9,872 smoots. That’s how far I walked to make this deformed heart map for Valentine’s Day.
That’s a GPS track of my path around Boston and Cambridge (and a bit of Somerville) to trace something like a heart shape. Over on my regular cartography blog there’s a quick summary of why I would do this kind of thing, but here let’s talk Boston. What did I observe about space and place in the city by trying to draw this shape on the landscape?
The heart of Boston
First of all, finding a decent-sized heart shape in the local street system is not quite as easy as I expected. It is certainly much easier than in a city with a strict rectilinear grid, but a heart requires something like an octilinear (transit map style) system, ideally with ample curves. Boston’s streets may not be well-organized overall, but they do follow some order within neighborhoods and don’t leave a lot of options for hearts. As it turns out, the key here—and totally the best thing about this project—was to make use of the Charlestown Navy Yard–Long Wharf ferry, something I had yet to experience in my time living here.
Very little of this route was new to me, but since exploration is partly the objective of such a project, I tried to pay attention to whatever was new. The one area that was an entirely new experience was the Cambridge/Somerville borderlands between the vicinity of Inman/Union Squares and Lechmere. I was a little fascinated by the gritty mesh of light industrial and residential uses, not to mention the one or more scrap yards. I also learned that Somerville police enjoy hanging out (or maybe just taking naps?) on the back side of Twin City Plaza. Fair enough; it does have high potential for being a pretty sketchy spot, although cops lurking back there bring their own special creepiness to it.
There was a great remark over at archBoston written by user DZH22 the other day: “If you wander around enough, it turns out that a lot of Boston looks nothing like Boston.” That’s a nice way of summing up the diversity of layout and architecture in Boston’s neighborhoods. Sure enough, “Boston” tends to bring to mind old churches and charming sections of the North End/Beacon Hill/Back Bay, and most of the city doesn’t look like that. Parts of the South End have always struck me as particularly interesting in this regard. Blackstone and Franklin Squares (pictured above), for example, just seem somehow different in form and scale from most other non-downtown places in the city. Not that this was a new revelation on this heart walk, but it’s always a pleasure to pass through that part of town. The South End as a whole has a way of being very city-ish while flying a little under the radar.
Stick with me long enough and you’re bound to hear about how I hate administrative boundaries such as cities or counties. On this excursion I passed between three cities: Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston. Cambridge and Somerville, in my mind, confirm my contention that city boundaries are largely meaningless. As I wandered the border zone between the two cities, most of the time it was nigh impossible to tell which city I was in. A “city” as a human settlement rarely respects jurisdictional boundaries, and it frustrates me to no end when, for example, Boston people treat Brookline or Cambridge like adversarial faraway kingdoms, and vice versa. That’s not to say that boundaries are always so invisible, however. Cambridge and Charlestown have a much more stark division, an apparent wasteland with only a single crossing.
For the love of a place
The above are just a few observations that demonstrate the purpose of this kind of wandering. On the one hand it’s just a silly stunt for a blog post, but on the other hand it’s an activity meant to stimulate discovery and awareness of place by directing me through the landscape on a somewhat arbitrary path. Simply walking around with no specific purpose is a great way to get to know the city and develop more attachments to it. And when the city has its own local unit of measurement with which you can record the distance, you know it’s worth it.
Happy Valentine’s Day, Boston, or in the ever-wise words of Sav-Mor liquors: Blah blah blah. Drink.