February 29, 2004
The City as Writer — Time to Figure Out How the Story Ends

Okay, it looks like the worst is over. The city’s been a construction site for more than a decade. Now that there’s light at the end of the I-93 tunnel, I am thinking that all the digging up and sifting through, the re-envisioning, reclaiming, reshaping makes the Big Dig an irresistible metaphor for writers.

I think of Thoreau ,and Robert Lowell to Sue Miller and Marie Howe--in a different environment, would they have written different works? Do we write differently when our landscape is in upheaval? As pieces of the elevated roadway disappear, I wonder what post-Big Dig Boston will look like in writing.

“The archetypal Boston that writers imagine,” says Gary Duehr , “might shift from the Boston Common/ Public Garden/ Beacon Hill/ Back Bay model to one closer to the water, a Boston of piers and waterfront lodging--something that echoes the original Boston.”

Duehr has thought a lot about the city. Duehr is a poet who teaches poetry and writing at Bunker Hill Community College, Lesley University, and Boston University. One of his three books of poetry, Where Everyone Is Going To, is set in Boston. He is also a founder and director of the Invisible Cities Group, which stages performance events that draw on the history and character of city places.

On a day when snow is in the air, Duehr and I meet in a tiny Somerville restaurant warm with pictures of El Salvador and Guatemala. A few blocks away is Sullivan Square, which, Duehr tells me, was once a green oasis with fountains and playing children and ladies and gentlemen strolling in their Sunday best. What I see in 2004 is a monument to transportation: a large T station and a handful of indomitable buildings hunkered beneath a crosshatch of flying highways. A person living in the area then and now would have quite different experiences. A writer living in sight of it would surely write two very different types of stories, depending on the moment in time.

What is changed when the landscape is altered goes far beyond physical surroundings. We write in a new way, just as we live in a new way. That is why the next phase of the Central Artery Project, the development of the freed-up ribbon of land stretching from Chinatown to North Station, is more important than what we have already lived through. it will affect not how we drive, but how we live.

“The idea that the city is trying to reinvent itself, edit its shoreline, reimagine the face it presents to the Atlantic and to the rest of the world,” says Duehr “gives the whole city, including writers, a sense that anything is possible, that you can make drastic changes and open yourself up to an unknown future. “And, of course,” he adds, “upheaval and messiness are generally good for writing, at least the kind I do. Out of the mess some meaning gradually emerges.”

Well, it’s time for the meaning to begin emerging. By now a writer would be able to see where the novel or the poem is going. Same with the city. At this point, after years of planning, years of detours, the direction for the project should be clear.

The point wasn’t putting the traffic underground. The point was putting it underground for a reason, to reshape the city. It’s time to find the clear route to the new vision of what our city, our writing, and our lives can be.

What we’re reading now: Gary Duehr: Vintage Amis by Martin Amis and Except for One Obscene Brushstroke by Dzvinia Orlowsky; Ellen Steinbaum: Ship Sooner by Mary Sullivan.

City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at citytype@globe.com.

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