Surface Road

Posted in Vol 12 No 4 by bsaab on November 9, 2009

Other Voices

Surface Road. Photo by Mary Ross

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A block of Surface Road runs through downtown Boston unmarked by any plaque. No one visits. It’s a silent memorial. This is where, in the spring of 2006, the last piece of the Central Artery was finally pulled down.

We all know why the Artery had to go: it was hideous, congested, misconceived. An icon of everything wrong with mid-century urban planning.

And I miss it.

Twenty years ago, I would drive into Boston, and it was the strangest and most spectacular thing I had experienced in a car: you would rocket through downtown three stories in the air, weaving among office buildings like a 1940s vision of the future. If you walked on the street below, the Artery was a looming presence, almost geological, cupping a whole realm of the city in shadow. If you got trapped in traffic, which happened a lot, you were captive to a panoramic view.

The Artery was a rusting eyesore, but it was something else as well: the grandest and most unapologetic piece of infrastructure in the city. With the Artery above and the subways thrumming below, downtown Boston evoked the busy optimism of another time — crowds of men with hats; tubes and ribbons of people at every level flowing through the city.

To look back at newspapers from the 1950s and see the color drawings of the young Artery is a revelation: it was a clean highway in the sky, magically stitching the city’s streets into the young American interstate system. When the magnificent thing finally appeared, it wasn’t alone overhead. The Green Line straddling Causeway Street on its muscular viaduct, the elevated trolley down Washington — the city wore its transit like a brace.

Today, the sign that we value a city, or a neighborhood, is that its infrastructure is invisible: if you want to see where the rich people live, look where the power lines aren’t. If you are like me, and you like to see the joints and sinews as well as the surface, you have to visit Boston’s lingering industrial zones, or hunt underground — the inexplicably grand Courthouse Silver Line station; the strange, derelict telephone network inside the Red Line tunnels. Cities are being re-imagined as charming and walkable, as though the massive roads and tracks that feed them were secondary, not essential.

People did not always feel this way about their infrastructure. In ancient Rome, fresh water traveled from the mountains in magnificent arched aqueducts that still inspire awe; once in the city, it sprang from grandiose fountains and baths as if to announce: This is how we became Rome.

Today, we have a system that beggars even Rome’s, yet the water slips quietly through a conduit beneath Boston College, a marvel of engineering that’s not only unmarked, but also unfindable. It would be impossible to imagine an electrical transformer proudly displayed in a public park. And the greatest supply of all, the human beings who are the oxygen of the city itself, now flow invisibly beneath South Station and flash back into the sun once they’re safely out of downtown. When they’re trapped in traffic, they see not the fabric of Boston, but the walls of the buried vein that shunts them beneath it.

I’ll admit that over time, after I moved here, I came to hate the Artery, too: its gnarled spine, its seemingly permanent rust, the way it shook beneath your wheels when trucks went by. Whatever the flaws of the Greenway, it’s hard to imagine capping off its open sky with a new steel overpass.

We can dismiss the old Artery, but we can’t dismiss what it meant. A moment when to be modern meant to look proudly on the achievements that got us here, to be proud of all the pipes and not just the pretty brick streetscapes they nourish — to stand in wonder at the truly wondrous thing.

Stephen Heuser is the deputy editor for the Ideas section of The Boston Globe.

Photo by Mary Ross.

4 Responses

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  1. Eric said, on November 24, 2009 at 8:09 pm


    I think if the Central Artery had looked *anything* like the aqueducts of ancient Rome, Bostonians would not have been so eager to see it go. It might have been our drive for price efficiency at all costs that did us in.

  2. Todd said, on November 25, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    I don’t quite recall being able to “rocket” down the artery during any kind of normal hours. It was almost a parking lot most of the time, especially towards the end.

  3. peter said, on December 4, 2009 at 11:24 am

    thank you Stephen for your excellent article

    In 1972, when boston relooked at its transportation, the artery looked the way you describe it. The boston transportation planning review (BTPR) came up with the idea of burying it. the BTPR used the money planned to build more elevated highways (the inner belt) to extend boston’s transit system out into the suburbs instead, to reduce commuter traffic congestion. When money was sought from washington to help pay for burying the artery as a combined rail-highway system, washington resisted, resulting in the artery popping up over charlestown to be less expensive. We now have a panoramic view again going over a new bridgecrossing like those seen from the other bridges built over the charles river, but we do not have the rail component of the artery which could move more people and goods less congestively and expensively and with washington’s coorperation, could now create a source of income to retire the artery’s debt instead of passing it on to our grandchildren.

  4. Letters « ArchitectureBoston said, on November 30, 2010 at 9:38 am

    […] too, miss the elevated Artery lamented by Stephen Heuser in “Surface Road” [Winter 2009], and the fly-through of Boston it provided drivers. It still represents to me […]

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