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DIGGING FOR VICTORY

August 20, 2010

I guess we choose holiday hotels for price, style or convenience. On our recent holiday, our Boston hotel was chosen for all these reasons – well priced for a family of three, a company with whom we had previously been delighted, and well positioned near Logan airport and the ‘T’, Boston’s metro system, meaning access to downtown, and to our coach to Cape Cod for the second part of our stay, was easy.

We greatly enjoyed our stay at the Embassy Suites, Logan Airport,( and the wonderful city of Boston)  but the highlight of the hotel location, for me, was to be found on the five minute walk to the T station.

We had read that the walk from the hotel to T station  was ‘through a pleasant park’. So, having arrived at Logan from Edinburgh and settled into our rooms, my son and I decided to take an early evening walk to check out the route to the station and our surroundings. From the hotel door was a tree lined walkway which led to a  children’s play area, thoughtfully provided with fun showers and sprays to keep local kids cool in the heat, which, at around 7pm was still in the 80s.

So far, so good. We walked past the play area and into a kind of dream. An area around the size of four full sized football pitches was laid out in fifth generation astroturf, all of it in immaculate condition. The whole area was also covered with local youths playing soccer; there must have been two hundred or more teenagers and early twenties involved in informal games – all with portable goalposts and all in sports kit. Around the sides of the main activity, small groups of younger kids were being coached in a ordered fashion by adults, maybe parents. Without exception these youngsters, some as young as four or five were practising skills and doing drills rather than playing games, but, even here, the equipment was of the highest standard. This was during the World Cup, so there was a buzz of excitement about the place, and the majority of players, from appearance and replica shirts, seemed to be from East Boston’s immigrant populations – Hispanic, Korean, Balkan, Asian and so on. It was an amazing and uplifting sight in a public park.

We walked on, slightly slack jawed, to identify the T station at the far side of the park. This, again, was spotless and integrated with buses to Logan Airport, a few hundred yards away. Ticket arrangements were clear, but, just in case, tourists who looked a little lost were being approached by Transit Authority employees who were helping them find their way round the computerised ticketing system.

We headed back to the hotel by completing the circuit round the parkland and the footballers. The pleasant pathway was being used by commuters, airport passengers and staff and people out walking in the evening sunlight. As we reached the end of a hundred yard stretch we realised we were coming to a public stadium, again busy with people training – running, shooting hoops, throwing American footballs. The signs suggested it was used by East Boston High School, and it contained a 7 0r 800 seater open stand, a central pitch for field events, rugby or American Football, and a 400 metre tartan track in immaculate condition.

Carrying on, we passed a softball diamond, then a Little League diamond and, as we returned to where we had entered the park, realised that in a corner of the astroturf where the soccer players were playing there was also a full sized baseball diamond, apparently home to the  East Boston Knights in the local baseball league.

This was a superb, public park  amenity, with a high standard of facility and maintenance, and clearly extremely well used by locals. The view below gives an idea of the 17 acre site, with the hotel just left of bottom centre, and the T station at the top centre. (Thanks to Google Maps!)

The park remained busy every night of our stay, and during the day locals used it with or without their children, to rest in the heat, play in the fountains or as a pleasant green space to lighten the day’s work or tasks. Even late in the evening, when the soccer players, baseballers and others had gone, the walk across the superb astroturf from the station to the hotel was illuminated by first rate floodlights, left on for the public’s convenience and safety.

So, having chosen an hotel for the  most sensible of reasons, we found that it fronted on to a piece of inspiration – uplifting in many ways, but also demoralising when compared to our lot at home.

Looking at the top image, it should be possible to work out the location of this public park. Sweeping from left to right, in an arc that bounds the top of the site, is one of Boston’s main freeways, on  the other side of which can be seen planes parked on the apron at Logan Airport. The train system runs down the left hand side, and along the bottom of the picture is housing, our hotel and rental car locations. In other words, this is a large but hemmed in site, virtually on top of a major airport and surrounded by major traffic arteries. Think, for a moment, of a similar site next to any of the UK’s major airports: Heathrow, Ringway or even Edinburgh. If it was not covered by concrete, it would be an unsightly mess, littered and abandoned, neither used or useful.

So, how come, in East Boston, it is a site of inestimable use and pride to the local community?

Well, the answers to that lie in opportunity and political will but, most significantly, in philosophy. I really wouldn’t want to get into the messy byways of local Boston politics, the eco lobby, and airport expansion, but a brief history is helpful for understanding how the citizens of East Boston, and, apparently, other areas of the city, are so fortunate in this facility.

This area of East Boston was originally composed of a number of islands which were gradually filled in by the needs of industry. By the 1840s, East Boston, as it had become, was the site of Donald Mackay’s Shipyard. This Nova Scotian built many of the  famous tea clippers that competed for speed across the oceans of commerce. Eventually, Boston’s Logan Airport would come to cover this site, and by the 1960s, was desperate to expand.

The airport and its traffic also contributed to another major Boston problem in the last decades of the twentieth century: road traffic and the need to adapt a city with streets built for horse drawn carriages to the demands of later times. Basically, a city with so much waterfront needed more tunnels – especially considering only one tunnel led to Logan. In addition, the major traffic artery -I93 – cut straight through the city on elevated sections and was a hindrance to development in all sorts of ways. The plan, first formulated in the 70s, was to demolish the raised highway and replace it with a tunnel, through the centre of town,and also to build a third tunnel for access to Logan.

Those who are familiar with the frustrations of Edinburgh’s current tram development – or indeed any major infrastructure development – won’t be surprised at the outline of progress on what was to become America’s most expensive highway project ever. Estimated at around $8 billion in 1985, some say the final cost will, be around $22 billion, and, in real terms, around four times the expected cost. There were accusations of graft, shoddy workmanship and at least one full on tragedy when a roof panel in the new tunnel collapsed. There was any amount of political and planning infighting and many special interest groups got to roll around in the gutter. They started the project finally in 1991 and it was largely complete by 2006.

Bostonian wit christened the project The Big Dig -and, from what I could tell, and, as you would expect, there are a whole range of opinions about the concept, its execution and the aftermath. However, it has eased  traffic flow dramatically in some areas, and, most relevant to this blog, there were a number of requirements attached to planning permission which, at least theoretically, were good news for Boston residents and visitors. The space through the centre of the city left by the demolition of the overhead highway was designated the Rose Kennedy Greenway and plans made to beautify the route and, over in East Boston, there was a projected greenway across the area linking waterfront to waterfront by way of walking and cycle paths, community gardens and parks. The East Boston Memorial Park, with which we were so impressed, formed part of this development.

Logan Airport, through its multifaceted authority, Massport, had a part to play in its local East Boston area also. From mid nineteenth century shipbuilding times, this part of Boston had always attracted immigrants and provided a home area to  the various waves of  Irish, Italian, Jewish, Hispanic. It is in  a unique situation, on what amounts to a finger pointing out into the harbour. This provides a strange approach for passengers who look out of the descending aircraft with mounting apprehension as they appear to be landing on water, and many concerns for ecologists who worry at the effect of so many planes on such an important environment.

As is the case with many busy airports, Logan is always looking to expand, and indeed has done so quite dramatically in the last decade, encouraged, it has to be said, by the provision of that extra, Ted Williams, Tunnel, as well as increasing demand for air travel. Combining this expansion with the recession in various manufacturing  industries in the area, meant bad news for the local population. This gave them leverage against the major concerns responsible for redevelopment and expansion in the Eastie area.

In the end, money was allocated from The Big Dig funds to renew and renovate neighbourhoods affected, and, as airport expansion in the sixties had obliterated East Boston’s much loved Wood Island Park, the formation of the East Boston Memorial park, next to the Stadium, was seen as part compensation. As part of the deal, and, I would say, crucial to its effective sustainability, was the agreement that Massport would be responsible for maintenance of the Park and stadium, mirroring their similar responsibilities for the greenway project, of which the park is an integral part. In addition, many local organisations are funded to provide a variety of summer activities for local youths, sporting and otherwise, further promoting the use of facilities and the sense of ownership.

Now, there is no doubt that, speaking to people in Eastie, you would get a range of responses to the Big Dig, the tunnel, Logan’s expansion and the efficacy of  the ‘beautification’ funds and projects that have come in its wake. In addition, it would be presumptious of me in the extreme to pontificate on East Boston’s community affairs on such limited knowledge.

However, there are definitely lessons that we could learn here in Scotland from such developments. Apart from noting that the bigger the development, the bigger the overspend and the more hassle there will be with contractors, which I think we already knew, there is the matter of community agitation to ensure that local wishes are acted upon. It seems that, where legislators are looking to reelection and companies are looking for ongoing contracts, the voice of the people still CAN make a difference, if loud enough, well presented and widely supported. I’m sure there were many defeats for the East Bostonians – you wouldn’t envy them taking on two of today’s most powerful lobbies in transport and planning, but there are also sustainable signs of what they have gained to ameliorate to some degree the losses. I understand they will need to keep fighting to ensure that the greenways, the gardens and their maintenance continues to be important to Massport and local government, but, crossing that park, filled with local activity, so well presented and so beautifully  maintained, you had to salute the strength they have shown already.

However, there is a more important element to all of this. And that relates to prioritisation, political philosophy and community awareness. The Park and Stadium were eloquent demonstrations of what can be achieved, but they existed because local people, and through them, city politicians, knew instinctively that East Boston needed recreational space for both the mental and physical wellbeing of its citizens. Yes, money was made available from The Big Dig, but that such a fund existed was down to a certain philosophy when approaching the construction contracts. And, yes, to see so many young people enjoying sport in such first class surroundings, in a public place, was uplifting – but even more so was the attitude of all and their approach to the amenity.

Unbelievably for us in Scotland – there was no litter, no graffiti, no vandalism, no threatening groups of youths monopolising children’s play areas, no drinking, no swearing and absolutely no sense of threat. And this was not in what we could call a middle class area either – it was cheek by jowl with airport, railway and freeway – yet it was pristine in appearance, maintenance and usage. Clearly, the people knew what they wanted, the politicians recognised its importance and the community respected it.

These are hard financial times everywhere, but local and central government is still spending money – our money, and multinationals are still making profits on the back of services they offer to us. In Scotland we bemoan  our high levels of illness, our status as the sick man of Europe, the lack of exercise taken by our young people, the alienation of many parts of society, yet there is no real sign of prioritising community health. Campaigns are waged, funds are allocated – but on  nowhere near the level to make a difference. When we look at the – still – obscene amounts of profit being made by Edinburgh’s financial sector, for instance, and tot up the billions profit they accrued before the Crash, is it impossible to believe that a government and city that prioritised facilities for promoting health and wellbeing could have got together with private enterprise, made deals like those made with The Big Dig and suggested ever so gently that planning permission could be eased – not by graft or shady dealings  – but by support for sports and recreational facilities all over the city – built and maintained to a standard so high that the community would be eager to experience them and would take care of them? The reality, of course, was that existing facilities have been allowed to rot, vast amounts of open land and playing fields have been sold to developers, schools are built with limited sports facilities, often in PPI Initiatives where playing fields are swapped for smaller spaces as part of the build deal, and the best of facilties remain in private hands so that  those who are wealthy enough to afford them can keep themselves fit, and so maintain the gap between the healthy rich and the ill poor. There are priorities demonstrated in all of this, but, whatever they are, they have little to do with supporting families and communities and promoting health and fitness – of mind or body.

The bald fact is that our country doesn’t prioritise the provision of such facilities. Provision is at best piecemeal, or focused on the elite rather than everyman.  Money is being spent, but there is no game plan, no clear overall strategy and certainly no indication from various political parties that they are really serious about providing first class local facilities throughout the country. Such provision needs government at local and national level working with the biggest companies, using leverage if necessary, as was done in Boston, to find the cash to promote and build the facilities. Such a change in governmental priorities would change a whole generation’s attitudes – to heath and well being, recreation, society and community.

I know; I’ve seen it in Eastie – and for those in any doubt, check out the destination board on the Blue Line trains that run through East Boston –

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Celeste Myers permalink
    August 23, 2010 2:12 am

    Sean,

    Just wanted to thank you for your lovely countenance of your visit to East Boston. Your description helps to remind us of just a couple of the many blessings, albeit hard won, that we have here in our little community.

    There are currently a couple of groups in East Boston that have banded together to help improve and increase access to our green spaces. They will be thrilled to read your post and it will surely bolster their efforts!

    Sincere Regards,
    Celeste Myers
    Proud Native East Bostonian

  2. starluna permalink
    August 27, 2010 4:15 pm

    Sean,

    A wonderful post about East Boston. As someone who uses Eastie (my adopted home) as a case for all that is good and bad in urban planning in my university courses. You are absolutely correct that a certain kind of philosophy is needed to even see the possibility of spaces like the Bremen Street Park in neighborhoods like ours.

    However, I would argue that neither Boston, nor Massachusetts, nor the USA in general prioritize the amenities that you enjoyed here. They were hard fought for since the 1960s. Indeed, the Bremen Street park, which you beautifully describe in the beginning of the post, could just as easily stayed the off airport parking lot it was prior to it reinvention as a community park. It almost happened several times in the 20 year long battle over the Bremen Street land.

    Park spaces in the tourist areas of the Boston are prioritized. I’m sure this is also true in Edinburgh, at least from my observations when I visited there a few years ago. But the less wealthy and less politically connected neighborhoods generally have to fight for clean and safe parks. If it wasn’t for the Big Dig, the legal requirements for environmental mitigation that were put in place in the 1970s and 1980s, and the constant battle by neighborhood residents – sometimes against their own elected representatives – to get an adequate replacement of recreation space lost to airport expansion, those parks wouldn’t even exist, much less be the jewels that they are.

    Thank you very much for calling attention to it.

    • August 27, 2010 4:51 pm

      Thank you! I suspected that was the case and am delighted if this has highlighted it in even a small way. You are right about Edinburgh, and, I suppose, most places. Those who are wealthy and can afford a healthy lifestyle have access to private clubs and comfortable localities; the folks who need these facilities most have to fight for every inch. What I saw at Porter St just seemed to reflect how successful and hard fought that fight must have been. Keep the Faith Eastie!!!!

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