If you get off at the Park Street T stop, and turn right, crossing busy Tremont St., you will most likely head toward a bustling area that reminds me of an overgrown alleyway: Downtown Crossing.
Because it’s a shopping destination organized around an intersection of wide streets, Downtown Crossing can be treacherous for the absent-minded walker to navigate. There’s just so much going on at ground level—people zigzagging from store to store who you need to avoid bumping into, puddles to make sure you don’t step in, cobblestones to not trip over—that your eyes tend to anchor themselves to the pavement in front of you. It’s a kind of survival technique.
But if you can manage to unglue your eyes from the sidewalk, you have a fairly good chance of looking toward the sky above you, where you might notice something suspended from the towering buildings on either side of you. If it’s a sunny day, this object might look like a giant square of rainbow glimmering in the air. If the sky happens to be more overcast, you may be able to discern the details of the hanging object a little better, and understand that it is a hanging mosaic of shining shapes. Your eyes might even travel down the street a little farther, allowing you to discover that yet another of these patchwork rainbows hangs a mere block from the first.
Now after noticing these, you might think something along the lines of ‘Huh, that’s cool,’ and continue along with your day. Alternatively, you might think Now here’s a landmark I can work with, and determinedly log the hanging squares into your memory.
When I first saw these patches, my train of thought definitely followed along with the second option. This is mostly because I have a remarkably terrible sense of direction. Basically, if I didn’t have landmarks like shiny mosaic rainbows hanging around the city above me, I would spend most of my time wandering around lost—even with the assistance of Google Maps.
These iridescent squares were actually how I first got to know Boston, because if you can find your way through Downtown Crossing, you can essentially get yourself anywhere in the city without really knowing where you’re going.
Taking a left after walking under the first mosaic will get you to Faneuil Hall in no time, and once you get there, the North End (with all of its alluring pastas) is only a couple of blocks away. Heading straight under both mosaics and then in a generally rightish direction will land you in Chinatown—an area I prize not only for its plethora of bubble tea shops and tiny bakeries, but also for housing one of my favorite noodle establishments in the city.
The floating rainbows quickly became more than a necessary presence in my life—they allowed me to give other people my own haphazard version of directions, and they filled me with a sense of comfortable independence whenever I walk under them. As long as I could locate the first giant, hanging rainbow square, I knew that I could get myself where I needed to go without getting dangerously lost. In an unfamiliar city, these objects help me maintain the slight—but oftentimes necessary—illusion that I am reliably in control of the situation.
And even though I technically don’t need the glistening rainbows to find my way through Downtown Crossing anymore, I was gripped by panic the other day when a friend referred to them as temporary.
‘Temporary?’ I thought with horror. ‘No, that’s not possible.’ Even though I have no idea why the hanging shape rainbows are there (or who made them, or what they are actually called) I assumed that they would always be there.
Like with many other things that I incorporate into my daily life, I take the giant rainbows for granted without even knowing what they really are—something that is a dangerous practice in a city where things are always changing.
I guess that’s why I have backup landmarks.
Featured Image by Madeleine D’Angelo / Heights Editor