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Beyond The Big Dig
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What happens to the ribbon of land being created by the depression of the Central Artery may be the most important development decision to face Boston in a generation.


A troubling downturn

By Brian McGrory, Globe Columnist, 1/17/2003

I'm driving along the Central Artery yesterday, past the spot where the state cop ties up traffic from Boston to Brunswick every morning, when the oddest thought pops into mind: I'm going to miss this road.

Oh, I know, I know. How could you, you moron? What possible redeeming value can be placed on this traffic-clogged behemoth, this crumbling green monstrosity that casts a miles-long, bird turd-covered gash through the heart of downtown Boston?

How can you not embrace the most sophisticated collection of subterranean tunnels ever built in these United States?

Here's how: I'm thinking of the sunshine, the panoramic views to the airport and beyond, the cacophony of sights and sounds that make up life in one of America's great cities.

And I'm wondering, arguably too late, if this whole Big Dig project is really a good thing. It never actually occurred to me over these thousands of days and billions of dollars that the people of Bechtel were serious about getting the job done.

This morning, various dignitaries gather for a self-congratulatory celebration to mark the opening of the spanking new connector that will link the Turnpike extension to the Ted Williams Tunnel.

But the most important thing to realize about the ceremony is its location: underground. From here on in, a significant part of what we do in this town is going underground, prompting just one question: What in God's name have we done?

All too soon, all those entering the city by highway will find themselves in the earth for what will seem like the longer part of forever. Yes, traffic will probably move faster, and that's a good thing. But in a city that treasures history, are we too quick to denigrate this part of our past?

Back when part of the Artery was opening in 1954, a Boston Sunday Globe magazine story described it fawningly as the ''$110,000,000 Highway in the Skies.'' And indeed, even now, in those hours when the road isn't clogged, the sensation remains.

There's nothing like gliding up an on-ramp on a summer's night and cruising George Jetson-like through the soft banks of the open road, the skyline glittering on one side, the salted harbor air pouring through the open windows on the other.

And there's something unmistakably wonderful about surfacing from the Sumner Tunnel after returning to Boston from points afar. As you arrive above ground, the familiar face of the Custom House clock is there to greet you, a symbol of then and now, the utter manageability and genuine beauty of our downtown. You're home.

Remember, too, the soothing sights from the road - the red neon that heralds the Union Oyster House, the magnificent arch at the Boston Harbor Hotel, even the architectural miscarriage that is Harbor Towers. Show me a stuck suburban motorist who hasn't pondered the joys of a condo with a skyline or harbor view.

The road has hosted the motorcades of kings and presidents. An enraged Kevin White, upon suffering a flat tire in his mayoral car, once stalked across the highway toward City Hall as a panicked young aide waited for help. Minions of gubernatorial candidate Ed King had a neat trick: They placed a stalled jalopy on the road during rush hour, then hung banners at South Station declaring, ''This traffic jam brought to you by Mike Dukakis.''

Too soon, all this is gone, the majesty and the mayhem, to be replaced by a graceful park, assuming our leaders manage to open one. But, like rats and the dead, the citizenry is heading downward, to a place that Dan McNichol, author of ''The Big Dig,'' described as ''a tiled sewer pipe.''

There's no doubt the widened underground artery will be less clogged.

But there is a cost to speed and efficiency, and that cost is a daily dose of civility, of humanity. So amid the celebration, the question nags: I've got all of eternity to be undergound; do I really want to be there every summer's morn?

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 1/17/2003.
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