1996Criticism

Charles River Park at 35

It May Be a Nice Place to Live,
But You Wouldn't Want to Visit
By: 
Robert Campbell
May 26, 1995

It's hard to imagine that anybody, ever, said these words: ''Hey, let's take a walk in Charles River Park."

Charles River Park may be a good place to live. But it doesn't contribute so much as an ice cream cone or a flower to the happiness of anybody else in Boston.

That's what makes it different from the great neighborhoods, the ones where we love to stroll. Charles River Park is a shut-the-gates, the-muggers-are- coming world.

This is a good moment to take a critical look at Charles River Park, because we're coming up on the neighborhood's emerald anniversary, so to speak. It was in the summer of 1960, 35 years ago, that the bulldozers of the city of Boston wiped out a living community on this site as brutally as if it had been bombed. That was the old West End. The narrow crowded streets simply disappeared. So did the residents. In their place arrived classier tenants, housed in the antiseptic high-rise apartments of a new development called Charles River Park. Slum clearance, they called this process. Urban renewal. Today the very words sound like groans from the Dark Ages.

OK, so Charles River Park was an urban planning disaster of legendary proportions. But that was a long time ago. The statute of limitations has run out. What's the place like today?

Most of us have very little idea, because the amazing thing about Charles River Park is that it's almost invisible. This is true even though it's about the area of Boston Common, is home to 5,000 residents plus a few businesses and is located in the heart of town, on the river and almost across the street from Beacon Hill.

The only thing you're pretty sure to have noticed is those sadistic signs on Storrow Drive: "IF YOU LIVED HERE, YOU'D BE HOME NOW." Like dancing imps, they mock the homeward-bound commuters who, each afternoon, back up in stalled traffic. Maybe you've also heard Celtic star Dominique Wilkins on the radio, pitching Charles River Park as a place to live. (Cam Neely has a pad here too. The place is handy to the Garden.)

But try to find it. There are only a couple of streets that go in, and they're anything but welcoming. If you walk the perimeter, you feel as if you're looking through the fence at a military preserve. Charles River Park feels guarded. It's a separate precinct. A sort of layman's Vatican.

You feel rebuffed: That's impression No. 1. No. 2, once you've found your way in, is equally simple. Charles River Park is ugly.

The apartment houses stand around like discarded boxes in pastel wrapping paper. You expect to be able to open them and find the real building inside. The washed-out Miami colors do nothing to remind you you're in Boston. Walking around is a perpetual disorientation. There's no pattern. Whichever way you head, a concrete wall or chain-link fence seems to block your path. All around you are leftover chunks of crud that look like droppings from some vast landscape-supply house in the sky: a shapeless patch of green here, a triangle of concrete paving there, all of it lacking the slightest rhyme or reason.

Only two things relieve the general disorder, and they're both interiors. One is a synagogue, designed by architects Childs, Bertman, Tseckares and built in 1970, an architectural gem where a mysterious golden light falls into the interior as if coming directly from God. The other is an older, Catholic church, St. Stephen's, that survived the erasure of the West End and has been carefully restored.

There's also the planting: It's beautiful too, especially at this season. Well-kept beds, shrubs and trees are blooming everywhere. They're blooming, all right, but they're not blooming for you. That's the problem of Charles River Park in a nutshell. The magnolias and azaleas of Commonwealth Avenue or Union Park are for everyone to enjoy. But the hidden gardens of Charles River Park are for the residents, period. In this newer, more private kind of community, we've lost our grip on the fact that a city exists in order to be shared. Otherwise, why have a city at all?

It's not just the isolation, it's the impersonality as well. The gardens of Charles River Park are obviously the work of central management rather than personal love. As you walk around you begin to feel you're in an institution. This must, surely, be a well-tended mental hospital. The flowers must be here to help the healing process.

That's the view, at least, of a disgruntled visitor. The view of the residents deserves to be heard too.

But who, exactly, lives in Charles River Park? If you lived here and you were home now, as the signs say, who would you be?

"You're international, urbane and you like seafood," croons a recent issue of Around the Park, the management's newsletter, in a report on the results of a survey of the residents.

OK, that's a start.

We also learn from the newsletter that the residents have recently been entertained by the likes of Peter Noone, once the leader of Herman's Hermits, and Micky Dolenz, the former Monkee.

So maybe it's not a mental hospital? Maybe it's a budget cruise?

A cruise, in fact, is exactly what the management seems to be trying to sell. When they give you a tour, they talk about the tennis courts, the bar, the cabanas, the pool and the planned social activities such as clambakes and fashion shows. Probably they're right. The best way to think of Charles River Park is to regard it as a big cruise ship docked along the Charles. By day, you take shore leave to your job in town. By night, when the natives might be more dangerous, you're safely back on board with your spacious, well- appointed cabin, your high security, your indoor tennis courts, your recycled entertainers and your personal canteen (a very nice on-site Sage's).

When you talk to the residents, they always mention two features: security and convenience. Charles River Park is patrolled by uniformed security, and crime is virtually nonexistent. The rest of the city is a short walk away, and when you need it, your car is handy, parked in a safe garage near your apartment. Undeniably, those are virtues.

"But it's changed a lot," adds one pioneer, who moved here in 1962 before her building was even completed. "In the beginning there was a lot of party giving. It was more stable then. It's much more transient now. There are lots of interns and residents from Mass. General who just come for a phase in their lives. There are fewer families. Some move in with just rented furniture. It's a less permanent type of society. It's more like a pad."

Management doesn't possess a demographic survey, but they guess 40 percent of the residents are connected in some way to Massachusetts General Hospital next door, some merely as relatives of patients. As for transients, they're not sure how many deserve that name. Thirty-odd apartments are specifically rented to short-termers, but corporations keep some others for the same purpose. Of the total of 2,300 units, 1,700 are rental, 600 condos. One building with 151 apartments is reserved for the elderly. There's an on-site day-care preschool, too. Many of the younger families see the Park as a starter home: Later, they'll move out and up. Management won't say what the vacancy rate is, but clearly it's low. A resident guesses the place is 99 percent full.

Yet some things are clearly in decline. A first-class restaurant, Maitre Jacques, located here in the early days, failed. "Since then, it's been all downhill, each restaurant worse than the last," says an old-timer. The restaurant space is attractive, with a view out over the river, yet at this writing it's vacant after the failure of an Italian place called Cafe Lago. No doubt the restaurants die because nobody outside the Park knows how to get to them, or even that they exist. Another recent closing was the cinema on Cambridge Street, in Charles River Plaza -- an ill-designed shopping center that nominally belongs to Charles River Park, although you'd never guess it because the pedestrian paths that connect the Plaza to the Park are -- for better security, no doubt -- laughably inconspicuous.

Another take on the Park population comes from the US Census. The 1990 count, by chance, pretty nearly isolates the Park as a statistical entity. From it we learn that the median family income (excluding singles) was $74,000. Most residents have college degrees -- 62 percent, just behind Back Bay and Beacon Hill. And it's true that "you'd be home now." The average commute is only 19 minutes, and it's usually performed on foot. Only 22 percent of commuters drive. There are roughly seven times as many whites as blacks, and 14 times as many white-collar workers as blue.

But to truly understand Charles River Park, you have to see it in its historical context. It's the near-perfect embodiment of a modernist idea about how to make cities. The idea was born in the mind of the French architect Le Corbusier, who claimed to hate crowded city streets (although he always chose to live and work on them) and imagined, instead, a city of towers, parks and freeways, filled with air and sun.

Charles River Park is a chunk of that Corbusian city. Specifically it's the brainchild of a man named Victor Gruen. Gruen is a forgotten figure now, but he was a huge presence in the America of the 1950s. More than anyone else, he invented and popularized the suburban shopping mall. Then he turned his attention to cities.

Gruen decided American downtowns were being destroyed by the automobile. He argued, in such writings as "The Cellular Metropolis of Tomorrow," that the solution was to carve them up into auto-free zones. Each such zone or cell would be a pedestrian precinct, free of cars, filled with happy people on their feet. All the traffic, public and private, would circulate on arterial roads around and between the cells, without entering them. Gruen identified shopping malls, college campuses and Disneyland as good prototypes for such cells.

It was Gruen who, hired by the city, planned Charles River Park as a Gruen cell. He also created a much larger plan for Boston, in which he divided the whole of downtown into six cells, or "centers," as he called them this time. Within some of these, there would be covered, air-conditioned pedestrian streets. About one such center, Gruen wrote:

"Old Boston Center, an area richly endowed with historic buildings, and located strategically between the Government Center with its tens of thousands of employees and the Washington Street Center, will have open landscaped areas with protected sidewalks in which historic mementos of Massachusetts' past will be placed."

In other words, the living city would become a managed, sanitized museum of itself. Gruen's goals were commendable, but his vision was disastrous, and his prestige today among planners is zero. All Gruen accomplished, in his many projects all around the country, was to prove that you can't make a city out of a lot of villages divided by highways. What you get is a lot of isolated villages, like Charles River Park. We should be thankful to the gods of political inertia that Cellular Boston never happened.

There's one more thing that needs to be said about Charles River Park. We read a lot today about "ethnic cleansing" in places like Bosnia and Rwanda. But our own hands are not so clean. The old West End, where Charles River Park now stands, was a multi-ethnic neighborhood, the first stop for generations of immigrants. When the city wiped it out, it tried to erase even the memory. The mayor of Boston was Irish and the developer was Jewish, but they carefully named everything in Charles River Park after Yankees. The buildings are Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Whittier and Lowell.

At Charles River Park, the dead white guys recaptured the city. Ethnic cleansing indeed.

"Boston is an exciting city and this is the best place from which to reach some of the major spots," a Park executive says. Alas, he's right. Charles River Park is a sort of lamprey fastened to the body of Boston, sucking out blood but giving nothing back. From it, you can walk out to a whole wonderful urban world, to Charles Street and Louisburg Square and the Public Garden and Newbury Street and the Esplanade and the North End and the Waterfront. But it offers that world nothing in return. Imagine a whole city of Charles River Parks: There'd be nothing to go to.

So the answer to the question of whether Charles River Park is a good place is a paradox.

Yes, it's a good place to live. Safe, convenient, practical, with many amenities of its own and with easy access to many more.

But it's not a good way to make a city.

Forgotten Utopias
Criticism 1996
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