Last Thursday, I took a walk along the harbor with four friends from downtown Boston and others from Iowa, Kentucky and Washington, DC, to assess how the 33-year-old HarborWalk is doing. Its purpose is to connect neighborhoods along the harbor and enable all Bostonians access to that scenic and economically important feature of our city.
Time constraints confined us to the stretch between Lovejoy Wharf and the Fort Point Channel post office. I’ll take a walk at other locations later.
The post office is not officially on the Harbor Walk, but it’s a gem. Its spruced-up look has vents like ocean liner stacks. But never mind. We were assessing the walk, not the buildings.
Our verdict? Parts of the walk are dazzling. All of these were built and are maintained by private developments. Presumably their high rents or condominium prices pay for the upkeep.
The city’s properties and such older developments as Union Wharf, however, built and rehabbed before the walk was established, degrade it with lack of access, blind alleys, unsightly parking lots and poor conditions.
In some parts no one would realize the HarborWalk exists since it looks like a driveway. Few signs point to its location. Signs in general are poorly placed and often wrong.
Let’s begin with the fabulous. On a path next to Bobby Orr’s statue park we headed toward Lovejoy Wharf. There we found a passageway through the new building. Wow! That passageway enshrines a splendid view of the Bunker Hill Monument.
Like other parts of the walk constructed since the late 1980s by private developers, this walkway was wide and landscaped beautifully. Its view incorporated the locks, the police station, bridges and the Cambridge and Charlestown shores on the other side. We gave it an A-plus.
Other welcoming spots were along the Boston Harbor and Intercontinental Hotels. Atlantic Wharf had a grassy lawn filled with happy people eating and sunbathing. Also beautiful was Battery Wharf, but no signs let you know the public is invited. Boston Planning and Development Agency: Require Battery Wharf to put up signs inviting people to the public walkway.
On the other side of the Washington Street Bridge from Lovejoy was a stretch that led along the North End. We gave it a D. Crumbling asphalt abutted granite walls that were askew. The walk by the playground, tennis courts, ball fields, the Mirabella Pool and the Coast Guard facility was disappointing and mostly streetside. This waterfront space is wonderful—expansive and welcoming. But again, signs were non-existent and one was completely wrong. Maybe the reconstruction of the Washington Street Bridge and the Eliot Upper School will involve improvements along this part of the walk. And surely the park could be redesigned to incorporate a repaired HarborWalk.
We deplored all the parking lots we had to navigate, sometimes unsuccessfully. The area behind the Aquarium, along the Harbor Garage, Harbor Towers and Independence Wharf were regrettable, forgettable or hunkered down against the public. We wanted pleasant seaside establishments where we could sit down and have a nice, cool drink. We wanted places where people wanted to be.
We were actually warned at one point. “You know this is private property,” said a woman passing into the townhouse section at Union Wharf, while we were standing trying to find a directional sign. I guess the owners there don’t like the public walking by their houses, as the public does past mine—without incident, by the way.
On the other hand, along one wharf, and I can’t remember, maybe Commercial or Sargent’s, the HarborWalk looked like a scruffy driveway, but beside the doorways were gas grilles and charming flower pots—signs that its residents know how to live in a public city. Surely there are carrots and sticks available to reclaim some of the harbor’s private spaces for the public—and get rid of the parking lots. I’ve been told that some of the older wharf condominiums know about the problem with access and have plans to address that.
We loved Christopher Columbus Park. And we were happy to see Tia’s, the kind of outdoor restaurant there needs to be along the waterfront to attract visitors. The boats along the wharves were a treat, as was the harbor itself.
By the time we got to Long Wharf we were tired. (My phone said 12,000 steps by the end.) No one liked Long Wharf, which my coterie did not know has been the subject of lawsuits between some residents and the BPDA over installing a restaurant or something active there. It seemed uninviting and sparsely populated. It is not near residences and most wanted a restaurant. “With dancing on the wharf every Friday night,” said one. My companions suggested a farmer’s market or seafood market would be another good use, but saw it as dead now.
The HarborWalk’s barriers, poor condition, parking lots and general difficulty finding one’s way made it hard to convince the out-of-towners to stay with us.
We Bostonians found that a problem. The whole idea of the HarborWalk was to invite everyone to enjoy the harbor, which belongs to all of us. Visitors need to see it. Bostonians need to be able to get to it. If it is unpleasant and hard to navigate, it’s not doing its job. While we loved the space behind the Intercontinental, we wanted the ability to appreciate Boston’s older parts also.
Start with signs.
Downtown View is a column by newspaperwoman Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times 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. Karen now works from her home in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com. Please feel free to leave responses in the comments section below.