On Sept. 14, Mayor Marty Walsh issued Request for Proposals No. EV00002535, calling for a “partner to help enhance City Hall Plaza.” Just today, City Hall announced RethinkCityHall.org, a related one-year effort to reimagine Boston’s front door with the help of public input. As the site states, “It’s time to reinvigorate and enliven one of Boston’s most perplexing buildings.”
Participating RFP teams, ideally comprising individuals who represent the people of Boston on a larger scale, will present their visions during the week of Nov. 16, with a selection made by Nov. 30.
One of the members of one of the teams is Chris Wangro, who until his contract ended just recently, was the creative director of The Lawn on D.
Wangro couldn’t discuss specifics of the City Hall Plaza team he was asked to join, but during a recent phone conversation he told me, “What that organization is hoping to create is downright visionary. It is ambitious, but without an ambitious plan a true transformation of the Plaza is not really possible.”
Wangro is not a stranger to visionary ideas. He founded a traveling circus in the 80s that for years toured through seven different countries, serving as the director, designer, ringmaster and clown. (“Not the greatest show on earth perhaps, but a pioneering spectacle that helped pave the way for the circus renaissance that followed,” according to his LinkedIn page.) More recently, he’s been NYC’s Director of Special Events, producing the three largest concerts ever held in the city. He was an executive producer and director of The United Nations for 14 years, beginning in 2000. Right now, among other things, he’s developing an intercultural, large-scale music festival in Cuba slated for May 2016, among the only people, he said, with permits on hand to hold such an event.
“The through line here is I’ve always believed in free public events and free public programs in public spaces,” he said. “These events create community. They’re important to the fabric of society. There’s a lack of that in Boston, and a real hunger for it.”
Increasingly, in this vein, our collective attention is turning to City Hall.
“The Plaza is the front yard for Boston’s City Hall, and it has enormous potential to be an engaging and activated civic space,” said Mayor Walsh at the RFP’s announcement. “We’re looking for a partner with an innovative plan to unlock this potential and transform the plaza into a must-see destination for residents and visitors alike. Together, we want to reimagine the plaza as a thriving, healthy and innovative civic space.”
Of course, there’s a long way to go from the Plaza’s current state – an uninviting expanse of red brick – to something that will not only house public art and civic engagement, but foster more of it. But if the City is looking for an innovative and ambitious front lawn, it’s tough to argue that the Lawn on D shouldn’t at least be used as a guiding light, if not an actual roadmap.
The Lawn on D saw more than 200,000 visitors during this year’s summer/fall season. By early June, it had already hosted more visitors than it saw during all of 2014. A critical reason, said Wangro, is the all-ages appeal, the mix of programming and playable public art that serves as a fun and cultural experience no matter your age. Since its inception in August 2014, The Lawn has seen 21 different art installations, from 20-foot pumpkins to a giant inflatable maze, swing-powered LED lights to two-story rabbits.
Wangro was there for all of it. And there are parallels between what he learned at The Lawn on D and what he envisions for City Hall Plaza.
I learned that Boston is more than ready for a sea change in public space policy. I learned that there is an eager audience for a wide variety of programming. I learned that there are tons of wonderfully creative artists and organizations in real need of public space to present their work. I learned that innovative public art can draw huge crowds – even more than pop music. I learned that creating a place that is joyful, open and inviting can bring the city together.
Right now, the Plaza is a pass-through rather than a destination. To change that, said Wangro, “It needs to be made inviting, warm, fun, interesting, vital.” Events like Boston Calling prove that this is possible.
Funding can be a challenge. But to Wangro, money means commitment: “A short-term infusion of money is not enough; the transformation of this space isn’t a one-shot deal. To make it a downtown hot-spot and destination venue is definitely doable, but it won’t happen overnight.”
Money concerns, of course, sprouted up with The Lawn on D, as well, with The Boston Globe reporting in August that it was costing the state convention center nearly $2 million per year to operate, while generating around $300,000 in revenue.
“Boston is a little risk-adverse, a little lackadaisical,” said Wangro. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s done and repeated, done and repeated. There is just so much creativity in this town. But it needs to be supported, it needs to be brought out.”
The Lawn on D began seeking corporate sponsorships for events to help offset some of the cost, an arrangement we just witnessed with The City of Boston Credit Union stepping up and donating $30,000 to keep the First Night midnight fireworks from being cut out of the program due to funding.
To transform the landscape from harsh and barren to engaging and inviting will take time, and it will take money. Mayor Walsh is making it a priority, and designers like Wangro are putting their full creative muscle behind it. But like anything public-facing, it’ll take the public to make it stick. Carpeting the space with astroturf and sprinkling lawn chairs, hammocks and cornhole sets about is a great foray into activating the space, but what we’re talking about here is much more drastic, and enduring.
“There’s a real chance to bring people from different communities together. I can see this clearly based on my experience programming the Lawn on D,” said Wangro. “A reboot/rebranding that was sincere and not simply superficial would be very well received. There’s a hunger for the new in town, a real need for joyful, interesting use of public space. Having this happen at the door to City Hall seems kind of incredible – and incredibly appropriate.”
“I think the success of the Lawn on D was so great,” he added, “that it can’t go away now. And that’s something that we’re proud of.