October 8, 2006

A Trail of Words Along the Orange Line

I was across from Back Bay Station when I saw a granite column with writing carved into it. It was a short story--a whole story right there on the column. Counterpoint, by Jane Barnes, tells of Kate, quarreling with Tom about a late bill payment wil she practices Bach and thinks, “So this is what it was like...to take all that external irritation and put it into the music.”

What? I had passed this spot many times, but never seen this, or a nearby column where a poem by Ruth Whitman was carved. A third column explained a 1987 project, “Boston Contemporary Writers,”that had placed poetry and prose reflecting “the experience of living or working in an urban environment” along the Southwest Corridor. Listed were works located, one poetry one prose, at nine T stops along the Orange Line as a sort of meandering urban Stonehenge. Did I have a choice? I got on the Orange Line.

It was easy to spot the column set in the middle of the Ruggles station. Even the coffee cup brazenly perched on top could not detract from Samuel Allen’s poem, “Harriet Tubman aka Moses,” with its powerful ending:
for a moment
in the long journey
came the first faint glimpses
of the stars, the everlasting stars, shining clear
over the free

Finding the second piece, “Four Letters Home,” by Will Holton, proved harder. I’ve been a fan of art on the T, both official, like Mags Harries’ bronze gloves “dropped” at Porter Square, and unofficial, like the clarinetist at Copley. But I had completely missed this series--and apparently I wasn’t the only one. When I asked a T employee where the other column was, he had no idea what I was talking about. I pointed out the poem I had just read. “I’ve never seen that,” he said. “I’ll have to read it.”

Another thing I had missed, having arrived in Boston in 1990, was the difficult history that this project grew out of. Pamela Worden, then president and CEO of the nonprofit group Urban Arts, Inc., had proposed it as an “opportunity for healing” from deep wounds made in the mid-1960s when a massive highway project was planned that would have sliced through neighborhoods and effectively isolated Roxbury and Jamaica Plain from the rest of the city. The plan was dropped, but only after a decade of public outrage. Instead, in the swath cleared for the highway, a new Orange Line was built to replace the old elevated rail line.

“There was a lot of hurt in the neighborhoods,” explains Worden, “and this was an opportunity to leave a legacy where the scars had been. We wanted to use words because we are surrounded by words. We have advertising screaming at us. We felt there ought to be words in the public environment that speak to us more deeply.”
The pieces chosen in a blind competition includes work by unpublished writers and those with major reputations. Eileen Meny, who was the project director, says,“We wanted the writing to reflect the neighborhoods. We hoped that when people came out of the subway they would find a sense of place.”

Outside the Ruggles station I recognized four familiar-looking columns. Holton’s piece is a series of imagined letters home from people who had settled in Roxbury: Winslow, writes in 1834 to his parents in Maine about his small farm; in 1886 Patrick tells his Irish family the neighborhood is filling with Italians and Russian Jews “and their strange ways”; Morris from Poland, is selling hardware in 1926; and Charlie writes his family in Georgia in 1960 that he works hard as a custodian, though “people don’t really appreciate what I do.”

As I reenter the station, I see the T worker I talked to earlier reading the Samuel Allen poem, and pointing it out to a passerby.

Continuing riding and reading, at Jackson Square I find Christine Palamidessi Moore’s “Grandmothers,” about her Italian “Nonna” and Slovak “Baba,” along with Christopher Gilbert’s poem, “Any Good Throat.” At Stony Brook Rosario Morales and Martin Espada write about newcomers who brought their languages and customs along with their hopes and dreams for the future, and at Green Street Mary Bonina and Daria MonDesire evoke a world that, though geographically close, is miles from Copley Square.

Delightful as these pieces are, it’s clear that time, weather, and initial concept have not always been kind, and reading the words on these polished stones can be a challenge. At Roxbury Crossing, Jeanette DeLello Winthrop’s poem, “Roxbury Crossing,” is all but illegible. So, too, is the prose piece “Hometown” by Luix Virgil Overbea, a narrative that covers all four sides of its column. Its subject and its placement warrant attention, but it is, unfortunately, one of the less successful pieces.

At Forest Hills, the columns (which a T staffer insisted weren’t there) are up at the bus stop. I read a poem by Thomas Hurley (cq) called The Subway Collector, then went inside the station to join the people trying to figure out the new toll card vending machines.

Ellen Steinbaum can be reached at citytype@globe.com.

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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

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