No denying appeal of cruisin’ Blue Hill Ave.

1987 Chevy El Camino in the repair shop for some attention. Seth Daniel photo

I’m convinced that driving Blue Hill Avenue is not a burden if you’re moving in style. In fact, I have always found Blue Hill an enjoyable drive and it’s a source of great memories for me and so many others living in the West of Washington neighborhood and up and down the Blue Hill corridor.

Through a personal lens, I’ve watched the discussion around changing the corridor and seem to be swayed like a palm tree in a cyclone. There is so much energy around this issue. One minute I agree with the bussie-bus folks and am ready to paint the street red; the next minute I’m all in with the residents and businesses that predict Armageddon.

The only thing I am certain about is that I love to “cruise” Blue. Doing so in the summer is a scene and show, and it isn’t replicated anywhere else except Revere Beach or, maybe, Wollaston, by the clam shacks.

Years and years ago, I had restored a Chevy El Camino Conquista, the 1987 Presidential model with the 5.0 engine. I had the rust removed and painted it a cool grey with maroon pinstripes. I even recreated the ‘Conquista’ logo on the tailgate. The bench seats were as big as a queen-sized bed, and when you sat behind the wheel it was “laid back” in the truest sense because it was impossible to sit upright. To top it off, I had modified the exhaust with a dual tailpipe that gave off a sound as solid as granite. Driving it was like piloting a boat that glided and bounced down the street.

What a machine.

One time, I picked up a buddy in East Boston on a Sunday and we drove down Blue Hill to a friend’s house beyond Mattapan. It was a summer day, windows down, exhaust rumbling, and we began attracting a crowd. Young people driving by honked, thumbs up, admiring the Conquista and teens on bikes looked on in wonder while those at the bus stops voiced envy with only their facial expressions.

There we were, the leaders of the band, an experience that continued for many weeks.

I soon started making frequent hops down Blue Hill Avenue for no reason in particular with the windows down and the old Delco radio (no tape deck, no CD players, certainly no Bluetooth) tuned to 1030 WILD, dodging triple parkers with ease, allowing pedestrians at Morton to cross in rhythm using momentum and not the brakes, and killing time with a soda and a hot dog in front of Simco’s, or maybe stopping at the Post Office in Mattapan Square or crossing to River Street for Haitian patties. That was when it was driving for enjoyment, driving as a pastime with other people and having “no particular place to go,” as Chuck Berry sang.

I even drove that El Camino down Blue Hill Avenue to my wedding, my best buddy and I in tuxedos on a stifling hot September day – bags of sawdust in the back from having just sanded and refinished the floors in the “new” house. It’s also the road we drove up after funerals from St. Angela’s Church (now Our Lady of Mt. Carmel), the former St. Matthew Church, or any one of the Protestant “storefront” churches on the way to bury family, friends, and neighbors in the cemeteries off American Legion Highway.

Drunk from the elixir of change, though likely with good intentions, the authors of the current transformation along Blue Hill don’t grasp that the culture of the car in this community is more than just about “getting” somewhere. There’s status to it, and for me, it felt good to drive that El Camino up and down Blue Hill Avenue so that people noticed. And people loved to notice.

There are no data points or white paper studies that can reflect this important fact of life on Blue Hill.

Later in life, when I was at the bus stop looking on as others drove by, it stunk. And let’s be honest, the bus stinks, too. Taking one is a much different thing when you have options or a back-up plan, when you’re doing it to save the world or fight the good fight. Standing out on the sidewalk with no shelter in the cold waiting for a bus that may or may not come – and it is the only option – is something you want to leave behind. When you have a car in this community, you have moved up from that. Even if it’s half-sideways with no doors, “at least I don’t have to take the bus,” one thinks. So, if you can drive Blue Hill, you will, even if it’s not an El Camino with fuzzy felt-covered bench seats.

Eventually, driving for me began to be about taking kids places, or stressing out to get somewhere faster than humanly possible. The El Camino was replaced with a very uncool minivan, and far too often I was slumming on the bus so that the kids could use the car to get to college in the ’burbs. It became about getting somewhere, not about being somewhere.

But the memories of those days cruising up and down Blue Hill in a vehicle that spoke without speaking still feel good. I wish I could do it again – just one more time.

And perhaps that’s what the administrators and transportation planners have missed in their approach to transforming Blue Hill Avenue. They’ve negated or neglected to understand the memories held by Blue Hill Avenue for the people who live in and around it, memories tied tightly to vehicles and friends and family and moments in an earlier time. Sometimes they are big events like heading to the church to get married, or sometimes they’re small moments, like a hot summer day with a hot dog and a soda.

We all wish to recreate the best times in life, and we all figure we will at some point, but then we die having never done so. I bet more than a few people hope they can bring Blue Hill memories back to life just one more time, but a transformed roadway with a bus lane and all the fixins pretty much puts a cap on that. To date, I haven’t seen those moments reflected in any of the PowerPoint slides.

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