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Downtown View: Blizzards Popular in Downtown Boston

What a storm. What a wonderful storm.

When we moved to downtown Boston years ago, we didn’t do it for the walkability, the neighborliness or the convenience of living in a place where the electricity stays on when a blizzard bears down. I’m not sure now why we moved here, except I knew that if I moved to the suburbs, I’d have to shoot myself.

Turns out I was able to live, and live with ease. In downtown Boston, even blizzards are not problematic. With cars banned and the snow muffling sounds, such storms bring both quiet and excitement. On the harbor, the Atlantic Ocean largely behaves itself. Power outages are rare. We don’t have to drive in the stuff. We curl up before the fireplace and let the wind howl.

This time we didn’t even have to shovel. Our neighbor did it three times—thanks, Bill.

Public officials have also made living here reassuring. They are professionals who have learned from previous storms. They told offices to close and shut down roads so we didn’t have to pay for rescuing stranded drivers on 128 who thought they could beat the storm as they tried to do in the blizzard of ’78. The snowplows could do their job and emergency vehicles could get through.

On Saturday morning it was still snowing when it seemed as if the whole city went out to play. This was the exciting part. Families were sledding down streets, building snowmen in the Public Garden, or tackling the hill in the Common. One toddler, bundled up in a stroller so tightly that she could barely move, was regarding the scene with a calm, but perplexed look. It was the first time she had gotten snow in her face.

Cross-country skiers were out on Charles and Commercial streets. Walkways in the Public Garden had been plowed. Dogs played on the Greenway and the Common. The Surface Road along the Greenway was free of vehicles. It finally sort of looked like a park instead of a median.

Everyone smiled. Starbucks at the corner of Beacon and Charles wasn’t officially open yet but it was crowded because its baristas were pouring free coffee. Snowplows scraped down the streets and a few cars drove slowly by, but people had control of the place.

Friends were out, enjoying the scene. Betsy, who lives on the flat of the Beacon Hill, had invited Nancy, who lives at the top of the Hill, to stay overnight. A few weeks ago, Nancy had cracked her patella while skating. “I didn’t think she’d want to be at the top of the Hill with that big cast on her leg,” said Betsy.

On Friday afternoon and evening, the bars were full. At the Taj, where Nancy treated Betsy to a pot of tea, several Back Bay parents with children were enjoying various drinks appropriate to their ages. Hotels, of which we have many, luckily stay open during storms.

A friend in the North End reported that his neighbors were having the same good time as Beacon Hill.

By Saturday afternoon the storm had abated, and, again, the restaurants and bars that were open enjoyed a festive atmosphere. Remarkably, many sidewalks along residences had been shoveled. Only a few problems had emerged. Along the commercial streets, many shopkeepers had not shoveled. This wasn’t a problem until cars were allowed back on the streets.

Equipment in an electrical closet blew at 8 Whittier Place in the West End, shutting down the heat, electricity and elevators in both 6 and 8 Whittier and the fitness club. Residents scrounged around for rooms in hotels already full of MGH employees. It’s doubtful that the blizzard caused the incident, but fixing the problem was more difficult because of storm. A resident said the city came through, arranging for a fuel delivery for the generator that kept emergency lights on.

Other than that problem, downtown was celebratory during the storm, but in other places, the situation was desperate.

At least two people died of carbon monoxide poisoning, presumably because a snow bank covered up a car’s exhaust pipe. Some communities were flooded. Many households are still without power as I write this column.

We’ve learned from previous storms how inadequate our infrastructure is unless conditions are perfect. Flooding is a problem communities must address since it’s not going to get any better.

Utilities also have to upgrade to the 21st century. Last year utility company officials told me it was too expensive to bury lines, even though buried utilities are one reason downtown Boston weathers storms better. But overhead lines may turn out to be the most expensive. The utility companies have had to pay fines for slow repairs, and will probably have to do so this time. They incur extra costs as they fly in electrical workers from other parts of the country. Residents of communities with overhead lines will eventually get tired of having no heat or electricity. The Edison Electric Institute, a group representing the industry, found that “the underground electrical system is shown to contribute significantly fewer interruptions to the average customer outage experience.”

Burying the lines is only one step that can be taken to prevent hardship. It is also one of the main reasons we in downtown Boston were whooping it up, while our fellow citizens in outlying areas were miserable.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com.

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4 Replies to “Downtown View: Blizzards Popular in Downtown Boston

  1. The South End was equally special during the storm and afterward. Several bars were open Friday and Saturday nights; many of their staffs lived locally. We had a wonderful time on Friday night (but too warn out on Saturday night as a result).

    Tremont Street looked beautiful and with no cars, residents were taking to the street. The whole neighborhood had that fresh snowfall feel. Even better, the snow was fairly light and airy, making it easy to shovel. Took half the time and effort as I feared.

    Even today, the city was eerily quiet, probably due to the lack of cars lining the major streets.

    Oh, I spoke too soon, though. Five minutes ago Tremont Street was invaded with a force of ten dump trucks and front loaders. Guess they’ll be snow moving for the next several hours. Oh, well.

  2. I guess none of these folks spent 5 hours shoveling. Not such a wonderland if you own property that you need to maintain and worry about.

  3. Thanks Karen, I am a fortunate Waterfront resident , who
    truely appreciates the convenience of City living. Not having to deal with power outages,frozen pipes and snow shoveling during a blizzard is a beautiful thing.

    Christopher Columbus Park provided a scene out of National Geographic.The lighted trellis on the snow is truely magical.

    Our suburban neighbors should be lobbying for underground utilities.Four + days without power doesn’t make for enjoying Winter beauty.

    Your columns are entertaining and provocative.

    A regular reader,
    MB

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with John Levensen. We all do not have the luxury of living ON the Waterfront, most of us don’t
    have the Luxury of Garages to park our cars & some people don’t have the Luxury of Parking in an Outdoor Lot
    which requires constant shoveling. I was not living here in the Blizzard of 78, but one would think that the City &
    State would come together & obtain more trucks that melt the snow & release it in the sewers. The City of Boston
    only has 3 trucks that perform this task, that is unacceptable. Where are our Tax Dollars going? What are
    they doing with the Lottery Money? This is a thriving City & State, therefore, NO EXCUSES.

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