllis Wheatley (America's first black author); Lucy Stone (suffragist and the first Massachusetts woman to earn a college degree); and Abigail Adams, for whom the inscribed text quotes from the "remember the ladies" letter to husband John.
The crowd, and the cops, were thickest at the metal barriers and ad-hoc mourners' monument at the crime scene on Boylston Street. You took it in with a glance and there was no need to remain. Newbury Street proved more mobbed than usual on a spring weekend, so when we were finally allowed back on Boylston Street, near the Arlington station, we got coffee and croissants at a crowded Au Bon Pain and sat outdoors among people of different backgrounds and colors, several parties of Spanish speakers, a small flock of happy sparrows, and a news anchor from NECN (New England Cable News) who was instantly recognized on the street .
Ah, a typical urban melange. Same as it always was. Just what we wanted.
Somebody wrote recently (can't remember where or I would credit the author) that the thing that brings people back to cities is they find they have conversations there they don't have anywhere else. Sometimes they even have them with themselves.