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Refreshing change

Families, tourists, and workers on break revel in fountains built on downtown stretch once dominated by Central Artery

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By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / July 9, 2011

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As streams of water rained down, shimmering in the midday sun, best friends Yasmine Hamadi and Celia Murphy danced through the spray. With the city all around them, the 11-year-olds splashed and squealed as if they had it all to themselves, darting through the falling showers again and again, but never in quite the same way.

Finally, they decided to take a break. They ran to the side, where the adults were talking about the fountain on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, how there used to be a huge highway here, cutting right through everything. Looking around, the girls tried to picture it, but just could not.

“I think it’s much nicer to have a fountain than a highway,’’ Yasmine said definitively, as if she had just solved a brain-teaser.

The throngs of children that frolic in the Greenway’s wildly popular Rings Fountain and the parents and passersby who smile from the sidelines would surely agree. On this day, it was a cool retreat from the summer bustle and maybe the most unconditionally happy spot in all of Boston.

From a vantage at the stone benches near the fountain’s edge, where jets of water leap into the air in ever-changing patterns before drifting down in a cooling mist, the city felt brand new.

Families were there. It was a romantic backdrop for hand-holding couples, a soothing retreat for even the most harried, head-down urbanites. When a chorus of screams erupted from children playing in the water, even drivers stuck at the nearby traffic light could not help but grin.

After the Big Dig years, it was as if a curtain had been thrown back after a long winter.

“Before, the city was completely divided,’’ said Stephen Shea, 38, as he watched his 5-year-old son run headlong through bursts of water. “Now, it’s gorgeous. It’s night and day.’’

In the mid-1990s, Shea lived in the North End and walked under the dank, dirty Central Artery almost every day. He moved to San Francisco and had not been back until that day to see the place transformed.

“There’s blue sky downtown,’’ he said in amazement. “This is just a different place now. I’m not sure I would have left, if all this had been here before.’’

On a nearby bench, Wioletta Nollet, 57, was snapping pictures of her grandson Parys, a 6-year-old whirlwind who was giving the fountain a run for its money.

“Look at him!’’ she exclaimed, zooming in for her “20,000th’’ picture of the afternoon. “Look at all the happy faces! Just awesome.’’

He ran back to see if Nollet had seen all his moves, and she assured him she had not missed one. Asked if he was having a good time, he said he was indeed.

“I love it this much!,’’ he said, stretching his arms out wide and jumping into the air before darting away again.

Parys never stopped running or yelling, zipping through the water like a little torpedo. He ran over all the nozzles, hoping to time his steps so the water would shoot up right when he got there. But when it finally happened, it was not as much fun as he had hoped.

“The water hit me right in the eye!’’ he told Nollet, close to tears.

“It’ll be OK,’’ she said. “You’re not hurt.’’

Not far away, sunbathers dozed or read page-turners, and workers savored their lunch before heading back to the office. Even in the middle of a teeming city, many said, the stretch by the fountain felt secluded and restful, a step back from it all.

“It’s a beautiful thing,’’ said Jerry Lawlor, as he watched his two nieces gambol. “Brings a smile to my face.’’

Matt Stevens, 51, sipped his lemonade with a weary smile. He had spent all morning looking for work, visiting every construction site he could find to add his name to the list. Since he was in town, he thought he might as well walk along the Greenway to unwind.

With the sun beating down, he had positioned himself just close enough to the fountain’s mist to get cool, but not so close that he got soaked.

“Feels great,’’ he said. “And look at those kids. They’re going crazy.’’

Aisling Foote and her mother Monica Haughton also paused for a few minutes to see all the excitement. Irish natives on vacation, they were living vicariously through the children and reveling in the relaxed scene.

“Sheer joy and freedom,’’ said Haughton, 62.

Told that a highway used to run through here, that it cost a vast fortune to move it underground, Haughton seemed surprised. It was hard to picture this place any other way, she said, adding, “It was worth it.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.

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