I visited Copley Square more than once last spring. More than two or three times; each time it was a wrenching experience. Each time I joined others walking slowly, dabbing at eyes or letting tears fall freely, remembering what happened on April 15. We stepped around the wilting flowers, read the heartfelt notes, saw the objects left in tribute, including all those running shoes. If there was one overriding image, that was it: the running shoes, everywhere at the Copley Square memorial and later grouped into a heart shape for an iconic Boston Magazine cover.
It was the kind of outpouring that often grows in the face of tragedy, like the ones at firehouses all over New York after 9/11, and like the one outside the Engine 33 Firehouse on Boylston Street right now. They are the human impulse to comfort made visible. Their power grows out of their spontaneity.
And then what to do with them? Sweep up the flowers, distribute the teddy bears, put the signs and letters in a storage corner? In Boston the decision was made to preserve as much as possible and create an exhibit. The result, “Dear Boston,” is currently at the Boston Public Library, next to the newly-repainted Marathon finish line and across the street from where the memorial grew.
I am sad to say that the exhibit, while clearly well-intentioned, is a memorial only to a memorial. A neat square of running shoes. Letters in children’s handwriting--notes from other countries--all under glass, clean, and carefully planned. And maybe that’s why it feels so depressing, so dead. The Boston Strong spontaneity is gone, scrubbed out, cleaned up, and presented for viewing access.
Maybe that's inevitable. In an online essay Quentin Miller wrote about how the instinctive outpouring of last year’s Copley Square tribute is likely to remain, in the minds of those who saw, it more poignant and powerful than any permanent marker the city might erect. That memory is definitely more powerful than this exhibit, just as "Boston Strong"--complete with expletive from Big Papi--is more powerful than the heartfelt but limp-sounding, "Dear Boston."
Certainly the impulse to preserve the tribute is understandable, as is the necessity of having some tangible sign this year of what happened last year.
If you go to the BPL you may be impressed with the way an organized presentation has been orchestrated out of the scrambled chaos of what was left in tribute. You may find it interesting that people in other countries felt Boston’s sadness, and its strength. You may appreciate the fact that these things were collected and preserved.
But you probably won’t cry.
Labels: Boston Magazine, Boston Marathon, Boston Marathon bombing, Boston Public Library, Boston Strong, Copley Square, Dear Boston exhibit, Quentin Miller