Artists Carpet Sidewalk with Grass in Protest
Published on Tuesday, May 15, 2001 in the Boston Globe
Taking Action Against Boston's 'Open Space'
Artists Carpet Sidewalk with Grass in Protest More green space urged in redevelopment plan
by Raphael Lewis
When it comes to grass-roots protests, artists in Boston's Fort Point Channel district don't mess around.

Upset that redevelopment plans for the historic manufacturing zone label sidewalks and streets as ''open space,'' artists unfurled 5,000 square feet of sod on the Summer Street Bridge yesterday, covering a sidewalk from end to end.

Boston's Open Space
Pedestrians crossing Summer Street bridge after protesters planted $1,300 worth of sod, and some flamingos, yesterday.
(Globe Staff/Bill Greene)
''If they're going to say sidewalks are open space, we want them to look like this,'' said Lisa Greenfield, the self-described ''guerrilla artist'' who dreamed up the protest with fellow artist Jennifer Moses.

The duo, with 18 friends and sympathizers, laid out the $1,300 worth of turf at 4:30 a.m. yesterday, using sod trucked up from a Rhode Island turf farm.

After an hour spent transforming the concrete ribbon into a lush lawn any suburbanite would envy, they picnicked on the 102-year-old bridge, chatting with passersby about a redevelopment plan they say amounts to nothing more than a shell game.

Plans for transforming South Boston's waterfront call for 50 percent of land to be left as open space. But half of that - or 25 percent of the entire area - is allowed to be roads and sidewalks, and not lawns and parkland, according to state law.

After lengthy negotiations with residents and developers, the Boston Redevelopment Authority pared to 20 percent the amount of roads and sidewalks allowed. But many in the neighborhood once dominated by artists still are not mollified.

Yesterday, those who happened upon the bridge appeared pleased with the temporary alterations, some going so far as to doff their shoes and skip barefoot. Others just gaped in amazement, reading informational placards the artists had lashed to the railings. One supporter even brought a pair of pink flamingoes.

''It's a much nicer experience of walking across the bridge with the cushiony feeling,'' said Dave Sampson of Cape Cod. ''How could you not like it?''

Rather than tear up the grass and arrest the artists, city officials appeared willing to treat the mild-mannered protest as a kind of political lawn party.

''I don't know what kind of charges you could file on that,'' said Boston Police Department spokesman Kevin Jones, adding that he was mystified by the sodding.

''I've decided to do nothing,'' said Department of Public Works Commissioner Joseph F. Casazza, noting that he, too, failed to grasp the point of the turf war.

''Whatever the protest is, it's not hurting anybody, so I'll leave it there until tomorrow,'' he continued. ''If I remove it now, it would give them notoriety, which is probably what they want. But my men tell me it's just like walking in your backyard instead of a sidewalk.''

Greenfield and Moses said they also laid down the turf to show how rising rents are making artists a dwindling breed in the neighborhood.

Not long ago, artists held 600,000 square feet of loft space in the area, but today, that number is down to 250,000, and rapidly shrinking. Although developers have pledged to create 175,000 square feet of more live-and-work space for artists in the area, many artists face eviction within the next few years.

At risk most immediately are about 120 painters and sculptors in 288 A St., which will soon become a commercial space, said Susan Hartnett, hired recently by the BRA to help keep artists in the neighborhood.

Hartnett said she understood the artists' desperation, and praised the sod protest for its creativity. She said the artists have Mayor Thomas M. Menino's sympathies.

''I think it's a very creative way to call attention to a large problem,'' Hartnett said. ''We're working on it, but we need a lot of help.''

Greenfield, who normally expresses herself with paint, said the grass could live for two months, if watered regularly. The greenery would match the stagnant waters of the channel below, a waterway polluted with hub caps, umbrella skeletons, and other detritus of a long abused industrial zone.

If the city were to leave the grass, the bridge would break new architectural ground, said Andrew Guidry, a Boston architect who pulled off his loafers to walk the bridge yesterday.

''I know of bridges in the world with public space on them - the Ponte Vecchio in Florence comes to mind - but I don't know of any bridges with landscaping on them,'' Guidry said. ''It's fantastic.''

In July, Greenfield and Moses will surprise the city again with a second installment of guerrilla art, but were tight-lipped on the particulars. But the ''installation'' will attempt to create an idyllic green space completely inaccessible to the public, they said.

''Maybe we should do this at City Hall Plaza,'' quipped Moses, who was sitting barefoot on the grass, a sandwich and beverage before her. ''It would look much better this way.''

© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company