In my continuing quest to bring you photos of all the surviving buildings designed by Henry J. Hardenbergh, startsandfits.com took the train most of the way up to Rumford Falls, Me., last weekend to photograph the Rumford Falls Power Co. Building there. It’s in a charming old mill town, its mill still operating. We had to transfer between South Station and North Station in Boston, and scheduled some time to walk around downtown to shop and eat.
The Downtown Crossing area seen above in front of Macy’s is simply a wonderful joy to walk around. A European-style crazy patchwork of streets is empty or nearly empty of cars. An occasional street had one lane of traffic in one direction, which is just the right amount, or reserved exclusively for buses. And here and there you’d see an odd parked car, which injects visual interest and makes the place seem less like a theme park and more like the real world. The streets are paved with bricks, sending the message to pedestrians that they have access to the whole street. Signs warn motorists to keep out for much of the day, so there are no car alarms accidentally going off, and no useless honking.
Monday was one of those bone-chilling, super-cold days January days in Boston, but a good space will attract people in any weather. There were lots of people out shopping the other day, in clumps of three or four, or bigger groups, or as individuals or couples. This is a great example of how its possible to have healthy urban retail without cars, and without the sterilizing enclosure of a mall. It’s also a great example of how many other old, dense cities have come to grips with the fact that they just have to eliminate cars from some areas more or less all the time. Sure, we have South Street Seaport, the Fulton Mall, and a few streets here and there that are closed off from time to time. But these closures fail to create the distinctive district feel that Boston’s Downtown Crossing has. Our pedestrian zones are too small or too time-limited, or both. Our grid patterns hinder efforts to close streets to traffic, but there are ways to do it.
The Municipal Art Society and the New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign are putting on an exhibition from Feb. 1 to March 29, and a lecture series next month that look to be worth attending, including “Better Streets, Better Business: How to Attract the Walking Shopper.”