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)

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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.