September 10, 2020

When the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out in early 2020, I wandered the eerie streets of downtown Boston having never seen them so empty in over 25 years of living here. Almost every business was closed, the tourists had fled and city residents were staying indoors. Those were the dark days of March and April 2020. [View the 'Empty Streets' gallery.]

An awakening started in the late Spring. Non-essential human activity began to return to Boston's streets and grew more transformative throughout the Summer. Despite talk of urban flight, a reimagining of city life saw locals filling the streets with new experiences, especially in the downtown neighborhoods such as the North End. These images demonstrate four ways the streets were transformed from May through August 2020.

Opera from the Balcony

  • Opera at a public fountain

  • Local performing arts group partnered with a restaurant pairing take-out with opera

  • Balcony Opera

Taking a cue from the stay-at-home scenes in Italy, out of work opera singers came to Boston's North End to sing from the balconies while the restaurants were still shutdown. The performances were initially not advertised so as not to attract a virus-spreading crowd. Onlookers social distanced on the streets while enjoying the classical music. As the weeks wore on, singers mobilized entire 'pop-up' operas, such as from Rossini's The Barber of Seville in front of neighborhood barber shops.

Next up were high school and college graduations, all of which were formally canceled. Parents and local officials setup rolling rallies with dozens of cars parading through the streets to stop at the homes of graduates. City councilors and State representatives were on hand with official commendations and fist pumps through car windows.

Grads wore their gowns, decorated the streets and were cheered on at each stop by friends and family with balloons, signs and confetti. In the Boston's Little Italy, Mike's Pastry donated boxes of cannoli to all the graduates and there were gift cards from the original Regina's Pizza. As one graduate noted, that's more than just the diploma they would have received walking across a stage.

Rolling Graduations

  • Boston Latin School graduates meet the rolling parade

  • College graduates accept gifts and commendations as the rally rolls down Hanover Street

  • Northeastern graduates celebrate at the rolling parade

  • Confetti in the streets at the graduation car parade

After the murder of George Floyd, downtown Boston saw some of its largest protests in history supporting social justice. The pandemic appeared to add an urgency to the protests. Most were peaceful, but a few tough nights caused downtown businesses to board up their shuttered storefronts which became a common sight in the city. The Governor called in the National Guard, adding soldiers as another odd sight on the streets.

Protests & Activism

  • Masked protesters for the Black LIves Matter movement at Boston City Hall

  • Social justice protest during the pandemic

  • BLM protest at Government Center Plaza

  • Boarded up - Oldest Tavern in America, Bell 'n Hand

  • Boarded up Faneuil Hall Marketplace and Quincy Market

  • National Guard stand outside Sam Adams Tap Room at Faneuil Hall

  • A repeated target, the Columbus statue is beheaded and ultimately removed by city officials.

Coincident with the social justice protests, a reckoning of confederate and colonial statues were being torn down across the country. It was of little surprise when the often vandalized Christopher Columbus statue on the North End waterfront once again came to the forefront. On June 10, 2020, it was beheaded by in the middle of the night and subsequently removed by city officials for a public review process.

Perhaps the most pervasive change in the city's streetscape has been the addition of outdoor dining and cafe tables. After weeks of serving only takeout, restaurants were given emergency licenses to open curbside dining tables, 6 feet apart, for food and alcohol service. Literally over a weekend, hundreds of tables and umbrellas popped up on the streets. 

Outdoor Dining & Cafes

  • North Square - the country's oldest public square and formerly vacant is now an outdoor cafe with colorful umbrellas

  • Full scale restaurant dining in Boston's North End

  • Caffe tables moved to the curb on Hanover Street

  • Italian Vespa transportation to the new street dining in Boston's North End

  • In the back, secret piazza dining complete with violin player

  • Curbside dining on Hanover Street

  • Friday night revelers in the North End

  • North End church courtyards have been transformed into outdoor dining areas

  • Popular patio spot along the Greenway

Even longtime city residents who have “seen it all” watched in wonderment the overnight transformation of the North End’s streets and squares into European-style cafes and piazzas. Swapping parked cars for dining tables created much more than what was expected.

While the catalyst for the cafe zones was to help restaurants recover from the COVID-19 shutdown, many would like it to stay beyond just this season, a controversial decision to come later. For example, residents were offered substitute parking in nearby garages to make room for the cafe tables. This solution won't be available when the suburban office workers return.

How many of these changes will survive the pandemic? Stay tuned.


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