This was my third trip to Boston in the past several years and, as always, I was struck by the massive construction projects everywhere. Most of this involves the Big Dig (more on that later), but it seems the entire city is continually either shoring up or tearing down what my husband, who often attends conferences there, laughingly refers to as the "crumbling infrastructure."
My friends who live either in or outside of Boston, too, refer to the various enormous civic projects with fond derision tinged with barely-suppressed pride. On prior visits to Boston, I regarded the resulting chaos with a certain asperity (if it wasn’t finished yet, what possible good could it conceivably do me in the next few days?), but on this last trip, driving in to Boston along I-93, a route which features both hair-raising traffic and awe-inspiring views of the Big Dig construction, I resolved to do a bit of investigating while I was in town about this and other Bostonian mega projects.
What I discovered was surprising.
Boston, it seems, has a long history of ambitious civic engineering projects. Most notably, before the Big Dig there were the Big Fills. Some 360 years ago, when the town was first settled, Boston was confined to a slender finger of land jutting out into the bay, terminating in a larger area, almost an island, upon which stood three mountains. The low rise of the area that is now Beacon Hill is all that remains of the mountains today, though nearby Tremont Street's name refers to them. Starting during the late 18th century, Boston began filling in the surrounding bay to extend the harbor front. Then, as the population grew, more and more land was reclaimed from the sea in a succession of fill projects.
The three mountains were gradually carted off and dumped into nearby coves to give the overcrowded town some breathing room. Tourists strolling through present-day Quincy Market may not realize it, for example, but they are walking on what used to be the shoreline of the Boston Harbor. And, before buying into the myth that Boston’s streets were laid out along existing "cow paths," consider that the original topography of the town bears absolutely no resemblance to the city’s ultimate configuration. The streets in the oldest sections were confined to the narrow oddly-shaped peninsula; subsequent landfills proceeded erratically and irregularly, and thus Boston’s notoriously confusing street layout was born.
The most ambitious of these fill projects began in the mid 1800’s and involved filling in what is now the entire Back Bay area. I heard the same story about the filling in of the Back Bay from not just one but three people while I was in Boston. For over fifty years, day and night, 24 hours a day, gravel was brought in by railroad from Needham and westward areas, up to 3,500 railroad cars of it a day. The scope of this project alone, not to mention the many other areas that were filled (West Cove, South Cove, East Cove, Marine Park, South Boston, Charlestown, the Logan Airport area, and others) surely make the creation of Boston one of the greatest American engineering feats. To get a sense of how dramatically the land was built up, take a look at this animated page displaying the Sequence of Landfill Projects in Boston. Impressive, isn’t it? And the work continues even to this day.
Perhaps, then, it is appropriate that the city which has essentially built the very ground it stands upon, has for the past eleven years embarked on what is undoubtedly the most ambitious construction project in U.S. history. Comparisons are frequently made to the Panama Canal or the Chunnel. But, if the truth be known, the Big Dig is an elaborate form of penance for what was essentially a Big Mistake: an ill-conceived elevated six-lane highway started in the 1940’s that cut through the heart of Boston, dividing communities and becoming in short order a congested eyesore. Bogged down in community protests, it was never even completed. By the late 1990’s, the road designed to carry 75,000 vehicles a day was carrying 190,000. Accident rates on the elevated highway are four times the national average for urban interstates, and the amount of pollution spewed by the countless autos inching along the clogged central artery is almost unfathomable. The elevated highway was and is an unmitigated disaster.
Boston had little choice but to go under the city to correct the mess above it. Still, this doesn’t diminish the grandiosity of the Big Dig concept. What’s most striking is that from the onset the planners vowed to keep everything running while the underground construction proceeded simultaneously. The twelve labors of Hercules pale beside the technical challenges the Big Dig’s engineers face. For example, each of the support columns for the elevated highway lies directly in the path of the new highway tunnel. An ingenious system of "underpinning," replacing each of the 67 rows of support columns and shifting the weight to the walls of the new tunnel, has been devised. Mind you, while all this restructuring is going on, the traffic on the road above never stops. (Here near D.C., in comparison, it doesn’t seem that road crews can replace a manhole cover without closing at least three lanes of traffic!) Not until the underground expressway is completed will the elevated road be demolished and replaced by a green swath of open space with limited development. It will be, whenever it is finally completed, something worth seeing.
One specific part of the Big Dig, the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, is already clearly a masterpiece in the making. This huge asymmetrical bridge rises like a gigantic stringed instrument from the center of town, a gleaming vision of taut white cables splaying out over the river. Few structures that I’ve ever seen are as visually stunning. It is something of an irony that the best views of the new bridge are from the old one running right alongside it (and the barely-moving traffic provides plenty of time to view it). Crossing the Charlestown Bridge on foot on one occasion, I repeatedly stopped to gawk at the Zakim Bridge. What a beauty.
The engineering complexities of the Big Dig project are generally beyond my comprehension, though I got an inkling of them at a display devoted to the project at the Science Museum. After we returned from Boston, still intrigued by the project, I found an even better source of information on a website devoted to the Big Dig.
While the landfills and Big Dig are rarely mentioned in most Boston travel guides and visitor websites, these phoenix-from-the-ashes urban renewal projects are in fact just as characteristic of Boston as the Freedom Trail and the Red Sox. Next time you’re in town, set aside an hour or two to check out the progress on the Big Dig, or just ask someone about it. Any Bostonian who’s experienced the years of construction upheaval is in and of himself testimony to the hardheaded idealism that characterizes this city.