In Public: Boston

Notes from Beacon Street.

By F. Philip Barash 

Beacon Street in Brookline, Massachusetts. Photo by F. Philip Barash.

My living room in Brookline, Massachusetts, recently became a home office, and the windows face Beacon Street. Beacon is roomy, with a 160-foot section designed by Frederick Law Olmsted to have sidewalks, carriageways, a bridle path, and one of the earliest electric streetcar tracks in the United States. Over the past weeks, I’ve spent more time staring at this landscape than I had ever imagined possible, amid an eternity of e-mails and Zoom conferences; a lifetime of listlessness and egg sandwiches. Olmsted designed Beacon Street at the invitation of Henry Whitney, a shipping heir who had amassed parcels along a two-and-a-half-mile corridor from central Boston to the edge of Newton. Beacon Street, Whitney said, was to be a democratic rejoinder to Commonwealth Avenue, just east, where only the Boston Brahmins tread. Commonwealth may have stature and statuary, Whitney said, but Beacon would have public transit for common people: “The laboring man, the mechanic, the clerk, and […] the poor woman.” Whitney didn’t account specifically for humble writers like me, but looking upon the trickle of people outside my window, I know what he meant.

A couple in matching pom-pom hats. A jogger, wearing a neon vest, veering into traffic lanes to keep a safe distance from a jogger wearing neon sneakers. A delivery van. Another, pausing on my block. A dog encased in a vest. Two old women, the first leaning on a walker, the second leaning on the first: a breach of distancing, but a stabilizing posture. A plumber. Teenage boys choking with laughter. A baby carriage steered by a woman with her face hidden by a surgical mask. Another masked face. Another.

In CityLab, Richard Florida speculates about a coming spatial order. Sidewalks will have to get wider and procedures at the airport retooled “like we did in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, adding temperature checks and necessary health screenings to the security measures.” In the wake of 9/11, as I remember it, anyone who dared enter an airport with a covered face was a target of hostility. Women in hijabs were subjected to automatic searches; Sikhs were harassed. As people in masks and hoodies walk up Beacon Street, I wonder how we will retool our judgments.

I am turning into a neighborhood crank. I grumble about people who don’t pick up after their dogs. I fume about the volume of package deliveries. One evening, neighbors in my building received visitors. They sat on the building stoop while their friends stayed across the sidewalk, a good distance away. They had to shout at one another. I stopped short of berating them through the open window.

Nothing stopped me, however, from complaining to the Town of Brookline about a dead tree that mars my view. Brookline parks staff are lately working in shifts as a precaution—one week on, one week off—during what they describe as an especially busy spring. Around 2,000 new street trees will be planted this season. The Northeastern University public policy professor Daniel O’Brien recently published a book that studies calls to Boston’s non-emergency 311 line. He focuses on what he calls “custodianship”—the accountability citizens feel for common spaces. Custodianship can be innocuous, as in flagging a pothole or dead tree, or it can be mildly toxic, as in calling out your neighbors. My crankiness, O’Brien says, is of the former kind and to be expected, given that “the presence of these nuisances in our daily lives is now magnified.” These days, he worries more about the toxic variety. “This has all come about so quickly,” he tells me, that “we have had little chance to negotiate with each other, which means there are considerable disagreements between neighbors about what the unwritten rules should be.”

Frederick Law Olmsted designed Beacon Street to accommodate multiple means of movement through a commercial corridor.  Photo by F. Philip Barash.

Alongside Beacon Street’s streetcar tracks, Olmsted drew a bridle path, the future and the past in parallel. In the late 1880s, equestrians were more common than pterodactyls but less so than locomotives. Even if an electric streetcar was still a novelty, the mash-up of pastoral and industrial had by then become a trope. A few miles north, Olmsted’s contemporary, Henry David Thoreau, welcomed a walk along the tracks: “The men on the freight trains, who go over the whole length of the road, bow to me as to an old acquaintance,” he reported in his book Walden. “[T]hey pass me so often, and apparently they take me for an employee; and so I am.” In fact, he was not. But me, I am considering joining the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), eager to share insights gleaned through observation. The first order of business will be to address clumping. Clumping happens when several trains arrive in quick succession, a fluke of slow boarding at peak times. GPS devices promised to help, but MBTA data points to the persistence of clumping. There are no longer any peak hours, but the streetcars still rumble by in herds, brightly lit, empty. Service has been reduced on all lines but one: The E branch, which cuts across medical campuses, is running at increased frequency.

Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace would encircle the city in a continuous path, forcing people into movement from one place, from one social position, to the next. “Men must come together,” Olmsted wrote in paternalistic shorthand, “and must be seen coming together, in carriages, on horseback and on foot, and the concourse of animated life which will thus be formed, must in itself be made, if possible, an attractive and diverting spectacle.” Karen Mauney-Brodek, who heads the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, can recite this passage by heart. The Necklace, Mauney-Brodek says, was intended to be a powerful response to a condition of chronic social isolation. The private lives of European immigrants and southern migrants, black people and Irish people, Catholics and Jews, laboring men and poor women—of everyone—were led in rigid isolation. Yet in public, they would come together, or at the least, be seen together.

Mauney-Brodek says the park is now experiencing an onslaught of commuters who, in avoidance of public transit, traverse the park “on bicycles, on scooters, on skateboards,” and, indeed, on foot. Times of crisis can have the quality of deepening our perceptions, of revealing that which awaits just beneath the surface. The Emerald Necklace is social mobility infrastructure guised as green space. Beacon Street is a social space hidden in mobility infrastructure. To borrow a phrase from a different radical moment, sous les pavés, le parc.

By the time Beacon Street was designed, a commercial cluster in Coolidge Corner, the neighborhood where I live, had long been bustling. Commercial real estate here is a precarious business, with rents approaching downtown’s fashionable precincts. Over the past year or two, some of the more colorful storefronts succumbed to the market, with national chains of banks and pharmacies securing a beige hegemony. The block I face miraculously retained an improvisational vibe. There is a nail shop, a fitness studio, a florist, a Realtor’s office, a laundromat, a taqueria, a café called Knight Moves that specializes in board games, and a newcomer—a CBD store staffed by a radiant hippie. The taqueria was the last to close; only a week earlier, it was still slinging curbside carryout to hungry cops, EMTs, and rideshare drivers. Gustavo Quiroga oversees neighborhood leasing strategy for Graffito SP, a real estate advisory that specializes in ground floor leases. Quiroga tells me that the view from my windows is typical: commercial public realm that hollowed out all across the city in a matter of days. He estimates that as much as 70 percent of independent businesses will shutter for good, and, in a policy memo, suggests a trillion-dollar federal bailout, along with rent protection, business interruption insurance payouts, and other stabilizing measures, directed toward small businesses of the sort that line my block of Beacon. The neon sign advertising “burritos and tacos to go” in the taqueria window has stayed on, though it flickers unpredictably.

F. Philip Barash writes about the critical intersection of design and culture. He currently serves as a fellow at the Boston Foundation, where he leads a public realm philanthropic strategy. You can reach him at

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