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1954 photo by John W. Harper; 2004 photo by Peter Vanderwarker
CITYSCAPES

What Goes Up...

By Robert Campbell and Peter Vanderwarker
May 16, 2004

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We're looking at two views of the Central Artery in downtown Boston. Both were shot from the same place, the first in August 1954, the second in February 2004. In one, the Artery is going up, and in the other it's coming down. But except for a few details, such as the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, barely visible at the upper left in the 2004 photograph, the two views look exactly the same.

Today's generation is happily trashing the road that an earlier generation desired.

Boston planners hungered for an elevated downtown expressway as early as 1920. In 1951, a bond was finally approved. Crews ripped a wide swath through the city, mostly near the harbor, where land was cheap because shipping and fishing were in decline.

Then they built Boston's other Green Monster, the overhead Artery that walled the city off from its historic waterfront.

It didn't happen only in Boston. Other waterfront cities went through the same cycle and learned to regret it. Some, such as San Francisco, have demolished their waterfront expressways. But no one else has dared to bury one, as Boston is doing with its Big Dig.

The Artery's proper name was the John F. Fitzgerald Expressway. "Honey Fitz" was a mayor of Boston, the father of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, and the grandfather of John, Robert, and Edward. His namesake Artery will be replaced by a chain of parks to be called the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Attitudes change: Just as the father gave his name to a highway, a piece of onward-and-upward ambition, the daughter will give hers to a landscape, a return to the solace of nature.

The Artery opened to traffic on June 25, 1959. Within 15 years, people were calling it a disaster and dreaming of putting it underground in a tunnel. By the time this "Cityscapes" runs, most of the steel will have come down. The new tunnel system is scheduled to be fully operational next year.

If there's one thing the Artery proved, it's that you can't build your way out of traffic jams. Noted urbanist Lewis Mumford put it best when he said that solving traffic problems by building more highways is like solving your obesity problem by letting out your belt. We can be certain that the new tunnels, too, will eventually be choked with traffic.

But at least they'll be out of sight.

And the Greenway, planners predict, will entice many more people to live downtown.

These new Bostonians will walk to work, shopping, and recreation. They won't always need their automobiles. That's the best way to deal with traffic.

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