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Downtown View: HarborWalk—Signs Needed

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.

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9 Replies to “Downtown View: HarborWalk—Signs Needed

  1. Yes! This so much! I live in the North End and so many times think it would be great to jog along the Harbor Walk, but between the signage, zig zagging back and forth through parking lots and the sidewalk, construction blocking parts of the path, and just generally not knowing when I get re-enter on to the walk make it pretty confusing. I agree with you 100%.

  2. The city does a horrible job maintaining its part of the harborwalk and it is never shoveled in the winter. The Coast Guard station is just as bad, mostly closing the small section it agreed to keep open. Funny how money shows up for bike lanes but something as important as the harborwalk gets no attention.

  3. As usual, the writer has no idea what she is talking about. I live at one of the wharves and can tell you the harborwalk is open and wonderful. It is not a linear path, but why would that be desirable, its not the Freedom Trail.

    1. She does know what she’s talking about, contrary to your unkind remark. People agree with her, and I have often heard the same complaints of the walk. I doubt the neighborhood is looking for a linear path. by the way !

    2. Joey D — The writer knows exactly what she is talking about. Note that Harbor Towers recently removed its “private property” sign, and all areas are not necessarily people friendly I thank Jan Engleman for her informative response.

  4. Great article. Thanks so much for calling attention to this marvelous treasure, and how it is failing to live up to its potential in many areas. As it happens there is a committed group of volunteers focused on exactly the same thing. This is the Friends of Harborwalk, a group of volunteers that operates under the ausipices of Boston Harbor Now, of which I am a member.
    http://www.bostonharbornow.org/get-involved/fohw/

    “Start with signs”, you say. We are. We have a group actively working to improve HarborWalk signage to order address some of the very issues brought up in this article. Right now our immedicate goal is developing engaging interpretevative signs for several developments in East Boston and Charlestown, but our ultimate goal is improving wayfinding and interpretative signage all along the 43-mile HarborWalk to encourage use of this valuable public asset This is an ambitious goal that will take many years to complete, but it is our vision.

    If this article has peaked your interest and you would like to get to know the HarborWalk better, you can join us on one of our monthly walks along various stretches of the HarborWalk. In our two years of giving these walks, we have covered the HarborWalk – by foot and bicycle – from from Dorchester Lower Mills all the way to the airport, as well as seen it by boat.

    If you are interested in learning more about the Friends organization and might like to participate in one of our projects (we also coordinage cleanups in addition to developing signage and giving tours) we’d love to see you at one of our monthly meetings. Please contact Mike Manning at the email address on the webpage for more information.

  5. Hello to all and I appreciate all comments. The Friends of the Boston HarborWalk – we’re a group of volunteers dedicated to enhancing enjoyment of Boston’s HarborWalk. The HarborWalk is nearly 43 miles of walkway through Boston’s waterfront neighborhoods. Our core group is 10 to 12 volunteers and we meet monthly to plan and coordinate our three main priorities/objectives. These are:

    1.) Hosting free monthly two-hour long walking tours along a segment of Boston’s 43-mile HarborWalk;
    2.) Organizing waterfront clean-up days and reporting maintenance concerns to ensure that the full length of the HarborWalk is clean, safe, and inviting;
    3.) Installing more interpretive and wayfinding signs to help people learn about and enjoy Boston’s HarborWalk and its waterfront neighborhoods.

    And yes, I understand the frustration with certain segments of the HarborWalk. However, we work with dozends of different property owners to try and ensure unhindered access to the waterfront and to report maintenance concerns to the various property owners. It’s a daunting task – especially as all of us have full-time careers. Any/all calls to the Boston 311 system regarding maintenance concerns along the HarborWalk eventually come to me. I address these concerns, directly with the property owner, at the first opportunity.

    Please feel free to reach out to me directly (by going to: http://www.bostonharbornow.org). We’re a completely inclusive group with very passionate volunteers with a wide array of backgrounds and interests. The FBHW formed in January, 2014 – so we’re a relatively new group and we’re always looking for new members in order to attain our goals. Our meetings are usually the fourth Thursday of the month – except in November and December – when we meet on the third Thursday ahead of the holidays. I’ve been very fortunate with the opportunity to lead such a phenomenal group of volunteers.

    Happy Fourth to all,
    Mike

    Michael Manning
    Chair – The Friends of the Boston Harborwalk

  6. Signs on Commercial St. directing people to the harbor have been needed since the area went from commercial to residential. Without signs and with one wharf blocked by a man checking cars in and out, with no sign welcoming pedestrians This access to the harbor is Private. All access to the harbor should be posted and open to the public. There is a reason that this has never been done. it called Private Access. How about signs and a Blue Line to follow. Unless you have lived here when the broken down wharf were accessible you would not know there is anything behind the buildings. Good Luck As one resident told you This Area is PRIVATE and it will stay that way.

  7. I live across the street from the harborwalk and can tell you it is well used by the public. There are hundreds of joggers in the morning and a constant flow of people going in and out all day. Unfortunately, packs of teens can take over at night in the summer drinking which creates a bad scene.

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