Tom Keane

Seeing good in the Greenway

Children cool off in the Greenway’s sprinkler park last month. Children cool off in the Greenway’s sprinkler park last month. (Jessey Dearing for The Boston Globe)
By Tom Keane
August 2, 2011

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IT’S SATURDAY afternoon and the Greenway is packed. Parents form a circle around the Rings Fountain, with squealing children running through its jetting spouts of water. There’s a line for the carousel. Shoppers stop by tents to examine wares from local artisans. Throngs cross back and forth between Quincy Market and the Aquarium. Tourists and locals wander through the newly installed Harbor Park Pavilion.

All of this comes as a surprise because, as is well known and much commented upon (including by me), the Greenway is a failure, a squandered opportunity that, much like City Hall Plaza, is just wasted and empty space.

But facts, as they say, are stubborn things. I have walked (and now biked - thanks Hubway!) the Greenway many times this summer and the masses of folks wandering, playing, and just hanging out suggests that, for all its flaws, the Greenway is a roaring success.

Part of the goal of the Big Dig was to reconnect the city to the harbor. The old elevated expressway was not only a physical barrier but a psychic one as well, making it easy to forget that Boston really was a waterfront town. That has changed. The three-lane surface roads that run alongside the Greenway - Atlantic Avenue and Surface Road (clever name that) are still obstacles to a crossing. But, now visible, the water lures and the hordes who want to get there take courage in their numbers, ignoring “Don’t Walk’’ signs and angry horns from motorists.

The other goal of the Big Dig was to knit together neighborhoods sundered by the old expressway. Doing so would have meant actually building structures across the land underneath the elevated highway so that, for example, Haymarket could be reconnected with the North End. But the design of the tunnels is such that buildings cannot feasibly be built overhead - or at least, not without enormous cost.

So instead, the Greenway, with its self-conscious echo of the north-south highway, still separates. But the Greenway Conservancy, the nonprofit charged with managing the place, has come up with a very good alternative: the parks are now meeting places, common ground between neighborhoods, destinations in and of themselves.

In the first few years of the Greenway’s existence, this was hard to see. But this summer, especially, the parks have come into their own. Partly that is because, as befits its name, the place really is green - lush, in fact. Some areas, such as the Urban Arboretum, are so chock filled with mature plantings that they seem forest-like. The other is that the Conservancy has worked hard to give each of the Greenway parks a distinct character, with attractions (fountains, things that move and places that sell stuff) that compel people to visit. One park has public art, another has a farmers’ market, a third a meandering path with odd gizmos that shoot off cooling steam.

It’s not perfect. Of the 14 parcels that make up the Greenway, a few are still unfinished. The exits from Route 93 interrupt others. And the Chinatown Park, despite a clever fountain that turns into a waterfall and then a river, seems like an afterthought.

Moreover, it is striking the degree to which the buildings on either side of the Greenway were designed so that only blank walls face the parks. That made sense back when the elevated highway was there - who’d want to look at that? - but now it looks as if they have figuratively turned their backs to it. It will take time for them to reorient themselves to face the parks, although a few are trying, such as the Irish Times, with an outdoor beer garden, and Pasta Beach, a new restaurant at the massive Rowes Wharf complex (one of the few buildings whose design anticipated the removal of the expressway).

Still, much works brilliantly. The six Wharf District and North End parks in particular have a remarkable sense of energy and fun. I’d tell you it’s worth a visit but, judging from the crowds already there, I think you’ve figured that out.

Tom Keane writes regularly for the Globe.