World Famous Bull Market, Quincy Market

Sunday, January 23rd, 6:24pm

I have lived in Boston my entire life. Have walked along the Freedom Trail and over the cobblestone paths, past Faneuil Hall. Have climbed the stairs, walked between the columns. Never once have I heard this place called Boston’s World Famous Bull Market, which the front door says should have closed at 6.

Forcing my way in through the cracked-open door left ajar by someone who has just exited the market. I hustle past the closing-up ice cream stand, Starbucks, the bagel shop, the chowder counter with the stools flipped up on the counters, and past a fair number of people still strolling the main artery. I am still recovering from the bitter, bitter cold of my walk over here even as I claim a table near the center-most spot in the great rotunda and eating hall that serves as the origin point of this entire market complex. A janitor is walking around wiping down tables (including the unoccupied other half of my table) and emptying the trash, which is no small task as it turns out. The large, standard-issue gray metal drums are everywhere it seems, lest anyone wander more than a few steps through this assembly line of consumption without having somewhere to discard the empty containers of the already-consumed to make room in their hands for the still-to-be-consumed.

The large open space of the two-story brick building bears the marks of determined adaptive re-use. Retro advertising signs – whether authentic or reproductions – adorn the interior brick walls: Scales*Cutlery*Baskets; Carroll & Liley: Butcher Supplies, Grinding, Saw Filing; Empire Fruit Co: Distributors of Applecrest Apples; EGGS. One can imagine this place filled with the sounds of vendors hawking their home-made wares and skilled services. What were large-framed windows and doors are now apertures into the outer wings of the building, which house rows of Boston-themed souvenir carts under a canopy of glass reinforced by a cross-hatch of thick, black, steel beams. Through the glass, I can see the speckles of white Christmas lights on the trees and the “Urban” of Urban Outfitters, one of the South Market Shops across the way.

Gazing up and around me, I notice a saying that wraps around the inner rim of the second floor balcony: This Building Has Served the People of Boston as the Central Market of the City since its Dedication in August, 1826. Through this oval ring, the ellipse of the grand domed ceiling looks distorted and two-dimensional. Like the ceiling, the white, plasticky, Doric columns that support the balcony and that line the arcade of the food court mingle classical style with shoddy modern-day commercial workmanship. The array of placards and signs that jut out along the entire length of the colonnade to draw customers in erases any aura of a pre-capitalist, industrial, or ancient space. A triangular yellow caution sign stamped with the red logo for Rubbermaid Commercial Products sits smack-dab in the middle of the rotunda as a safety measure against any potential lawsuits.

As I climb the steps to the second floor, it seems fitting that the balcony is temporarily closed for remodeling. Equipment for the renovation is neatly arranged in one corner, as if set up for a picture. Nearby, a contractor stares out the window and yaks into his cell phone. A couple, seeking peace from the frenzy of the downstairs, sit together in intimate conversation with their backs leaning against the far wall. Now a painter stands on the stairs I have just ascended and uses a long roller to paint a new coat of whitewash on the interior of this historic building.

I imagine not all that much has changed here. A sales job is a sales job. Looking to buy a taste of Boston? The shops are closed for the night. But if you do make it back to the market, don’t believe the bull: no matter how they paint it, they’ve all sold out.

Boston.com just ran a cool photo slideshow comparing images of Boston: Then and Now (including a great one of Quincy Market)

Near Tremont St. and Ruggles St.

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011, 5:13pm

It is surprisingly lonely and eerie outside the front entrance to the Boston Police headquarters on a cold January night. There is not much foot traffic here: the building is recessed from both Tremont and Ruggles by a broad sidewalk and an open plaza. I am sitting on a cool slate bench on the inner rim of an ovular memorial area, set off toward the right side of the entrance and distinguished from the rest of the plaza by elegant stone slates underfoot. The memorial is crowned by a shiny police badge.

To my left, the U.S. and state flags ripple on short flagpoles flanking a plaque displaying the Boston Police mission statement about “sharing responsibility to ensure safe, secure and livable neighborhoods.” A blue fence behind the plaque surrounds an empty snow-covered playground area attached to the building. A few footprints through the snow lead from the memorial plaza to a sparsely lit park filled with trees. Separate bike and walking paths wind through this dark and shadowy space away from noisy Tremont St.

On the opposite side of the memorial, a neon blue light rises as a police beacon through a twisting metal sculpture. The Pru and its shorter offspring building stand as a backdrop in the distance. City buses emerge from the road leading from Ruggles Station onto Ruggles St. They merge with Boston school buses and other traffic, their engines rumbling as they wait for the light to turn at Tremont St. The Orange Line and Commuter Rail tracks that pass through Ruggles Station, combined with the major thoroughfare of Tremont St., form a distinct barrier separating this area on the edge of Roxbury from the downtown lights of the Pru.

A Christmas tree still stands lit into the new year at the foot of the large metal antenna tower in front of the police headquarters. The building’s entrance is through a large rotunda surrounded by plates of opaque black glass, which merge with modern stone masonry to encase the building. The only peeks inside are presented through the odd transparent pane. A childcare center near the playground with the letters of the alphabet peppering the indoor walls. The treadmills of an exercise area on the second floor. An old discarded tube TV pushed up against a third-floor window.

The modern brick high-rise across Ruggles St. must be a Northeastern dormitory. The occasional rectangles of light through broad glass windows provide similar glimpses into this building. A long, well-lit hallway lined with cozy red chairs arranged in seating areas. Rows of student mailboxes. A student center. Upstairs, more tables and chairs in the opening at the end of every hallway, few of them occupied. Across Tremont St., toward Roxbury, the high-rise housing looks older. The state of relative disrepair suggests these buildings are not tended to by the university. The new year is a cold one thus far.

Washington St. and State St./Court St.

Monday, December 13th, 5:40pm

Mesmerized by the frontage of the Old State House, I feel the low rumble below me of an Orange or Blue Line train pulling into or out of State Street Station. The December evening is relatively warm after two days of rain and rush hour is in full force around me. Seven or eight idling engines line up in front of me on Washington St., waiting for two green arrows to usher them to the left onto Court St.

Three branches come together here to form a T that looks more like a T: Washington (honoring our first executive), State (so named for this one-time home of the Massachusetts legislature), and Court (the judicial branch, leading toward Scollay Square). Despite being the intersection of two one-way streets, this crossing feels more like four- or five-ways because of the pedestrian traffic. People walk in and out of the entrance to the T out of view on the far side of the State House. Others walk up and down the wide plaza leading to Government Center and City Hall Plaza or the brick Freedom Trail pass-through to Congress St. alongside the State House.

The majesty of the Old State House

I am sitting on one of a series of fashionable wooden benches on a raised stone plaza, which continues to tremble from the comings and goings of the subway below. The benches are covered with sparse drops of leftover rain and hardly anyone uses them (aside from a rather unskilled skateboarder who fumbles over a jump onto one of the benches and quickly skates away down the street to seek a new practice location). The plaza’s small trees, decked in white Christmas lights, match the lighted wreaths inside the plate-glass entrance to the BNY Mellon Center, one of the many tall, modern, financial office towers that have grown up all around the stately three-level brick building across the street. Some variation of the same pattern of plate-glass, lit intermittently by numbing fluorescence, delineates each of the dozens of floors in these skyscrapers.

Meanwhile, most of the action on ground-level surrounds the Old State House, which stands majestic, the 300-year-old village elder of this neighborhood. The cornice and Doric columns of the classical wooden façade allude to an even more ancient era. Over the entrance, a golden eagle perches with wings spread, ready to take off. Atop the illuminated white tower of the building, stands a golden weathervane, rising through a rare opening between the buildings where clouds brush quickly across the blue-black evening sky.

Along the Freedom Trail, next to the Old State House, a lonely cart stands adorned with Boston and Harvard T-shirts; the vendor sits out of sight, hood pulled up, leaning against the brick wall of the historic building, his chair empty.

A lonely vendor cart sits along the Freedom Trail

Gainsborough St. and St. Stephen St.

Monday, November 29th, 6:20pm

After my first day back to work post-Thanksgiving, I am sitting on a cold stone wall near the corner of two quiet, residential, one-way streets in the Fenway. The crisp fall evening air gives this intersection a subtle energy. The flashing red stoplights on Gainsborough St. take turns with the flashing yellows on St. Stephen to referee the surprising flow of pedestrians and automobiles.

The traffic is steady, but moderate enough that no one ever has to stop for long on their way through. Cars that just turned off Huntington Ave. or Mass. Ave. – two of the city’s major thoroughfares, each only a block away in different directions – cautiously obey the alternating signals. Walkers might pause just a second if a car happens to block their way, but they soon proceed undisturbed across the street.

There is a gentle give and take between cars and pedestrians at the intersection.

Pedestrians are safe to approach the intersection from the most convenient angle available. They will cross from between two of the parked cars that line both sides of each street and form a protective fence around the sidewalks. They will walk right down the middle of the street if no car is coming. They will ignore the square of clearly delineated crosswalks to cross diagonally to the opposite corner. A bicyclist with a blinking strobe light on her helmet rides the wrong way up St. Stephen St. and then pauses upon reaching the intersection to tie her shoe by the side of the road.

Many of the residents of the three-story, bay-windowed, split-level brownstones on these tree-lined streets must be Northeastern students. Perhaps they are clients of the real estate office on the corner, with pictures of properties displayed in the window. Whoever they are, they have not missed a beat in coming back from the break. They walk their dogs; they walk with friends; they talk on cell phones. They head back from class with their backpacks and messenger bags. They head out to practice with their hockey bags. I notice a different body language in those heading home and those heading back out – people walk with more of a purpose when they just want to get home.

Hardly anyone actually stops here. Just one girl stands on the corner opposite from me. She is anxiously looking around for the companion she is meeting. She stands in front of a wrought-iron fence that surrounds a broad lawn outside a big, cozy church. No one leaves or enters the church. Outdoor lights illuminate the brick walls of the placid building. A warm glow emanates from deep within.

The Pru towers over this residential neighborhood.

The lights throughout the neighborhood project the warmth of the Christmas season, now officially underway. Red, green, and white bulbs adorn the windows of a home across the street. Streetlights up and down St. Stephen St. provide a sense of security for pedestrians and drivers alike. Bright white Christmas lights vitalize the naked trees that line Gainsborough St. as the road kinks to the left just past the intersection. The lighted outline of the Prudential Center tower shines through the winter branches that form the St. Stephen St. canopy.

Suddenly a loud trio of college students is bustling across the street toward me. They surround the blue pickup truck crookedly parked at the curb in front of me, peer inside the cab, then hop in the payload to busy themselves bantering, with cold-defying exuberance, about who will sit in back with the tree. Finally, their friend arrives with the keys. After an exchange of hugs and a brief discussion over her failure to answer her cell phone, the four friends pile into the front cab, some on top of others. Throwing a brief glance around the intersection, the driver hits the gas and motors down the rows of lighted trees, around the corner, and out of sight. The girl who was standing in front of the church is long gone. All that remains is the smell of exhaust that lingers and then slowly dissipates through the brisk night.