Searching for Subversion in Boston

Josh Stephens's picture
I've always wanted, but never quite had the cred, to go to Burning Man. Instead, I went to this year's rendition of National Park(ing) Day in the hopes that it would provide a reasonable, if diminuative, substitute in temporary parks across the country. Creative minds can do a lot with 180 square feet, especially when there are straight-laced passers-by to shock and paradigms to subvert.

National Parking Day was founded not by an urbanist group but rather by an art collective, and there's something delicious about the marriage of art and asphalt. I imagine that many of the over 400 events that took place last week (about double that of last year) included all sorts of crazy stuff, in addition to more mundane but well meaning patches of sod and picnic chairs. There were probably DJs, acid trips, and naked fire eaters in San Francisco, where Rebar founded the first event in 2005, and perhaps equal measures of whimsy took place at the two-dozen events in Los Angeles and New York (which is, as we know, the capital of the creative economy).

(For my part, I imagined realizing a tiny version of Futurist Vladimir Tatlin's unbuilt Monument to the Third International in front of a Starbucks.)

I am, however, on sabattical from Los Angeles and am instead living in Boston now, and it turned out that, despite its historic, pedestrian-friendly streetscape, the nation's tenth-largest metro area had all of one Parking Day event. The venerable Trust for Public Land helped coordinate the national Parking Day effort with a list of cities and a handy map, and they were the official sponsor of Boston's site, strategically located in front of what is generally considered one of the most atrocious public spaces in all the United States: Boston City Hall and its plaza, which is the most dehumanizing expanse of pavement I've seen since Tienamen Square.

TPL does fantastic work, and their goals align nicely with Parking Day. I couldn't help feeling, however, that their rendition in Boston was a bit too corporate. TPL saw fit to get permits and official police barriers as would any regular group of demonstrators outside of City Hall, which is all well and good. Their name is on the event, and they need to keep the city happy (even while implicitly pointing out its shortcomings).But for most of the time I was there, the participants -- a pleasant bunch of students and urbanists -- outnumbered the onlookers. A scene, it was not.

The beauty of reclaiming ugly spaces, or any public space, is that it doesn't have to be sanctioned, nor should it priviledge only one kind of use. For the right number of quarters, any citizen can lay claim to those 180 square feet -- for a car, a park, or anything else -- without adhering to convention. To get Bostonians -- or most people, for that matter -- to understand the potential to reclaim, redesign, and repurpose the urban landscape into something a little more human is going to require something a bit more revolutionary than sod, potted plants, and swapped stories of compost and grad school.

A more appealing urban fabric might not be sort of future that Vladimir Tatlin had in mind, but it may yet require a revolution.

Josh Stephens is a contributing editor of the California Planning & Development Report ( and former editor of The Planning Report (


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