It was a strange, unsettling kind of feeling as Boston pondered a couple of changes in the cityscape last month: the dismantling of the Old Northern Avenue Bridge, a century-old industrial-era swing bridge near downtown, and uncertainty over the Citgo sign in Kenmore Square, just outside historic Fenway Park.
When your parents convert your bedroom into guest quarters after you’re off to college, that’s tough to take, but somehow more of a natural evolution. Losing landmarks that speak to the culture of a city—that’s different.
Let’s take the icons one at a time. First, the Citgo sign, the accidental historic landmark: Erected in 1940, it lords over Kenmore Square, its horizontal neon rules blinking in steady and dignified sequence. It has been shut down and threatened with removal over the years, and narrowly missed getting official landmark status. But the sign has come to represent this part of town, and all its associations with the Boston Red Sox. When the olde towne team is in the World Series—and I can say that now—the Major League Baseball broadcast is sure to show the Citgo sign as b-roll before the commercial break.
Then late last month came news that Boston University, the landlord of the building the Citgo sign sits on, was selling the property and several other buildings. Who knows whether the new owner will keep the big sign running. If the new owners are from out of town (or out of the country, which is highly likely) they may very well be quizzical about local attachment to the old thing.
A short drone flight away over Boston Harbor, meanwhile, change is also coming. Boston is over the moon about General Electric’s decision to relocate from its Fairfield, Connecticut, headquarters to the district known as the Seaport, southeast of downtown. GE was already convinced that its 800 executives and ancillary workers would feed off the good energy these days in Boston, but city and state leaders threw in an incentive package for good measure. Tax breaks for business location are generally not a great idea as a matter of policy; promises to build infrastructure near the anticipated headquarters, however, can benefit the entire area.
So it is that, in the fine print of the deal, was a vow to make the Old Northern Avenue Bridge operational again. The bridge, a critical connection between the Seaport and downtown Boston, is a beautiful turn-of-last-century span of latticed steel that pivots on a center foundation to allow boats to pass—an elegant alternative to a drawbridge. It has long been closed to cars and pedestrians. Engineers say its structural failure is imminent.
The Old Northern Avenue Bridge is another classic historic preservation story. As a reporter at The Boston Globe in the 1990s, I wrote a dozen-plus articles on a politically charged debate over whether to save it or tear it down. U.S. Congressman Joe Moakley, for whom the nearby federal courthouse is named, wanted the span destroyed—not least because it blocked the view to the bland, modern highway bridge farther along in the Fort Point Channel that had been named for his wife, Evelyn. Preservationists argued that the Old Northern Avenue Bridge was part of Boston’s industrial heritage, and was one of the last remaining swing bridges in the country.
It was happy news that the bridge would be saved as part of promised improvements in the area, until I read the fine print even more closely. Turns out it can’t be saved, really; it won’t be restored so much as rebuilt. And right now, piece by piece, it is being dismantled. The Old Northern Avenue Bridge is coming down.
The world is on fire, I know, so let’s get priorities straight. So what if this span, built in 1908 when the Seaport was a freight rail and warehouse hub (for, among other things, molasses), gets a slightly faux replacement? Still, there’s this nagging concern about authenticity, if not cost-effectiveness. The replacement is said to cost up to $100 million. What if Boston had just worked to repair and sustain the bridge 20 years ago?
Also in the late 1990s, there was a campaign to tear down Fenway Park, built in 1912. The Red Sox needed a modern facility with more seats, and, it was said, the place was hopelessly falling apart. Even dangerous. One proposal was to build a modern replica next door—a brick-by-brick re-creation of Fenway. Sort of like what’s being proposed for the Old Northern Avenue Bridge.
Ultimately, the team couldn’t get buy-in from the late Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the man in charge at the time. At a media preview of the 1999 All-Star Game, I remember him walking toward me on the soft grass of left field with his arms outstretched, saying, “Why would we ever get rid of this?” So the Red Sox fixed up Fenway Park, and it celebrated its 100th anniversary four years ago.
There are wins, losses and draws in any evolving city. Many things are forever gone. Part of what makes a city legible and memorable are the quirky parts, the things that make a metropolis distinct from any other.
The next stage of the conversation is whether to demolish mid-20th-century modern structures like the Brutalist Boston City Hall. It all makes me queasy, like we’re messing with something so much bigger than individual opinions or new landlords or new businesses coming into town. Like we’re messing with time.