Reimagining Parts of Copley Square

Hey, I have a question for you: What would you change about Copley Square?

More elaborate plantings? Fewer benches? An additional plaque or two? Some temporary art exhibits?

It’s a question I’ve asked my students at MassArt and BU for the past several years, and I figured it was time to cast own eye on this iconic public space. What follows is the good, the bad, and the other, at least as I see it.


Boston’s greatest front porch

A group of young men from Roxbury shooting a hip-hop/skateboarding video on the steps asked me “Hey, what are you taking a photo of us?”

“Yup. What do you guys like about this place?,” I asked.

“You can basically do whatever you want out here and no one cares. It’s a good time,” one of the guys answered.

Bam, that’s it: You can do whatever you want out here. Too many supposedly “public” spaces aren’t really that public. But on any given day, you might find a group of tourists taking photos on the steps, students taking advantage of the plentiful Wi-Fi, or artists sketching. It’s that type of place, and it’s really that special.


Bikes for all!

This one’s a slam dunk, for any number of reasons. Driving around Boston is [insert your favorite well-worn phrase here], Americans are getting larger, and cars gobble up lots and lots of space in cities. The Hubway program started in 2011, and now there are 61 stations scattered throughout Boston and Cambridge. In an era where “public-private” partnerships means cities get the shaft (hello, the “sweetheart” deal handed out by former Mayor Richard Daley to privatize parking meters in Chicago) and large businesses laugh all the way to the bank, the Hubway is a win-win. And it fits rather neatly next to the steps of the library, without visually marring its wonderful entrance.


I can see something more lovely than these trees …

First of all, I love trees. Love, love, love them. This line of trees stretching gingerly toward Clarendon Street don’t really don’t do anything for me from an aesthetic standpoint. Benches are always a great addition to any public space, but there are benches galore that run along Saint James Avenue and Dartmouth Street. My recommendation? Pull out these underperforming trees and benches and set up a bit of a temporary art space for art students and others. This corner of Copley Square needs a bit of a reboot and some more creative thinking.


The hare and the tortoise and the fountain and the … ?

Tourists (and some locals) love photo ops. Think of the people who pose in front of the Southernmost Point cement statue in Key West or Four Corners in the Southwest. Yes, it may seem tacky and yes, some people find them insufferable, but why not create a few additional photo ops in Copley Square? There could be a rendering of Trinity Church shaking hands with the Hancock Tower (they have had a rocky relationship, architecturally speaking). Or what about putting a selection of ideas online and having people vote for their favorites? It’s definitely a way to keep people engaged with this space and thinking about new ways to liven things up a bit.


A tribute to a poet, philosopher, and mystic

Today, Kahlil Gibran is best known as the author of “The Prophet,” which is a series of 26 far-ranging lyrical meditations on the importance of friendship, pain, and self-awareness. It’s not surprising that the book, originally published in 1923, gained a new audience in the 1960s as it seemed to embody the enhanced freedoms that were being enjoyed by everyone from Montauk to Montecito. Gibran’s Boston connection? He lived in the South End with his family in the 1890s and the early 1900s, and he also had his first formal art exhibit in 1904 at the studio of Fred Holland Day. It’s unusual to have a plaque dedicated to a poet who hasn’t been dead at least 100 years in such a prominent location, and the uniqueness of the bronze work is lovely. Also, the piece was executed by his nephew, the late Kahlil George Gibran.

If you’d like to know a bit more about the history of Copley Square, don’t miss this excellent history offered up by the Friends of Copley Square.