Southwest Corridor Park

by Ken Bresler | March 2018

Installations of poetry – poems carved in stone – had their origin in a highway.


A controversial highway project, the Southwest Corridor or Southwest Expressway, was finally killed in 1973. Eight lanes of traffic had been planned to link Route 95, southwest of Boston, and a proposed Inner Belt Expressway (which also was never built) in Boston.

After the Southwest Corridor was halted, a wide barren swath ran through Boston neighborhoods. Decades later, it is unclear – because documents are not freely available and memories have faded – how far the project progressed; how many buildings, homes, and businesses were demolished; and how much of the swath was due to a railroad right of way as opposed to bulldozing and other demolition. Almost 2,000 housing units and several hundred businesses may have been lost.

In any case, it took years, but the swath of unused land was given a new purpose, or purposes, actually. The Orange Line of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which was an elevated line for the portion it ran above ground, was shifted to the Southwest Corridor. New stations were built and the elevated line was torn down. This new part of the Orange Line opened in 1987. (This might have happened even if the Southwest Corridor Expressway had been built. According to at least one source, the new part of the Orange Line was going to run on the highway’s median.) And a linear park opened two years later, the Southwest Corridor Park, with paths for cycling, running, and walking.

The two purposes, the Orange Line and the park, are in turn linked by a literary project. The park contains installations of poetry and of prose carved into stone. Nine installations, one at each of nine Orange Line stations, have both a poem and a short story or other prose piece.

“There was a lot of hurt in the neighborhoods and this was an opportunity to leave a legacy where the scars had been,” said Pamela Worden. Worden is the former president and CEO of the nonprofit group Urban Arts, Inc., which was instrumental in the literary project. “We wanted to use words because we are surrounded by words. We have advertising screaming at us. We felt there ought to be words in the public environment that speak to us more deeply.”
Eileen Meny, who was the project director, said, “We wanted the writing to reflect a sense of place for each neighborhood. The idea was that when riders left a subway station, the poems and short stories would reflect the character and people of that community.”

The poetry and prose pieces were chosen in a blind competition – resulting in the selection of both well-known and unknown poets and writers.

Forest Hills Station has a poem, “The Subway Collector” by Thomas Hurley. It is the only poem about public transit in this series of installations tied to public transit.

Green Street Station’s poem is “Drift” by Mary Bonina. When “Drift” was selected for this installation, Bonina, a poet and a writer of fiction and memoir, had not won any prize. “It still amazes me,” she said. “People don’t have a monument like that until they’re dead.”

The Stony Brook Station’s poem is “Mrs. Báez Serves Coffee On The Third Floor” by Martín Espada. Jackson Square Station’s poem: “Any Good Throat” by Christopher Gilbert. Roxbury Crossing Station’s poem: “At Roxbury Crossing” by Jeanette DeLello Winthrop. The poem is Winthrop’s first published work – and it was published in granite.

Ruggles Station’s poem, “Harriet Tubman aka Moses” by Samuel Allen, might be my favorite in the nine-part linear poetry installation. This is the only poem inside a station. The other eight are outside.

Massachusetts Avenue Station’s poem, “Drum” by Sharon Cox (Howell), is the only one whose words are on a horizontal surface. In the winter, snow can obscure it. If it has rained, it can be hard to read.

Back Bay Station has a poem, “If My Boundary Stops Here” by Ruth Whitman. Tufts New England Medical Center Station’s poem, “Mr. Yee Is In The Garden,” is by Marea Gordett.

The poems at Forest Hills, Green Street, and Stony Brook Stations, which are consecutive stations, are connected by the word “shoulder.” “The Subway Collector” uses the word “shoulderbag.” “Drift” uses the expression giving “the world the cold shoulder.” And “Mrs. Báez Serves Coffee On The Third Floor” uses “shrugging shoulders for years.”

Three of the nine poems use “blood.” “Drift” includes this line: “blood of a hot country travels in their veins.” “Any Good Throat” mentions “the name in his blood” ringing louder. And “Harriet Tubman aka Moses” uses “bloodhound” and “bloodhounds.” These verbal connections among poems are probably unintentional.

The poems can be hard to find. That’s one reason I wrote my book, Poetry Made Visible: Boston Sites for Poetry Lovers, Art Lovers & Lovers. It contains a chapter on the Southwest Corridor Park / Orange Line.

Ken Bresler is a writer and occasional poet in the Boston area. A variation of this article appeared in his book.