April 16 2014

What Makes a Great Street for Shopping? A View from Boston, MA

On this sunny Friday I found myself riding my bicycle from Cambridge to Boston, to the Back Bay neighborhood that is home to two of the most prominent commercial streets in the area: Boylston and Newbury. I was on my way to a sleek, posh hair salon, where I spent my morning being a hair model, and from where I emerged two hours later with an impossibly big hairstyle. I locked my bike and decided to walk around and explore some of the stores on Newbury Street.

Stores in Newbury Street, Boston

Stores in Newbury Street

I saw some luxury brands, like Burberry, Chanel and Marimekko, as well as some mass retailers like H&M and Forever 21. I saw some quirky local stores like Johnny Cupcakes (which sells t-shirts, not cupcakes), ladies in fur coats having coffee in outdoor cafes, and men with slicked-back hair, shirts buttoned all the way up to their necks, wearing ankle pants and oxford shoes (which reminded me of a man I once saw at the subway entrance holding a sign that said “Save us from the Hipster Apocalypse”).

I stopped at an upscale second-hand clothing store, and then went to the cooking store located just below on a mission to acquire the most beautiful spatula for making pancakes that I could find. All the while I was thinking: what makes the Back Bay such a great area for shopping? However, since many of these stores were located in what once were imposing brick homes, it is obvious that Newbury is not just a great shopping street, but also a case where a street was successfully adapted from residential to commercial.

Old brick homes converted to fashionable stores in Newbury Street, Boston

Old brick homes converted to fashionable stores in Newbury Street

Like much of Boston, the Back Bay is entirely man-made and was once literally a bay, a part of the Charles River, until the mid-19th century. During this time, many of Boston’s hills, including the iconic Beacon Hill, were either leveled or lowered in height, and this fill was used to create more land. The Back Bay was designed and built as an elegant residential neighborhood following many of the urban principles that were being popularized by Baron Haussmann in his 19th century transformation of Paris: the use of wide streets, an orderly grid with rectangle-shaped city blocks, wide sidewalks. The Back Bay is anchored by the Boston Common and the Public Garden on one end, the Fenway on the other end, and Copley Square in the middle.

Boston's Back Bay, showing the Boston Common and the Public Garden

Boston’s Back Bay, showing the Boston Common and the Public Garden

Boston's Back Bay (below), the Charles River, and the MIT/Kendall Square area (above)

MIT/Kendall Square area, the Charles River, and Boston’s Back Bay

What makes streets like Newbury and Boylston great for shopping, strolling, and people-watching? Accessibility by public transportation, parking, and a central location are important elements, even though traffic and absence of bike lanes makes them annoying for cycling. The diversity of retail is key, as these streets present a combination of local, national and international chains, as well as many local stores and businesses, both high-end and more affordable. Although some of the larger chains are housed in large, modern buildings, much of the charm of these streets come from the adaptive reuse of the old brick homes into smaller stores. In these cases, the large bay windows typical of Boston-area homes become large store windows, and several types of stores can be housed in each floor of the building, including the basement level, thus creating a balanced sense of scale.

Do you love your city’s shopping districts or avoid them? What makes the shopping experience enjoyable?

Credits: Images by Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon. Data linked to sources.

Rosabella Alvarez-Calderón

Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon hails from Lima, Peru, a vibrant and noisy city with a rich history, ancient archaeological sites, Colonial churches, old art-deco cinemas, sprawling shanty towns (often decorated with posters in neon colours advertising a chicha or cumbia concert), glass skyscrapers, and a colorful public transportation systems that requires a sense of adventure, an instinct for navigation, and very short limbs to use successfully. She is a professional archaeologist who spent several years working in prehispanic and historical sites both in Lima and in northern Peru before coming to the United States, where she obtained a Master in Design Studies degree, with a focus on Critical Conservation, from Harvard University´s Graduate School of Design. She is currently based in the Boston area, where she combines her background and interest in archaeology with the study of how cities are formed and transformed, the nature and use of public spaces, adaptive and transformative reuse, and how can a city´s historical footprint, buildings and open spaces contribute to creating a sense of place and to inspire new urban design. Rosabella also enjoys exploring Boston and nearby towns on her beautiful 1975 blue folding bike and thinks of herself as “an archaeologist of the modern city”

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 at 9:48 am and is filed under Branding, Community/Economic Development, Social/Demographics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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