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.

Prospect St. and Mass. Ave., Central Square (Cambridge)

Monday, November 8th. 8:35 pm

Let me start with a confession: I am not on a street corner in Boston. Tonight the Red Line has brought me across the river into Cambridge, a city with plenty of its own fascinating urban spaces. I am sure you will forgive me for this expansion of my definition. But, in the interest of full disclosure, I am not exactly on a street corner in Cambridge either. On this cool, rainy November night, I seek refuge from the wet wind driving us inexorably toward winter. Spurning the now-deeper surrounding darkness of daylight savings time, I enter Starbucks and target the stool in the corner for an optimal, sheltered vantage point on the intersection.

So close to the danger despite being safely indoors

As I settle in, satisfied with my choice of indoor location, I am quickly un-settled by a car that catapults around the corner from River Street, straight through Central Square, and whizzes by my seat onto Prospect Street. Before I can even turn back, another car shoots by just as fast. Glad not to have been any closer than I already was as these vehicles flew by, I quickly jot down a note to myself: “cars own this intersection.” When I consider that five roads come together at this unusual junction, I am hardly surprised by my own comment.

Yet, after observing for a few minutes more, I soon realize that the cars do not tell nearly the whole story of Central Square, where at least five different modes of transportation co-exist within a delicate balance of power.

Just after the cars clear the intersection, a helmet-less bicyclist uses the Mass. Ave. bike lane to overtake several stopped cars waiting for the light to change. Coming to a rolling stop at best, he glances each way and quickly shoots across to continue along his route. Straight ahead, across the intersection, commuters pile onto the #91 bus that has pulled up in the specialized bus stop lane along Magazine Street and soon rumbles through the intersection to make its way toward Union Square. At each corner, umbrellaed pedestrians wait patiently, content in their knowledge that the bright white of the walk signal will appear in mere seconds, as it always does. Others descend the stairs into the multiple Red Line entrances on every corner along Mass. Ave.

The light but steady rhythm of the square is like the cool November mist – never fully letting up, but sometimes intensifying enough to wreak some small havoc. A bicyclist turning right onto Prospect St. skids to a halt as a pedestrian steps suddenly out into the crosswalk at the change of the signal. Across Mass. Ave., a group of four umbrellas has just surfaced from the Red Line. Helplessly huddled together, disoriented from being underground, chastened (as I was) by the traffic speeding around them, they stare out bleakly while multiple walk cycles pass before they venture across the multiple bus, bike, and car lanes. In the meantime, a braver soul hops across a puddle and scurries across the same crosswalk as the signal is counting down to zero. With the rain picking up, a shuttle bus coming from the Longwood Medical Area transports a more hesitant soul (like me), whose bicycle is hitched to the rack on the bus’s front fender. Just outside the window before me, a gust of wind flips a young woman’s umbrella inside out as she tries to maintain her cell phone conversation while crossing the street.

Police lights shine across the street, as I wait for the dark bus

Interrupting the gentle jazz of the intersection, a barista comes by to let me know they are closing. I gather my things and notice the #83 pulling up to the stop across the street. Timing my exit with the walk cycle, I rush across to catch the bus only to arrive as the driver shuts off the lights. I wait under the shelter of the bus stop as a small crowd slowly gathers around me. The splashing of the fast cars, the beeping of the walk signs, the sirens of a police car roaring through the intersection to stop one of the aforementioned speeders, all add new layers to the sometimes hectic scene I have watched unfold over the previous half hour.

After a time, the lights blink on, the “83 Rindge Ave.” sign is illuminated, and the bus door opens with the hydraulic sound of air being released. In the bright, warm bus, we roll out onto Prospect St., our wipers waving goodbye to the upturned stools on the counters of empty Starbucks.