There are times when cities and annual rites come together in wonderful ways, where a sense of place is inextricably linked with a particular event – think Times Square on New Year’s Eve, or the French Quarter at Mardi Gras. For me, this list must include the Back Bay in Boston on Patriots' Day, the third Monday in April when the Red Sox traditionally play a day game and streets, buildings, landmarks, and parks all become a glorious backdrop for the running of the Boston Marathon.
In Boston, preparations for Patriots' Day are as sure a signal of spring as seeing robins and crocuses. I'm always first tipped off on my way into the University Club, noticing five prized parking spaces roped off for a fleet of black SUVs. This year, running errands, I walked right down Boylston Street the Friday before and snapped a picture of the finish line while it was being repainted.
I remember thinking how all those grandstands being set up puts such a different perspective on the Boston streetscape – temporary furniture prompting a fresh look, for example, to Philip Johnson's modern addition to McKim, Meade & White's Boston Public Library. The white tents go up all around Copley Square, framed by the Fairmont Hotel, H.H. Richardson's Trinity Church, and I.M. Pei's Hancock Tower, Boston's tallest.
Now all that charming urban landscape, and this normally hopeful time of year, has a menacing feel.
Like few other sporting events, Boston itself is transformed by the Boston Marathon. For this event, the city is the arena. The race reaches its crescendo right in the city – through Kenmore Square and Fenway Park and the Citgo sign, across the Muddy River and Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, down the Commonwealth Avenue mall, punctuated by the Public Garden, and then finally Boylston Street. Bostonians get to feel no little pride about the beauty and functionality of our city each year during the race.
The bombings Monday turned all the cues and surroundings of this time of year upside down. The festive atmosphere of the crowds now signals danger. No one can look at a trash bin or a mailbox quite the same again. Boylston Street at Exeter went from winners circle to a trap. All those people, runners and fans and staff and shopkeepers, were suddenly in a lethal catchment.
As a terror tactic, it’s tried and true: strike in the places where the most people are bunched together. Markets and mosques. Cities over suburbs. The city is the terrorist’s friend; Mohammed Atta studied urban planning.
The city thus becomes a place to avoid. We have an incredible view out the back windows of our Victorian townhouse in South Boston, to the waterfront and Boston Harbor and the downtown Boston skyline. After 9-11, that view reminded me of how close our family was to a potential target – a dirty bomb at Fanueil Hall, a missile fired at an LNG tanker passing through the cozy inner harbor. I was writing stories for The Boston Globe back then about terror-proofing buildings and public areas, and how security so often conflicts with good, free-flowing urbanism. That's in part because one the most effective solutions is to simply take the people away, to close things down and lock the doors, block off parks and plazas and multiple entrances. In a similar response on a larger scale, friends moved from New York City to Vermont.
So now being in the city and mingling in crowds prompts those same concerns all over again. Just as that skyline view had become sinister, the annual preparation for the Boston Marathon will now have very different associations. The adornment of the Back Bay will remind us all of white smoke and barriers being ripped apart and blood staining the sidewalk. This time, it's my city that feels like it's in ruins. And I fear it's going to be that way for a long time.
Top image: A Boston police officer stands inside the barricaded entrance at Boylston Street near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Boston, Massachusetts. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)