by James McCown
As inconceivable as it may seem today, a wide swath of downtown Boston — including vibrant ethnic neighborhoods, historic pre-Revolutionary buildings, and a tangled but charming street pattern — was mowed down like weeds in the mid-1950s to make way for an elevated highway.
This was decades before the Boston-as-perennial-boomtown that we've known recently. A master plan prepared in 1956 by I.M. Pei and Associates stated darkly: "Stagnation and resultant blight are the condition of the Boston peninsula."
The highway didn't erase the "blight," it only exacerbated it. Now more than two generations later, the city, state, and federal governments are spending $14 billion to submerge this highway in a multi-lane tunnel and to correct a colossal urban planning fiasco.
Every Massachusetts schoolchild can tell you that the Central Artery/Tunnel project, more familiarly known as the "Big Dig," is the largest construction project in the United States. While its cost (60 percent paid for by federal funds) has ballooned from the original estimated $8 billion, it is still on schedule to be completed by 2004.
Much of the attention has been on cataloging the project's mind-numbing engineering feats: removal of 13 million cubic yards (9.9 million cubic meters) of dirt, the world's largest tunnel ventilation system, the world's widest cable-stayed bridge.
Reshaping a City
But from an architecture and urban planning perspective, it represents the greatest re-imagining of a cityscape since Baron Hausmann tore up medieval Paris in the 1860s and built the iconic grands boulevards that today are the city's signature.
The partially dismantled elevated highway along Boston's Big Dig. In the background, Boston landmark Custom House Tower by Peabody and Stearn, 1915.
Photo: James McCown
The elevated highway, still in use, will be dismantled and replaced with a multi-lane tunnel with parks above. To the left: Boston's Financial District.
Photo: James McCown
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