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Downtown View: Best Foot Forward

This is the season in which Boston should look its best. Trees are fully leafed out. Window boxes have been filled. Front gardens have been tended. We are celebrating summer.

When the city doesn’t look its best it rankles Bostonians’ souls. And they complain to me.

Why are certain institutions, businesses, or homeowners so inconsiderate of their neighbors that they let their exteriors, sidewalks, tree pits and planting beds go to rack and ruin, degrading their neighborhoods?

So friends and I took a walk to see how Boston looks at this happy time of year. Some places look good. Others, not so much.

One reader pointed out that our local hotels don’t keep up their outdoor spaces. He complained loudly about the Taj. “The Ritz put in lovely tree guards [on Newbury Street] and maintained the tree pits, putting in flowers,” he said.  “The Taj has ignored them, leaving rusted, mis-shapen tree guards and weed-strewn dirt.”

He said the manager’s assistant claimed the city was supposed to maintain the tree pits. Of course, that is not true.

The Liberty Hotel is even worse because it has more planting beds to care for, and those beds could be spectacular.

The arcs of land between the Liberty’s parking lot and Charles Circle, planted imaginatively when the hotel first opened, are now strips of ragged asters and unsightly mulch. The tree pits on one side of the hotel have grown up in weeds.

Contrast the Liberty’s obliviousness with Mass General’s sophisticated attention to its landscape. Next to the Liberty’s parking area is a circle that MGH maintains. There the pansies have been lovely all spring. I asked the Liberty about its neglect of its spaces. PR and Marketing Director Nicole Gagnon said, “No comment.”

It’s hard to see how a hotel wouldn’t keep its surroundings in tip top shape for their tip top guests. Give the Liberty and the Taj each an “F” in the “respect for their neighbors and customers” department.

The Greenway was another place we checked out since it is subject to much scrutiny. The beds had been weeded, and the plant variety is wonderful. But my friend gave it a C-plus. Bare spots and many deciduous shrubs in poor condition were the problems. And, like certain bothersome North Enders claim, the North End’s gardens are still clunky.

The problems are being addressed, said Linda Jonash, the Greenway’s director of planning and design. Plants came in late to the nurseries this year, and replanting should take place in several locations this week, she said. The North End’s gardens are still scheduled for redesign, although that has been delayed to later this summer.

If horticulture is a problem, the Greenway’s activities are not. Children played in the fountain. And the fountain worked. The harbor fog sculpture was pumping out the steam. The walkways were free of trash. Construction on the carousel, which promises to become a local icon, was proceeding. People occupied the benches, and we noticed many places to sit down and enjoy views of the city.

Little by little, action is arriving at the Greenway’s edges, where buildings once turned their backs to that other Green Monster, the overhead central artery. The newest offering is the Palm Restaurant, a chain strangely named in a northern city. Moreover, its name seems to contradict its cuisine, which turns out to be steak.

Never mind. With big windows and an outdoor terrace, it opens One International Place to the Greenway. The Granary Tavern, which opened last June, is another bright spot on the edge. Activity along the Greenway edges will gradually enliven the Financial District, which used to close at night.

Hoteliers and Greenway officials could learn from the Church of the Covenant at Newbury and Berkeley streets. Its small garden is not exotic, but it is lush, well tended and pleasing to the eye—a generous contribution to its neighborhood.

Another complaint I’ve received about the way Bostonians keep their city involves grafitti—not the paint kind, but the chalk kind. My informant pointed out houses on Mount Vernon and Pinckney streets on Beacon Hill. “Everyone hates grafitti, but parents are allowing their children to draw all over the façade of a brick house,” said my informant. “Why aren’t we training children that we don’t write on walls.”

She had another complaint. “They were making repairs to the sidewalks, and they filled the repair with gravel and tar,” she explained. “They said when spring came around they’d put the bricks back in, but I’ve seen no activity of that kind whatsoever.”

All this goes to show that in the short season that is summer,  Bostonians want their city to look worthy of their love for it, and they’re paying attention.

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