Derrick Z. Jackson

A Greenway built for schmoozing

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / February 19, 2011

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THE DEATH of the old vision for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway is a civic blessing. Boston now has a chance for a far greater public space, based no more on anchoring it with institutional facilities. It is a chance to remember that the people are the anchor. The late urbanologist William Whyte once observed that the best planning devices were lovebirds and schmoozers.

In his 1988 book “City,’’ Whyte noted how men schmoozed in New York City’s garment district, even though it was tree-less and full of fumes. “If you ask the schmoozers if they wouldn’t prefer the plazas and open spaces further uptown, they will look at you as though you are crazy. . . . This is the center of things.’’

He also singled out Lexington Avenue, which was not particularly attractive, but became a “recreation area’’ on Saturdays because of its “mishmash of activities.’’ He wrote of children perched on fathers’ shoulders, shopping, browsing, and eating, and teenagers coming down from the Bronx and East Harlem “sitting on car hoods to watch the goings-on.’’

Can the Greenway be a “center of things’’ with a “mishmash of activities’’? Of course it can. It is already a great canvas to start with, possessing the length, width, and proximity to already-existing downtown institutions.

The next step, according to Fred Kent, president of the national Project for Public Spaces, is for the state and city to reboot the process by asking residents throughout the city what they want.

Under the old vision, which officially died this week when the YMCA of Greater Boston gave up on its plan, the Greenway would have been anchored by the Y, a city museum, a center for arts and culture, and a horticultural “garden under glass.’’ The old process was also hindered by endless bickering between commercial developers and the city.

“You’ve got to get rid of designers and developers who want permanent monuments for themselves and not designing necessarily for people,’’ Kent said by phone. “If you want it to be successful, it has to be a true destination that draws on diverse populations and is flexible to changing times and tastes. For instance, most cities don’t have places for teenagers and urban planning removes them from our consciousness. And then you wonder why many public spaces are empty.’’

He said Boston’s Public Garden, created in 1837, remains “awesome and outstanding,’’ but the city has not been creative in recent decades in creating spaces that reach out “like an octopus, with markets, festivals, restaurants, multiple uses overflowing with energy. They become powerful engines of economic activity. You go there not to see the place itself. You go there to see other people in this place.’’

Peter O’Connor, real estate director for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said the failure of the building-anchor vision for the Greenway may create the opportunity to do “something unBoston, really modern, have some really crazy piece of public art that people go out of their way to see.’’ In a telephone interview, he cited Chicago’s wildly popular Millennium Park, which has a concert pavilion, gardens, and public sculptures, including the now-famous giant silver bean. “It gets tedious when I bring it up,’’ O’Connor said. “But the fact is, you go out of your way in Chicago to see it.’’

O’Connor remains optimistic about making the Greenway a place that people will go out of their way to use. One night this week he walked its length from a meeting in the North End toward the South End. “I don’t take this disappointed view many people have, especially when you remember the Central Artery,’’ O’Connor said. “There’s already been such a transformation. The basic space is just about right. I don’t feel like it’s missing big buildings.’’

Asked whether this was the “cup half-full’’ analogy, O’Connor said, “It’s half-full and we want to fill it up.’’

If schmoozers can fill up garment districts, Boston can certainly make the Greenway a space that reaches out like an octopus, and overflows with energy.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at