There’s an 18-wheeler fully stopped on the southwestern edge of Sullivan Square. The driver looks into the deep abyss and waits as hundreds of his rivals inch along, effectively blocking the rig from the traffic circle.
Behind the trucker, motorists stand almost still for about one-eighth of a mile, stretching all the way beyond the I-93 overpass, nearly over the Somerville city line.
Of all the black holes and Bermuda Triangles in Greater Boston, these throes are the most unseemly, amounting to a mess that, somewhat ironically due to nearly $600 million in infrastructure improvements planned for this area through 2030, doesn’t seem to get any more tolerable in the short term. Even for this tortured region, Sullivan is something of an evil clusterfuck oasis, an otherworldly portal into gridlock that uniquely cripples multiple municipalities at once.
On one of the dozen-or-so broken corners that frame the outermost rung of this infamous roundabout, a flower seller in a baseball hat and sunglasses screams loudly at a man harassing drivers. Within seconds of their quarrel spilling past the bike lane, the latter nearly gets bulldozed by a van.
Across two lanes of arterial margarine and a symphony of horns, a panhandler waves a sign at passing vehicles that reads, “EVERYBODY NEEDS HELP SOMETIMES.”
They sure do, especially if they are trying to traverse this minefield. It’s 4:30 pm on a Monday, but this is typical at almost any time during the morning, noon, or early evening. It’s been the scene for years, and despite a pledged $25 million for long-term improvements in Sullivan Square alone—plus $11 million for general transportation mitigation, a $250,000 payment to fund a “regional working group,” and other promises made in the Everett casino deal that has brought so much hope in addition to turmoil—things don’t look like they’ll be running smoother soon.
As multiple bike and truck crashes over the years have demonstrated, this is a danger zone by any means. For a city that sometimes requires a police detail for job sites off the beaten path and on obscure side streets, there’s not a cop directing traffic in sight.
Following a designated yellow footpath, commuter after commuter makes their way through the Sullivan Square T complex, walking relatively safely from the Orange Line—until they get to the street and are forced to play Frogger in real life if they want to reclaim cars parked in the middle of the notorious rotary. Short of the unfortunate state troopers who stand in the middle of the highway making sure that solo drivers don’t enter the HOV lane, people who leave their rides in this ring of death may be the most likely of all people in Mass to get run over by a texting dumbass.
A shuttle full of workers from the Schrafft’s building worms through the lot and stop-brakes into the congestion. They’re barely moving, and I motion for the driver to roll down the window so that I can ask her a few questions. She says that on an average day, it takes her about 15 minutes to complete the loop from Schrafft’s to the MBTA stop. They’re closer to each other than the State House is to Boston City Hall, but the dangers of this gauntlet are disheartening. Today, the air-conditioned minibus is filled for rush hour.
In the background of it all, behind the lonely single wind turbine for which this industrial stretch was best known until recently, is the construction site of the enormous venue soon to be formerly known as Wynn Boston Harbor.
To get a closer look, I brave the rotary myself to catch the 104 or 109 bus, and initially join about 10 heads outside of the Sullivan Square T stop in sucking disgusting fumes under the loud, corroded roadway. By the time both buses slug across the circle and creep all the way around the long ramp leading to the busway, there are more than 40 people waiting, with more heads spilling off the Orange Line and joining our queue every few minutes.
When both lines arrive at the same time, the 104 and 109 contingents split up, more or less in equal parts, filling both Everett-bound buses. More than 10 minutes pass as the men, women, and strollers board. We finally escape the lot at 5:13pm, but get caught at a devilish red light. Which is made even more excruciating as a cop with his rack lit up speeds down Cambridge Street toward Union Square. Five minutes later, we still have yet to reach the Schrafft’s building.
After punching through the dark inferno, our bus glides with ease to the casino. I should have walked—it’s less than one mile away, but my intent is to experience first-hand, however temporarily, the largely invisible but seemingly excessive hardships this project, among other things, is causing various communities. As the self-described “largest single-phase private development in Massachusetts history” at $2 billion, short of it failing altogether, which is highly unexpected, in the long term the casino, now slated to be named Encore Boston Harbor, will be roundly applauded in the media and by the rich and powerful, with plaques and props to complement the sky-high ROI. But none of that alters the plight of those who must endure serious transit setbacks caused by several years—hell, decades—of bureaucratic negligence and hard-to-measure promises that led to our ongoing misery.
Over at Mike’s Roast Beef, located across Broadway from the Encore site, I meet a woman who works in a nearby warehouse. She says that one day every week, she has to pick her sister’s kid up off an exit on I-93 North, and as a result cannot simply sneak into this part of Everett from her home in Chelsea, as she usually does. Last week, she says it took her 45 minutes to crawl from the Sullivan Square exit to work.
“It has always been bad,” she tells me. “But now it is a fucking nightmare.”
I ask about the fact that the casino will be built before the roads winding around it will be completely improved, and she simply shakes her head in disgust.
“Of course,” she says. “You think anybody gives a shit?”
By the time I finish my roast beef, there are no more fast rides down Broadway. It’s 6:15 pm, and the volume is thick. Unless you’re on a bike; if you’re able to survive the circle, then you have a relatively safe coast ahead—at least until you pedal into your next rotational quagmire at Revere Beach Parkway.
As for driving… let’s just say that while I’m not a fan of traffic, I do enjoy the spectacle of a guido in his presumably North Shore-bound coupe hitting the gas as he exits Sullivan Square, only to jam hard on his brakes at the first red light over the bridge. Of course, in a few years he’ll be banging a hard left toward the craps tables, while the rest of us are still bumper to bumper.
Before returning to the Orange Line to head home, I grab a seat in a small public green space, near a bus stop with a mini shelter and across from the casino tract. I suspect this half-a-park in progress is one of the multiple improvements they have promised, but for now it looks like a pathetic pre-thought. The sidewalks aren’t quite as treacherous as they are back over the Boston border around Sullivan Square—someone in a wheelchair has a chance of being able to get out of here alive—but the landscaping is lackluster, perhaps having to do with the Monsanto Chemical behemoth shitting here from 1929 to 1983. I’m not sure what the crew tasked with making this drag more beautiful is putting down for sod, but the metal benches appear to be sinking.
I wonder if it will be nice and tidy by the time the guests arrive.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.