Monday, November 5, 2001

The Big Dig: Tunnel Vision


The American Prospect

Volume 12, Issue 19.November 5, 2001

Construction: Tunnel Vision

by Harvey Blume

 Boston's Big Dig, officially known as the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, is a massive, budget-busting effort to reshape the city's traffic infrastructure by the year 2005--without generating any more gridlock than Boston drivers are already resigned to. The basic idea is to replace the city's eyesore of an elevated highway with a multilane tunnel fit for twenty-first-century flow. The project also calls for a web of other tunnels, connectors, and bridges, and the reallocation of a considerable amount of public land. Its many engineering achievements--including, for example, four tunnels layered beneath South Station (a hub for trains, subway cars, and buses)--are well documented on the Big Dig's Web site, Costs for the undertaking--initially estimated at $2.6 billion, most of it in federal highway dollars--are today approaching $14.5 billion, a price tag that makes the Dig far and away the most expensive urban construction project in American history. Were anything on this scale attempted in New York City, there would be few places on earth immune to news of it. Being in Boston, the Dig is less well known than it might be, but no less spectacular.

The best way to dig the Dig might be to refer back to New York City's fin de siËcle engineering feat, the Brooklyn Bridge. When completed in 1883, it was the longest suspension bridge on earth and New York's tallest structure; its towers, in a city still without skyscrapers, dwarfed everything in sight. The bridge replaced the ferry system of transport between Brooklyn and Manhattan, setting the stage for New York City's growth. The Dig, too, has a unifying function: When the central artery is demolished, Boston's waterfront and North End will be rejoined to the rest of town after 50 years of separation.

But the Brooklyn Bridge did more than facilitate transport. From the moment it took shape in the mind of its designer, John Roebling, it was loaded with symbolic meaning. Roebling--not to be confused with his son, Washington, who took over the project after his father's death--was a German immigrant who in his youth had been a friend and follower of the philosopher Georg William Friedrich Hegel. Hegel's heady notions incited vast ambitions in his disciples. (One of them, for example, went on to found Marxism.) In terms of scope, Roebling's vision can stand comparison to that of Marx, though in Roebling's estimation the world-spirit--especially in America, its most advanced outpost--needed engineers, not revolutionaries. Engineering could bring peoples, places, cultures, classes, and the very elements of the earth together in superb synthesis. Suspension bridges were the most dialectically satisfying of all structures, reconciling gravity and weightlessness, earth and air. Roebling built suspension bridges in Pittsburgh and at Niagara Falls as lead-up to the world-historical structure he aimed to construct for New York City.

Many of Roebling's contemporaries agreed that this bridge would lead not merely from Brooklyn to Manhattan, but from America to utopia. Oddly, though, no one at the time, with one peculiar exception, saw the bridge as a source of art. By the outbreak of World War I, however, artists had caught on and were extolling the bridge as the supreme expression of modern energies. The paintings of Joseph Stella portray it as a sort of Cubist cathedral. And the poet Hart Crane saw it as America's answer to the London Bridge as described by T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land. Eliot's bridge leads to the land of the dead; Crane's angles toward transcendence.

The one artist who was willing right away to use the bridge quite literally as a platform for his work was P.T. Barnum. Not long after its completion, Barnum led a herd of elephants, headed up by the gargantuan Jumbo, across to Brooklyn. As symbols, the bridge and Jumbo were made for each other. The bridge so far outclassed its predecessors that it was an entirely new sort of thing, just as Jumbo was an entirely new species of pachyderm (or so Barnum urged people to believe). When the elephants finished their stroll to Brooklyn, Barnum, ever public spirited, declared the bridge safe for any kind of traffic.

Though no one during Barnum's life thought of his ploys as artistic, many of his mind games would now be construed without question as conceptual or performance art. It is partly because today's definition of art is broad enough to swallow Jumbo whole that artistic response to the Dig has been so swift in coming. Artists have been drawn from the first to its loud, raw, unfinished quality; its cavernous pits and colossal cranes; the piles of steel, dirt, and concrete that workers reconfigure daily. The Brooklyn Bridge was operational for years before a Modernist aesthetic was ready to assimilate it. The Dig, in contrast, is a hit artistically while still but a noisy chasm.

Former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Fred Salvucci, who in the 1980s was a pivotal proponent of the Dig, sensed that there was an aesthetic in the wings just waiting to claim the project as its perfect expression. This, he thought, would kill the idea: Congress would never fork over billions of dollars for anything rumored to be contemporary art. To set things straight, Salvucci declared: "We're not doing the project as some sort of abstract underground sculpture."

Many billions of dollars later, it's safe to say that Salvucci convinced the funders, but he never fooled the artists. They have always seen the Dig as an erupting artwork, a runaway junk sculpture, an in-your-face installation that has jumped gallery walls and run wild under, over, and around the city. The Dig is oversize, unpredictable, even dangerous--qualities that recommend it to today's art world. It is environmental art that smashes up its environment: as if Christo not only wrapped his bridges but built and destroyed them, too. The fact that the Dig has no auteur, no counterparts to John Roebling and son, also speaks to contemporary taste. The Dig is just too big for any individual mind, and maybe too complex for human reason altogether. That would explain why the project seems, at times, to be teetering toward autonomy. It is perhaps to the Dig rather than to the Internet that we should look for the first glimmers of true artificial intelligence. Should the Dig ever wake and become self-aware, however, it will be much too late to cut off funding. is a portal to much Dig-related art, including paintings by Michael Eder. Eder used to be what he calls an "abstract landscape artist," but the studio he rents in Boston's Fort Point Channel area, where artists have renovated what was a moribund warehouse district, is directly in the path of the Dig. When the monster machinery, the orange-vested workers, and the gaping holes appeared outside his studio window, Eder was converted into an "abstract Dig artist"; his canvasses are now suffused with orange, his subject matter tending toward backhoes and rebar. The Web site has also featured Don Eyles, a computer scientist with experience on NASA space launches. His black-and-white photographs of the Dig combine a scientist's attention to structure with an artist's eye for light, shadow, and texture. Eyles has also played his part in an outpouring of Dig-inspired public art. His "Gnomon"--a white pyramid designed, perhaps, in homage to an earlier style of monumental engineering--floats alongside other water art in Fort Point Channel.

The Dig has also spawned a genre of protest art directed at the social policy, or lack of it, that frames the project. It's easy to understand one of the sources for this work: Boston rents, among the highest in the country, will climb still higher in anticipation of a less congested city that boasts green space instead of an odious central artery. Fort Point Channel already feels the pinch, as property owners seek to replace artist's lofts with office space. The Revolving Museum, for example, where Michael Eder and other artists influenced by the Dig have studios, is facing a rent increase that will shut it down after years of service to Boston artists. Eder, whose show of Big Dig art opens in Paris this October, is acutely aware of the irony of being displaced by the very force he has celebrated. He thinks of himself now as a "little person in front of the tank at Tiananmen." To extend the analogy, it is as if that fellow at Tiananmen continued to paint fascinating views of the tank almost to the last.

Not surprisingly, doesn't keep track of protest art, but, the Web site of the Fort Point Cultural Coalition (FPCC), does. The FPCC and SAND (the Seaport Alliance for a Neighborhood Design) address the social effects of the Dig, including the disposition of open space. As Jon Seward of SAND points out, the term "open space" is subject to interpretation--and to self-serving definitions. Though not directly Big Dig related, an ongoing debate between the city and the Gillette Corporation illustrates his point: Gillette seems to have forgotten all about the ribbon of public green space it contracted to build on 10 acres of recently purchased property. This sort of outcome may be more the rule than the exception in deals struck between the public and the private sectors, at least according to a survey of comparable developments in Manhattan. There, as reported by The New York Times, public expectations have routinely been nullified by private fiat: "Gates that should be open are padlocked. Ledges that should be welcoming are lined with spikes. Plazas are filled with dumpsters. Drinking fountains are dry. And chairs and tables meant for the public are taken over by restaurants."

The promise of public land has, from the first, been a major selling point for the Dig, although in many cases final plans have not yet crystallized. If public space and parkland were to be negotiated away, feelings about the Dig could sour quickly in Boston. For now, despite the inconvenience of the project and the financial burdens imposed by it (there is a rebellion brewing among motorists who want to prevent any more cost overruns from being passed on to them as turnpike fees), the Dig remains popular. A good measure of this popularity is the fact that 25,000 people took a guided tour of the project when it was offered last year as part of a New Year's Eve celebration. But millennial festivities aside, tours are not so easy to come by. As a rule, the Dig has been a hands-off experience.

There will, for example, be no walkway on the soon-to-be-completed Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge spanning the Charles River, the widest cable-stay bridge ever built. And should Bostonians want to breath the fine air in the Ted Williams Tunnel--reputed to be cleaner than the air of Boston because of the tunnel's state-of-the-art ventilation system--they'll have to do so in a car; pedestrians, again, are not allowed. Dig officials will tell you that in both cases it's not their fault. Federal highway dollars were used for these structures, and federal regulations ban foot traffic.

This statement is true, so far as it goes. But Camila Chaves Cortes, an urban planner and research fellow in the visual study of cities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes it lets Dig planners off too easily. Currently completing a book on the reconstruction of Berlin in the wake of the Wall, as well as a book of her photographs of the Dig, Cortes sees the Boston project and the Berlin rebuild as comparably ambitious undertakings. Both cities have made engineering breakthroughs in their efforts to reshape themselves for a new century. Beyond that, though, the two projects, as Cortes sees them, are a study in contrasts. Berlin has all along stressed the democratic impulse behind construction by creating viewing stations, commissioning art, and introducing transparency to the very core of the project (glass affords visitors a clear view of the city and of its lawmakers). Cortes acknowledges that the Dig, too, has been eager to educate the citizenry, but mostly about feats of engineering and too often at a distance--through the Web site, for instance. To her mind, the Dig has been a failed opportunity to involve Bostonians in their city the way Berliners have become involved in theirs.

In other words, Boston is letting Babe Ruth get away again. Cortes is no doubt correct to point out that the Dig demonstrates the well-known American weakness for the technologically sublime. In Boston's defense, though, it must be said that getting out from under 50 years of congested traffic just isn't the same thing as getting out from under 50 years of communism; the Dig doesn't come bundled with the same sort of political message as rebuilding a unified Berlin.

In any case, with due allowance made for today's faster response times, we're not yet entitled to a final word about the Dig. The Brooklyn Bridge was around for decades before New Yorkers, with help from art, really knew what to make of it. If the bridge is any example, art will also have a lot to do with how the future sees the Dig. Boston artists are regrouping after the first terrific onslaught of what Revolving Museum director Jerry Beck calls the Dig's inescapable "pounding, beauty, and dust." It will be interesting to see what their next appraisal looks like.

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