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An urban festival in a box

By Ellen Barry, Globe Staff, 7/11/2000

ime passes, but the jelly beans in the festival marketplace are still gourmet, the brick is still exposed, and the posters are still miniature and ready-framed, proclaiming ''Work is for people who don't HUNT.''

TALL SHIPS COVERAGE

FROM BOSTON.COM
07/18/00
Blown transmission strands English Tall Ship in Boston

07/17/00
Captains of smaller ships grumble about treatment
More tall ships arriving
Tall ships leave Boston Harbor

07/14/00
* Tall Ships become Party Boats
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* Canadian students learn the seafaring life

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* A floating hospital for sailors
* Sailors cavort around town
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* After Parade, the party begins
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FROM THE GLOBE
07/17/00
* Hostility left in Tall Ships' wake
* Visiting sailors transform city
* USS Kennedy stood the tallest

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* Millions enjoy the fun

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* Much ado over ribald show

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* Visits running ahead of '92

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* Boston lays out hearty welcome
* Weather lends a hand at Logan
* Front-row seats for Winthrop
* For TV a logistical challenge
* Waterfront companies mix pleasure, business

07/11/00
* A sea change in the harbor
* A struggle for the sea's bounty
* An urban festival in a box
* Just off downtown, a treasure
* Top brass agree Sail Boston is city's best blast

NECN REAL VIDEO

07/16/00
Crowds say goodbye
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* Battle of Barges preview

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* Sail Boston's parade of tourists
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* Britain's Lord Nelson

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* Celluci on Sail Boston
* The Japanese ship Akogare
* The Parade Route
*Spectators turn out early
* Sail Boston weather
* Managing outer harbor traffic
* Parade of Sail route for Tues.
* Aboard USS John F. Kennedy


   

Across a stretch of cobblestones, a girl in braces and short shorts is screaming, ''Jeremy, Jeremy, should I buy a T-shirt for Ashley that says, `I am a Mormon,'?''; Jeremy is glowering in her direction; and a man in a foam-rubber Uncle Sam hat - what is known in the industry as an ''ambient entertainment theme'' - is introducing himself humorously as ''Irving Renewal.''

The pure sugar high of this retail form first hit my bloodstream almost 20 years ago, when my parents tore me away from the Vermont roller rink where I was awaiting the arrival of puberty to visit Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which still had the luster of a new form. The mimes! The large cookies! The walls of novelty ankle socks! Although I had no actual money, I was seized with a consumerist mania that would last for several years.

Even now, a single pushcart vendor can bring it on again - the buzz of Harborplace, or Waterside, or Riverwalk, or Bayside, or WestEnd MarketPlace, or Old Post Office/Pavilion, or of Faneuil Hall, where it struck first.

Today, encountering a pushcart stacked with Cheers crop-tops, it's hard to believe that the opening of Faneuil Hall Marketplace was actually a stomach-churning social experiment.

But history suggests that even the developer, James Rouse, by then a veteran manipulator of human traffic, knew he was pushing his luck: Days before the opening in the summer of 1976, he was scrambling to disguise every mall developer's nightmare. The soon-to-open Quincy Market was awash in unleased space - an unprecedented risk for a company that had already raised some 25 malls out of pancake-flat farmland, rarely with much less than 100 percent occupancy. For mall developers, unleased space is more than unleased space; each empty storefront strips the mall's illusion and reveals it for what it is, a precarious arrangement of drywall and confidence.

Rouse knew he was flouting the rules of mall development because he had helped to write them. In 1958, working on a Harundale, Md., shopping center, he had come up with the idea of glassing in two retail strips. He called this the Heated and Air Conditioned Shopping Street, or HASS, a term that was later replaced by the term ''mall.'' Essential to his idea was what Rouse once saw as ''the obsolescence of downtown'' in the face of a growing number of suburbanites. They needed parking and they needed anchor stores, blue-chip retailers that radiated confidence.

Faneuil Hall Marketplace had neither. As the Boston architects Ben and Jane Thompson had pitched it to Rouse, the market would be an open-air collection of small merchants and high-end specialty food vendors in an antique building. Although Rouse's instinct had been to encase the entire complex in glass, allowing for climate control, practical considerations forced him to abandon even that mall truism, recalls Jane Thompson.

By the middle '70s American shoppers had abandoned downtowns all over the country, and Boston had been particularly riven by the busing controversy. For three days before the late August opening, gangs of white and black young men had been clashing with stones and knife blades on the streets of Dorchester.

But Rouse was in a risk-taking mood, having just raised the planned community of Columbia, Md., from 14,000 acres of farmland. Sixty potential investors had already rejected the proposal by that time, Jane Thompson says. Years later, Rouse told a reporter that he hadn't allowed members of his staff to do a market study of the $30 million project because he knew they would conclude it was not feasible. Rouse may have taken bigger financial risks in his life, but, by the reckoning of his nephew Willard Rouse, a Philadelphia developer, he never staked so much on an idea.

''There wasn't enough market in the city, so you had to pull in the suburbanites. That meant suburbanites would have to drive right past all the suburban shopping centers on their way into the central city,'' says Bernard Frieden, an associate dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and co-author of the 1989 book ''Downtown, Inc.: How America Rebuilds Cities.''

''The basements were full of water with charred logs and dead rats floating in it,'' recalls Bob Keidel, who was a senior vice president of the Rouse Corporation. ''It was incredible that anyone could think of merchandising there.''

As the project's Aug. 26 opening approached, the real estate developer Richard Friedman, of Boston's Carpenter & Co., watched with naked curiosity as to whether they could pull it off.

''My recollection is it was very clear,'' he says. ''It was virtually impossible for them to do it.''

The remedy? Pushcarts! Rouse's team ordered them built along the lines the Thompsons had proposed and manned them with anyone who was available, loading them with goods that could only loosely be termed merchandise. It was, after all, the new science of mall developers to manufacture whole environments - what a customer might take for a palm tree could be a steel post with leaves stuck in the top and the bark glued on with epoxy. If retailers weren't clamoring for space in Faneuil Hall, the pushcarts at least would make it look like they were.

The project's chief engineer sat at a pushcart selling ''geniune Boston cobblestones.'' The architects Ben and Jane Thompson sold herbs and flowers from their Cape Cod garden.

And Rouse sat behind a pushcart of his own, staking his reputation on the power of centrally planned fun.

He was right. Nine years of crushing doubt evaporated before lunchtime.

As Ben Thompson approached the market that morning, he turned to his wife, Jane, and said, ''Oh, my God, what does this mean?'' There, outside the doors of Quincy Market, 50,000 people were waiting to enter. During the course of the day, 100,000 people circulated through the market, surging in from the financial district at lunchtime, according to Frieden's book. Young women scattered daisies on cobblestones. One kilted member of the bagpipe corps fainted from the heat. David Tripp, then director of investor relations at the Rouse Corporation, recalls nearly being knocked down by Julia Child on her way to a tray of lobster.

That fall, and for a decade afterward, the festival marketplace idea radiated in waves out of Boston, landing first in Baltimore, where Rouse built Harborplace two years later. To the aching question of what to do with the downtowns of Jacksonville, New Orleans, Richmond, Norfolk, and Flint, the answer suddenly seemed to be chocolate chip cookie franchises, chili cookoffs, and candy shop workers under instruction to sing ''Stop! In the Name of Fudge.''

The Thompsons had their doubts about recreating what they had done in Boston, but the architects' opinion hardly mattered. In the long line of cities that followed Boston's lead, the thing that swayed city leaders was the magical aura of Rouse, who had appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1984 next to a headline reading ''Cities are Fun.''

''He was a nationally known developer. People got all excited - wow, James Rouse has come to Richmond! It was kind of like the circus coming to town,'' says John Moeser, who teaches in the urban studies and planning program at Virginia Commonwealth University.

But a few years later, it became clear that the festival market could be a painful disaster where it was not a success. Richmond's Sixth Street Market, opened to fanfare in 1985, has limped along as ''a reminder of a major failure,'' says Moeser. The Water Street Pavilion in Flint, Mich. - which one former planner for the city recalled grimly as having ''a whole lot of junk and a lot of people dancing around and stuff inside it'' - lasted four years, and was eventually sold to the University of Michigan for office space. In Toledo, Portside stood empty for about 21/2 years, says Stephen Herwat, director of the county planning commission, like ''an open wound'' in the most prominent space in the downtown, before reopening as a museum.

Those marketplaces that were not transformed, optimistically, into ''festival workplaces'' were simply reborn as traditional downtown malls. Eric Biber, a Yale law student who wrote a paper on the marketplace's decline, noted that 15 years after Richmond's Second Street Marketplace opened, such shops as The Left Bank (items for left-handed people), Rainin' Cats and Dogs (novelties for pet fanciers), and Scentsations (scented wax chips) had been replaced by a transit authority sales office, Downtown Designs Hair and Nail Studio, Jamal's Upscale Clothing, and Dollar Place. Asked how to revive ailing marketplaces, Carl Steidtmann, a retail analyst with PricewaterhouseCoopers recommends, sunnily, ''blow them up.''

In hindsight, Herwat says, the successes and failures make perfect sense.

''Toledo is a very blue-collar town, and a lot of people who walked in just didn't get it,'' says Herwat. ''For instance, Portside had a shop that only sold things that were purple.''

By the late 1980s, Rouse's Enterprise Development Company had ended its relationship with several of the less successful marketplaces. Keidel, Rouse's former deputy in the corporation, watched with sympathy as his friend grappled with a new experience: He had failed to make things happen the way he thought they ought to.

''People can gather merely for the delight of being there,'' Rouse said in a 1988 interview with Business Week. ''In some, though, delight is not enough.''

The delight is still in business at Faneuil Hall, thanks in large part to a steady influx of tourists - market surveys from 1997 showed that 33 percent of its visitors are from foreign countries. Meanwhile, the small, independent merchants that Rouse and the Thompsons scoured the city to recruit have given way to national chain stores. The result is a marketplace closer in tone to a regional mall - probably not what Rouse intended when he spoke of his desire to ''restore an old form.'' Meanwhile, the all-purple stores, like the refrigerator magnets and the narrative-heavy sandwich menus, have lost their hold on our attention.

In the end, though, the success of the marketplace idea can only be measured by an unmeasurable event: At a certain moment, people in suburbia adjusted their behavior to include downtown. Years later, observers would credit Faneuil Hall and its progeny with permanently shifting the balance between those lifestyles; Ben Thompson wrote that Aug. 26, 1976, was ''the day the urban renaissance began.'' Rouse, the student of human yearning, considered shopping a ''crucial triggering ingredient'' toward a larger, less tangible goal. He loaded the place with whatever it took - the mimes, the daisies, and a cookie big enough to change the world.

 


 


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