The city has at least two varieties of poor sidewalk repair.

In the first variety, we start with something relatively nice, like this:

(dog not always included) Over time, it gets beaten up, like this:

Often this doesn’t get repaired with bricks; instead it gets repaired with asphalt, like this:

That’s a decent repair job, but bricks are nicer.

When the job is more slapdash, you get this:

What seems to have happened there is somewhat different than the above bricks-to-asphalt scenarios. In this last one (taken at MIT), I think people tended to cut across that corner as they walked, so someone decided to just replace the grass (which I assume had been matted down and muddied) with asphalt. But they half-assed the job.

A similar work of halfassery took place, it seems, many years ago outside of Back Bay station, at the intersection of Columbus Ave. and Clarendon St.:

Someone clearly told them that they needed to put in something like a curb cut. I imagine this either satisfies the letter of the regulation (maybe the Americans with Disabilities Act?), or that no one’s bothered to call them on it yet. It’s ugly, in any case.

The second major variety of sidewalk problem is just that the sidewalk remains unrepaired for years. See, for instance, the sidewalk out in front of Back Bay station:

I don’t know how a sidewalk this prominent — Back Bay gets 18000 orange-line riders per day — remains in a state of disrepair like this for this long. I opened a BOS:311 request about this a while ago, and the best guess at the moment is that the sidewalk falls into some procedural gap: it’s either considered a bridge over the Mass. Pike, hence under the supervision of the highway part of MassDOT; or it’s supervised by the MBTA. A similar question of responsibility may explain this hacked-together patch job on the sidewalk where Massachusetts Avenue crosses over Commonwealth Avenue.

I’ll be curious who ends up claiming responsibility for the Back Bay sidewalk. The repair may have to wait for the Back Bay redevelopment project, which would be kind of silly.

None of this touches the standard variety of, say, buckling brick sidewalks. A walk down most side streets in the South End involves going up and down little hills when you thought you were going to be walking along a straight street. I don’t know how older people, or people with disabilities, manage to live there. Perhaps they don’t?

As someone who walks everywhere, I take all of this personally. As someone who has mobility-impaired family, I’m particularly sensitive to how difficult walking is on even unbroken sidewalks. As someone who loves Boston, I want to see the city put forward a better face, rather than seeming, sometimes, a little provincial and broken-down.

I’ve often heard that much of this comes from Boston’s severe winters. To my ear that’s never been a convincing argument; in fact, what it says to me is that we should have had 387 years to figure out how to do winters right. I’m open to being convinced that America’s Walking City can’t

  1. figure out where to put all its snow
  2. keep beautiful brick sidewalks
  3. make those beautiful brick sidewalks level and walkable

but I contend that we have the technology and the manpower to achieve these things, and that we have a city beautiful enough to deserve it. While we’re at it, we have the resources for some single-payer show shoveling. In fact, I suspect that single-payer shoveling would be cheaper than asking everyone to shovel his or her own sidewalk.

Large problems like mass transit, education, and housing costs can often seem unsolvable. So I thought I’d focus on very specific, very comprehensible, presumably very solvable things: specific patches of sidewalk that can be made more walkable. I was warned years ago that what I think is just one specific half-assed sidewalk repair is in fact a thin veneer over a systemic problem. Maybe so. I’d like to find that it’s a solvable systemic problem.