Saturday, November 09, 2013

Longfellow Bridge

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Here's a slideshow of Boston's ornate 1907 Longfellow Bridge, which connects downtown Boston (and the Beacon Hill neighborhood) with central Cambridge across the Charles River. I walked across on a sunny Friday afternoon back in July 2012; the bridge is now closed for an extended and much-needed $260 million renovation project. The rust and disrepair shown in many of the photos should be a big clue why this is happening. Media accounts claim this closure is the Traffic Apocalypse. Which is odd, because it's widely believed that every day in Boston is the Traffic Apocalypse. Everyone says so, even local residents, who presumably are the ones causing all the Apocalypse-ness.

The thing is, I can't actually corroborate this stereotype about the city. I had a rental car for most of the week I was there, but I was out in the 'burbs during that part, and driving in suburban Boston seemed just like driving in suburban anywhere else. It wasn't a problem. I suppose it's probably worse if you try driving in downtown Boston, which I didn't do. But I did walk all around the central city and nobody ran me down in a crosswalk, deliberately or otherwise, or tried to bean me with a beer can as they drove by. I walked across the bridge and survived to tell the tale, and nobody swerved to try to hit me on the sidewalk, or even pretended like they were going to. Not a single Bostonian, drunk or otherwise, tried to shove me in front of a bus just for the lulz, something a coworker tried to warn me about when he heard where I was going. There was about the level of honking you'd expect in any major East Coast city, and I never saw honking escalate into a road rage incident, not even mild fisticuffs. I never saw anyone deliberately ram anyone else, or aggressively tailgate anyone, NASCAR-style, which immediately puts Boston ahead of both Washington DC and Atlanta in my book, just going on things I've personally witnessed in those cities. Honestly, driving in Boston was fine.

The great thing about central Boston, though, was that I could get anywhere I needed to go on mass transit, generally on the 'T', the local subway, the Red Line of which crosses the river on the Longfellow Bridge. So driving in the allegedly worst city in America to drive in is completely unnecessary, as far as I can tell. And as with driving, I can't corroborate any horror stories about Boston's mass transit, such as the one in the Kingston Trio song "The M.T.A". Here's a free travel tip: If you stay at a hotel at Logan Airport, you can take the Silver Line to downtown Boston for free, or at least you could when I was there. The Silver Line, the city's only bus rapid transit line, is an odd hybrid: When you get on, it looks like you're just getting on a regular bus. It takes a freeway tunnel under the Charles River, makes a couple of bus-like stops, and then converts from diesel to electric power and drives the rest of the way to South Station in a dedicated subway-like tunnel.

A curious thing about the bridge is that it looks for all the world like it's a drawbridge, but it actually isn't. Its main piers, mid-river, give the impression that the span between them ought to open, and the turrets look like somewhere a bridge operator would sit, munching endless Dunkin Donuts and waiting for the occasional mega-yacht heading upriver toward Harvard. It's all a sham, though. Purely ornamental, for display purposes only. This is the sort of fakery that drove modernist architects batty back in the early 20th Century, and rightly so I think.

An even curiouser thing is that the main piers are designed to evoke the bows of Viking longships, in memory of Leif Erikson's visit to the Boston area circa 1000 AD. Wait, what? Don't remember that one from history class? There's a reason for that. This alleged visit was an eccentric pet theory of a Eben Horsford, a 19th Century Harvard chemistry professor, who today is best known for inventing the modern formula for baking powder. Horsford had little success in selling his idea to other scholars; annoying little details like the total absence of archeological evidence probably didn't help his cause. That didn't deter him from promoting the Vikings-in-Boston theory to the general public, aided by his considerable baking powder fortune, and he found a willing audience. It's been widely argued that the vogue for all things Leif Erikson in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had an ugly ethnic undercurrent to it. Columbus, you see, was one of those icky Italian Catholics, just like the poor immigrants then arriving in Boston by the boatload. Whereas Erikson was entirely noble and selfless and enterprising, as far as anyone knows, I mean, it just stands to reason, and of course his hair and eyes were the right color, and he probably never touched a clove of garlic in his entire life. So the Viking theory had its fans among the local Brahmin aristocracy, and funding and official approval were easy to obtain. Thus, today Boston has Horsford to thank for a Leif Erikson statue on Commonwealth Avenue, the bridge piers here, and a nature park in Newton, MA, formerly the site of a local amusement park, which in turn was named for a nearby legendary lost Viking city of untold riches that Horsford rediscovered, and which totally existed in real life. Supposedly.

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