Funny how the Big Dig was all about building tunnels. Because now that it's 2017, we're admiring the project's two best-known symbols, neither of which is a tunnel. Standing at the base of North Washington Street near Haymarket Square and looking north, we have the gorgeous and graceful cable-supported Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge. Looking in the opposite direction, stretching for more than a mile, we have the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, an enormous expanse of parkland that's finally buzzing with life. Let's take a tour to see just how much it's evolved in the last 10 years.
Admittedly, the elevated Central Artery -- the old Green Monster -- wasn't a hard act to follow. It cut the waterfront off from the city, cast broad shadows throughout downtown, and prominently displayed 160,000 vehicles a day, usually moving at a crawl.
Now it's quiet -- the noise and exhaust are in the tunnels below us. Up here, it is green, and the trees have exploded in only a decade. There are colorful flower beds, and there are people: downtown workers on lunch break during the week, but today there are condo residents walking their dogs, moms and dads with strollers, a rollerblader or two, a forbidden skateboarder, joggers with those new wireless iPods, and some young people, probably students at Suffolk or Emerson, soaking up the sun. The fried dough and sausage carts proliferated here, as predicted, and who knew so many Starbucks customers would find the Greenway a good place to sip their brews? So, let's elbow our way among the crowds and get going.
Meandering south, we come to the Greenway block that was most disfigured by vehicular access ramps -- five of 'em -- and thank goodness the YMCA of Greater Boston voted back in 2007 to push ahead and build on that block. The Y's recreation facility and community space is modest compared with the $60 million glass box it once proposed, but it's a respectable northern anchor to the Greenway.
Crossing New Sudbury Street, we come to the two blocks of North End parks running along Cross Street down to North Street and bisected by Hanover Street. From the brick sidewalk on Hanover, we step over to a plaza with a thick granite slab. It's engraved with a relief map of the lollipop-shaped peninsula of Old Boston, overlaid with the more familiar boundaries of today's Boston. Once we've determined we are standing on terra firma from the early 1600s -- not any of the bulk of today's Boston, which grew on filled land over four centuries -- we follow a path over an extension of Salem Street. We step over the spot where a drawbridge once operated, carrying our urban predecessors across a creek that brought water from Mill Pond -- long ago filled in, recently developed, and known as Bulfinch Triangle. A large millstone, found during Big Dig excavation and in storage for years, rests today almost precisely where it turned with the creek's flow. Flower beds, an open lawn, an elm tree (the largest one planted on the Greenway), and a shallow pool with vertical water jets complete the block.
Leaning on a bronze rail momentarily, we gaze into the narrow North End streets, but the pasta will have to wait. We glance down at engraved quotes of famous North End residents from the earliest 17th century to today, before crossing Hanover to move along another rail, this one with a timeline of local historical events - including the origin of Prince Spaghetti.
The long block between North Street and Christopher Columbus Park had two large ramps on it. Fortunately, the cynics were wrong, and the Boston Museum finally raised all that money and built architect Moshe Safdie's building -- which looks like the carcass of a whale or a ship's hull, depending on your mood. We follow the unusual path he designed, up a hill and down, gazing in the windows of this center at different levels. It's called a museum, but it concentrates on the neglected last 200 years of the region's history, and helps visitors and residents find their way around the area's many historical attractions.
We haven't time to enter, because we're now at the central portion of the Greenway, the four Wharf District blocks that extend south to the rotunda of the Boston Harbor Hotel. The first, adjacent to Christopher Columbus Park and the Marriott Long Wharf Hotel, is crossed by the Walk to the Sea and punctuated by a small Harbor Park Pavilion, run by the Island Alliance and National Park Service; it's the place to go to find your way around the islands of Boston Harbor, a national park.
Along these spacious four blocks, where the Greenway hugs closest to the harbor's edge, we see the outlines of four historic wharfs of Boston -- City, Central, Long, and India -- identified in the decorative paving. Once jutting into the harbor, they became largely indistinguishable when Boston was filled in. Now, it's easier to recall the colorful, odoriferous maritime environment that existed here long before we were born.
The two blocks between State and India streets are the heart of the Greenway, and that's where most of the activities are being held. We pass the largest water fountain of the corridor, with rings of jets that shoot 20 feet high. We rest briefly on a stone bench, and from there we can admire an omphalos sculpture, the small Fidelity Investments park leading to the New England Aquarium, and engravings that show six phases of the cod fishing industry. Modern Boston is reflected in 24-foot-tall light blades, glass panels festooned with LED lights that can be programmed and enliven the evening hours. They help outline the Greenway's Great Room, two blocks of lawn and paved space where crowds gather. (Unfortunately, there is still some trash strewn around from the last event -- hey, it's Boston.) Some artists from the Fort Point Channel area are showing off their work on the lawn. Nearby, a copse of deciduous trees near India Street suggests the transition to a less manicured block between India and High streets, with more of a neighborhood feel to it.
In the 1990s, when the Greenway was just a gleam in the eye of crazed drivers who were rerouted for construction every few days, and skepticism was rampant, there was one institution that seemed more promising than all others: the New Center for Arts and Culture. A project initiated by Boston's Jewish community, it was to be a joyful celebration of the performing arts -- and distinctly ecumenical. Architect Daniel Libeskind designed a modernistic and irregularly shaped box for the block with ramps between High Street and the Moakley Bridge, and as we pass by it today, patrons are lining up with their tickets for the afternoon's show. We peer toward downtown, and the grand marble foyers of One and Two International Place now have doors opening on the Greenway, with restaurants facing a landscaped entrance.
After a cup of espresso at International Place, we move south to the three blocks near South Station that were the source of so much angst as the Massachusetts Horticultural Society struggled unsuccessfully to build a winter garden there. Today, the area is inviting, with lawn and trees. Gardens have been expanded and the trees have grown, but, alas, debate continues as to whether a large botanical garden structure is appropriate -- and who would pay for it, if it is.
The 31-story Russia Wharf office tower casts a shadow on the Greenway at times, but residents of the renovated historic low- rise Russia Wharf buildings don't mind; they enjoy the Greenway on one side and Fort Point Channel on the other. We pass the ventilation building and a single structural column of the old elevated Central Artery, painted green and preserved as a reminder of the interstate highway that bisected Boston for half a century. South of Congress Street, we follow the promenade to Dewey Square, the wide paved space where, three days a week during mild seasons, farmer's market booths cater to some of the 50,000-plus South Station commuters.
Finally, we arrive at the Chinatown/Leather District park. Residents of the modest-sized tower over the renovated Dainty Dot building on Essex Street join neighbors from both of those neighborhoods in one of the Greenway's most trafficked plots. Entering under the bright red pergola, we follow the winding path south through dense bamboo and willows, past granite benches and boulders spaced along streaming water, to the Chinatown Gate. There, the park widens out with a mosaic design and broad paved surface, which accommodates heavy daily pedestrian traffic.
To the south, we note that trees -- planted a decade ago on a large, oval lawn area surrounded by Big Dig ramps -- have matured, obscuring much of that world of concrete and giving the Tip O'Neill Tunnel's portal, and the city's gateway, a much improved appearance. There continue to be discussions about developing that whole area south of Kneeland into a neighborhood, perhaps even reconnecting it with the Fort Point Channel. But it's been a long walk, so that's for later. We're making our way back to Chinatown, and finding ourselves some dim sum.
Thomas C. Palmer Jr. covers development for the Globe. E-mail him at email@example.com.