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.