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Boston - A pedestrians’ paradise!

Downtown Boston: A group of Italian tourists follows a trail of red bricks set into the sidewalk. They pass Park Street Church, whose snow-white tower looks like a lavishly frosted wedding cake. A little further on, they come across the heraldic animals of the United Kingdom, a unicorn and a golden lion, decorating the gabled roof of the Old State House. A couple of teenagers gaze upward in wonder, their cameras clicking. “It’s just like Disneyland!,” one of them cries.

The difference is that everything here is real. Boston, the capital of the US state of Massachusetts, is one of a very few US cities to have so many historic places located so close together. Parts of the old town have even been declared a “national historic park.” The red bricks mark the famous Freedom Trail, a roughly four-kilometer-long path built in 1958 to connect the sites where Boston’s citizens fought for independence from England in the 18th century. Last year, roughly three million visitors walked the Freedom Trail, more than ever before. But it’s not just history that draws tourists to Boston. A few years ago, one of the world’s biggest urban construction projects, informally known as the Big Dig, was completed, eliminating some of the city’s worst engineering blunders and infusing downtown Boston with new life.

“Boston stands for science, liberal thinking, Harvard, MIT, the Kennedys and for its historical past,” says Hubert Murray, the architect in charge of the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, as the Big Dig is officially known. “For decades we had to live with a gaping wound,” says Murray, “a wound that also scared visitors away.” Like many other American cities in the late 1950s, Boston built a giant urban freeway in the name of progress and dedicated it to that measure of all things known as the automobile. Central Artery, as it was called, was a loud, evil-smelling monstrosity that wound through the city on tall, rusty pylons. The effect on downtown Boston, built on a peninsula, was particularly harsh: It cut off people’s access to the harbor and the piers, and the neighborhoods on the waterfront that could not be reached on foot rapIDly deteriorated.

The elevated highway also severed sections of the Freedom Trail, forcing it to pass underneath. “Many visitors just turned around when they reached the Central Artery,” Murray recalls. In 1982, Boston began drawing up plans to relocate the highway underground, but didn’t actually break ground until nine years later. The first phase involved building a tunnel to the airport that would spit out traffic far outside the downtown area. The entire project cost 14.6 billion dollars, and at the peak of construction employed 5000 workers. The last portions of the elevated highway were taken down in 2004, and (de)construction officially ended in late 2007, making way for the landscapers and gardeners.

“The historic pattern of the city has now been reestablished,” Murray says happily, “and the downtown area is even more beautiful than before. Today the red-brick Freedom Trail leads down Marshal Street and on past lakes of flowers instead of an ugly highway. Central Artery has been turned into a long, narrow park, planted with oaks and maples. It features park benches to sit on and fountains and art to enjoy. Boston’s sightseeing trolleys clatter past at a comfortable speed. They look like historical streetcars. Close by, a giant, olive-green iron girder with massive rivets has been preserved as a monument on the corner of Clinton Street and Commercial Street. It is one of thousands that once supported the elevated highway.

A children’s carousel has been set up behind Quincy Market, which has hawked Boston baked beans and traditional clam chowder for two hundred years. Gulls circle in the sky and the air is filled – not with the stench of exhaust – but with the smell of the sea. “Am I glad we got rid of that thing,” says Thomas Nally, Planning Director of A Better City, an organization with over a hundred members, including hoteliers and restaurant owners, museum directors, merchants and real-estate brokers. A Better City was the driving force behind the Big Dig. “Building a tunnel greatly reduced the noise and carbon dioxide pollution downtown, ” says Nally, “and once-severed neighborhoods really began to blossom.” For him, the best example of this is the North End, Boston’s oldest neighborhood.

So down the red-brick road we go. Throngs of people congregate outside the Paul Revere House with its wood shingles, shutters and crown glass windows. Originally built in 1680, it is one of the oldest buildings in the city, which was founded by English Puritans in 1630.

Four years later, Boston Common became the first public park to open on the American continent. The first Latin school opened in 1635 and Harvard University, the country’s oldest institute of higher learning, in 1636. Angry citizens dumped imported tea from England into Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773 to protest against the high taxes that the Crown was imposing on the British colonists. The Boston Tea Party triggered the Revolutionary War, and after US independence, Boston became one of the world’s wealthiest ports and one of the most important cities in the country.

The historical Piers District, the old port and the Seaport District all began to throb with new life once the Big Dig was completed. Yachts rock gently on the waves, and bars and restaurants have moved into the freshly restored warehouse buildings. A spectacular new structure in the Seaport District now houses the Institute of Contemporary Art, which was founded in 1936. Word of all of these developments has naturally gotten out and visitors are arriving from all over the place. Europeans who used to hop on the plane for a quick trip to New York are now arriving in Boston to immerse themselves briefly in American history or for a couple days of shopping. Boston’s chic Newbury Street has most of the stores and labels that you find on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Hotel and restaurant prices are also considerably lower in Boston than in New York – which is another good reason to pay the Massachusetts capital a visit. Hubert Murray, the architect, has recently observed a new type of visitor in Boston. “Ever since the Big Dig we’ve seen an increase in visitors from cities with a similar problem. They come to take a look at what we’ve done.” Architects, city planners, congress members from Seattle, Barcelona, Oslo and even Kobe, Japan, now walk the Freedom Trail to learn how Boston got its city back.


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