Sunday, September 11, 2011

Walking Boston

I spent the first eighteen years of my life in a smallish neighborhood in a smallish town in a smallish state. My particular subdivision was designed in the late 1950s, when car culture still reigned king. Although the immediate neighborhood is mostly walkable, venturing beyond requires a car. It is impossible to get to the town center by any mode but by vehicle; even to get to the nearer village area would require traveling in the narrow and sometimes absent breakdown lane of a major state road with fifty-five miles per hour traffic. In a town six miles square, there is less than a mile of sidewalk, because most of the faster two-lane roads were upgraded or built, of course, during the Fifties. On the two major roads, there are only two pedestrian crossings, and neither is protected by an adjacent traffic light nor routed onto a dedicated bridge. Even the sole walkable destination from my neighborhood – the junior high school – can only be accessed by crossing a state route less than 50 yards from a blind corner, after crossing (with permission) private property to avoid a section of road with no margin. It’s not a friendly place for alternative modes of transportation.

I like walking, though. If I was the sort to believe in the concept of a soul, I’d say walking is good for said soul. It certainly clears both lungs and brain. But my neighborhood, as mentioned, fits the general description of ‘smallish;’ the longest possible loop barely exceeds a mile. The paths behind my house through the woods are marginally better. Both are also heavily restricted to daytime use. Should I choose to venture outside after dusk, the neighborhood is filled with paranoid folks who would gladly call the police claiming that I’m a burglar (and I’ve gotten strange comments from using a telescope in the privacy of my own yard), and the local skunk population seems to be exhibiting ideal unrestricted exponential growth. In high school, the twin forces of homework and the internet combined their wiles to keep me inside in my easy chair.
Just as I was about to become permanently sedentary, along came college. Instead of a cowtown in Connecticut, I now find myself in Boston, Massachusetts. The BU campus is hardly a campus at all – just one and two rows of buildings lining Commonwealth Avenue (henceforth Comm Ave) and parts of Beacon Street. But I don’t find myself missing the insular grassy feel of similar institutions like Harvard and Northeastern. I like the urban experience, with crowds of students, cars, taxis, buses, and trams sharing the street. I’m now in a city where the locals were strolling around three centuries before Henry Ford.

With the exception of the interstate highways and a few other expressways, every road in the area has sidewalks. Some roads, like Comm Ave east of Kenmore Square, even have the wide, green pedestrian / bicycle dedicated center medians common in Europe (and which I loved in Lima). Boston also has its own quirks: the walk/don’t walk signals have no correlation on whether it’s actually safe to cross, and enough people crossing can bring traffic to a halt even on a green light. I started by just walking to campus events and classes, and I had no plans to walk any further than necessary. But then, on my first day of classes, I found myself done with classes by 12:30, with almost no homework. My realization then has shaped much of my activities since: the realization that I could walk anywhere I wanted, as far as I wanted, almost anytime I wanted. I can find myself in busy Kenmore square in just minutes from leaving my room. Twenty minutes will get me to the middle of the Charles (on Harvard Bridge), or to the peace of the Back Bay Fens.

College gives me a lot of stress, and this freedom to clear my mind and stretch my legs is my saving grace. I am a loner by nature; though I can enjoy social company, sometimes I just need to be alone. Normally such solitary escapism is nearly impossible in a city, but ironically I often find it in the middle of crowds. I can stroll up Mass Ave through Central Square in Cambridge and feel free and easy even with hundreds passing me by.
A few days ago, I found myself leaving West Campus at perhaps eleven at night. I turned right at the BU Bridge and wandered into Brookline, where I don’t know the street grid. A few blocks down the street, I realized that I was in a traditionally “bad” situation: alone in a city at night, on a dark and empty street, not entirely sure of my route, and without a single other sole knowing where I was. Yet, I did not feel the least unsafe. I feared no muggers appearing from behind the oak trees. Instead, I felt very much alive. After half an hour exploring Brookline, I reached familiar streets and made my way back to my dorm. I came back feeling very refreshed.

As much as it is a very modern city, Boston is also full of history. Some of it – Fenway Park and Faneuil Hall, Boston Common to Beacon Hill – is obvious to even the most inattentive onlooker. But much of it is gone or in ruins – and one must search for the ruins. My nerdy obsession is the T (the public transit system) and its predecessors the Boston Electric Railway (BERy), Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway, and the M.T.A. (of Kingston Trio fame), and the city and its suburbs are full of remains just beyond the public consciousness. I make it my business to seek out and photograph these bits – like the concrete wall just east of Kenmore, which was once a busy streetcar portal. Until I have more literary remarks to make later in the semester, much of my blogging will focus on these ruins of the T.
But beyond the trains, there is much for me to walk for. It’s grand exercise – and now that I find myself walking four to six miles a day, I have the inclination to eat four full meals a day. I’m learning the geography and shape of the city from my excursions. But one that pulls me often is the mystery.

As an example, take this stone house. It’s not out of character for the city – except that it’s located in Charlesgate, surrounded by entrance ramps for Storrow Drive and Mass Ave. Why is it there? Is it a fancy maintenance building, or an older construction that never got torn down? I may never find out – but merely knowing the existence of the mystery is a satisfying result. For that, I will be walking Boston.

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