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Tunnel Vision

On Friday evening I decided to take a walk to a nearby restaurant. By nearby I mean a couple of city blocks away, although describing my walk in terms of “blocks” doesn’t quite do justice to the fact that the restaurant in question inhabits not a street so much as a tunnel within a labyrinthine indoor urban shopping mall. It was pretty nippy outside—an hour or so later, it would snow—but I didn’t put on my coat. Out the door I went, down the hall to the elevator, down the elevator to the hotel lobby, through the lobby and into the bowels of a strange urban organism that has quietly been spreading like crabgrass throughout a section of Boston’s Back Bay in recent years.

Just outside the hotel lobby, I passed a Starbucks, where much earlier that Friday I had noticed men and women in business attire buying their morning coffee. I continued past a series of shops until I entered a glass-sided walkway through which I could see that I was crossing over Huntington Avenue. The walkway fed me onto an escalator, which led me into a gleaming new (well, it must be pretty new, I think—I had never noticed it before) multiuse indoor environment comprising two floors of retail stores and restaurants, an 11-screen movie theater, four seven-story office buildings and 1,400 parking spaces, and connecting directly to two hotels, the Westin (where I was staying) and the Marriott. Actually, one of the retail floors of Copley Place—as the whole structure apparently is called—flows so seamlessly into the Marriott lobby that it would be the envy of any modern-day Martin Dressler, the titular hotel-building character of the Steven Millhauser novel, who ultimately is brought down by his increasingly grandiose designs that try to stuff too many of life’s various attractions under one roof.

But my quest at the moment was not to try and understand the appeal of such hermetically sealed urban environments—or why the young tourist couple wanted to have their picture taken in front of the ersatz waterfall in the retail area’s central atrium—but to see if I could find my way through the indoor maze to Marché Mövenpick, the Canadian-based restaurant chain that is a breakfast favorite of my two young sons. So I proceeded through the Marriott lobby, past another Starbucks, until—Eureka! I was standing at the mouth of another glass-enclosed walkway, this one also crossing over Huntington Avenue (as I crossed, I waved at my hotel, which was only about 50 yards away, though my serpentine indoor walk had been much longer) to the Prudential Center, which has its own maze of indoor retail arcades connecting the Prudential Tower, the Hynes Convention Center, another parking garage and yet another hotel, the Sheraton. I sensed that I was close (I had stayed previously at the Sheraton, which was how I knew there was a Marché underneath), though I walked a fair distance more down gleaming corridors of Ann Taylors and Sunglass Huts and Au Bon Pains before my quarry finally came into view.

The walk from the Westin to Marché is somewhat shorter outside, on city streets, but I knew my kids would find the maze of indoor arcades and enclosed walkways more exciting. So when I returned to our hotel room, I announced, “I have it all figured out now. It’s all connected.”

And indeed, the next morning, and the morning after that, my wife, kids and I retraced my route through the tunnels of the sealed-in city. The walk was pleasant enough, the kids were happy, we did not have to worry about automobiles hurtling toward them, the fresh-fruit smoothies and café au lait were as satisfying as ever, and certain family members did succumb to the siren songs of retailers lined up along the corridors to intercept us. I noted the similarities to Montreal, whose underground city connects many different “neighborhoods” of shops, restaurants, offices and hotels, offering a weather- and car-free alternative to negotiating the same routes above ground. I also noted one significant difference: Aside from the parking garages, Boston’s Copley Place and Prudential complexes do not offer direct access to transportation: A train station and several subway stops are nearby, but you do have to go outside to get to them. In Montreal, the two main intracity rail stations and a number of subway stations are integral nodes of the underground city.

But more than anything, I noted how little this new brand of urban “village” has anything to do with the actual city around it. Whatever appeal its amenities may have to a shopper, an office worker or a hotel guest, they are amenities you can get in virtually any city in North America: They are amenities provided by huge corporate chains that thrive on their ability to replicate familiar experiences and reduce the pressure to seek new ones. From Marriott to Starbucks, from the movie multiplex to my kids’ beloved Marché, they say as much about Boston and its culture as a McDonald’s hamburger eaten in Red Square would say about Moscow. And while Back Bay’s growing indoor village has by no means taken over the city, it makes me just a little bit troubled to think that such developments might be designed to allow visitors to get in and out of a city without actually having to interact with it.

Of course, we did spend a good portion of our visit to Boston trying to see Boston, whether visiting museums, negotiating the busy and colorful subways, or strolling through neighborhoods in Cambridge and in Boston’s South and North ends. Returning from the North End one afternoon, we passed through Haymarket, Boston’s old-world outdoor mob scene of a market that is still a robust melting pot of people and fresh food despite the chaotic construction going on all around it. The kids seemed to delight in the sights, sounds and smells of this feisty place, and my son Denis, surveying the many offerings around him, finally decided that he wanted a Golden Delicious apple. After several bites, he looked up at me, smiled, and said it was the best apple he had ever had. Although it’s likely that that had little or nothing to do with the fact that the apple was from Haymarket and that he was eating it outdoors with the bustle of the city all around him, at that particular moment it registered how good it felt to be someplace real.

—Stephen Leon

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