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Back to the Future

The Trouble at City Hall Plaza

In 1973, Robert Campbell launched his career as the architecture critic at The Boston Globe. He probably never expected that, 40 years later, Bostonians would still be arguing about the subject of one of his first essays: City Hall Plaza. The Summerthing festival is gone; street musicians rarely play pan flutes; food trucks abound. Otherwise, the story is much the same.

Why is it that, in spite of the best efforts of Summerthing, City Hall Plaza never seems to come to life or be the right size for any activity smaller than a Bund rally?

It’s always too big, too empty, too grand. There are too many things it doesn’t have enough of. For example:

  • Enormous sidewalk cafés, with parasols over the tables;
  • Shouting street vendors selling eggplants and knishes;
  • Men playing flutes, with small crowds listening;
  • People making speeches about how the Communists are stealing our bodily fluids;
  • Moonlight concerts on hot nights.

In other words: Life.

American tourists flock to a place like the Piazza San Marco in Venice. Not to admire the architecture, but just to sit at a café, sip a soft drink or wine, and watch people walk by, looking like actors strolling on a stage.

But City Hall Plaza doesn’t look or feel like a stage. It looks more like a parking lot temporarily cleared of cars. It doesn’t have a real café, and if comit did, you wouldn’t sit there because there wouldn’t be anyone to watch, and even if there were, they wouldn’t look as if they were on a stage. They would look like they were trying to get across the Gobi desert ahead of the bandits.

In case anyone doesn’t know, the reason nobody is out there selling tacos in the plaza is because the city forbids it. The city believes that the plaza is there to give each of us a perfect, uncluttered view of City Hall.

If you can think of better things to do with it, you might try writing the mayor.