The UPS driver looked down Beacon Hill at the midday traffic jam and explained how the city was shrinking.
Four-lane roads have been condensed into two lanes; two-lane roads are squeezed into one. Forget about the narrow streets that give Boston its historic charm. They’re impassable. And the cobblestone sidewalks? They’re hemmed in so tight from 8-foot snow walls that even a slender person has trouble passing, not to mention risk getting hit by 10-foot-long icicles, hovering overhead from buildings “like death traps,” said the driver, Dave Sabbagh.
“Everything’s pretty bad,” said Sabbagh, 41, weaving his handcart stacked with packages down a sidewalk. “This is absolutely not normal.”
Boston is a city that flaunts its ability to tough-out winter with an army of snowplows and salt by the ton. But this week a sense of crisis typically felt elsewhere in the aftermath of a hurricane set in as residents realized it would be at least several more weeks for the city — and their lives — to be fully functioning again.
Four blizzards in just over three weeks have left an unprecedented amount of snow — 7 1/2 feet — bringing the city within a foot of the record for an entire winter set in 1996. Wednesday night flurries felt like a reprieve following 16 inches on Monday. Snow returned midday Thursday, and wind-chill advisories were added to the mix into Friday morning. Forecasts call for rain and snow over the weekend, a dangerous mix that could further weigh down roofs and freeze roads.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, a hobbled but essential public transit system in the best of times, is reeling from a shutdown last week that led the general manager to abruptly announce her resignation, before acknowledging that it could take weeks before full service is restored. Without more money, even “God Junior” could not fix the decaying trains and tracks that have felled the MBTA, Beverly Scott declared at a news conference.
At least one resident was reported slashing a tire in a dispute over a parking space. Transit passengers have yelled and shoved in chaotic attempts to find seats on shuttle buses amid four-hour commutes. Five people were briefly buried in Cambridge on Wednesday night when a column of snow careened off the roof of an ice rink.
Public school children, who haven’t had a five-day week since Christmas, will be going to school on at least one future holiday and may be forced to add Saturdays if the storms continue. Local businesses have been shut down for days at a time, and when they do try and open their parking spaces are buried in mounds of snow.
“We haven’t had more than four days between snow,” Mayor Martin Walsh said in an interview, which he confessed he might rather be holding in Miami Beach. “A lot of people are frustrated.”
A television screen on his office wall showed the rising volume of calls coming into the mayor’s hotline, an average of 5,000 a day, more than triple than normal. The most common were demands to plow roads, remove snow or collect trash that has piled high from days of missed collections.
“We got it all in one month, in 23 days,” he said. “I think people would accept the 7 feet of snow if it was spread over the whole winter.”
Many residents fear the city is literally running out of room to hold the snow. City workers have carted off 19,000 truckloads of snow since the first storm in January, much of it to seven “snow farms” across the city. The five-story mound across the Charles River in Cambridge has become an impromptu sledding park, dubbed the “Alps of MIT.” Walsh has warned those attempting to jump from high places that “this isn’t Loon Mountain,” a New Hampshire ski resort.
The MBTA has brought in inmates and the National Guard to help dig tracks after melting machines like the “Snowzilla” have failed to keep pace.
Two men who run a food truck at a concrete plaza next to City Hall said most of their usual parking spots around the city have been covered by snow mountains. Their propane lines have frozen. Their water pipes have exploded. Their normal 20-minute commute has taken as long as 2 1/2 hours. Many would-be customers are working from home, or too wary to come out of their offices to buy a fried cauliflower salad.
One of their few patrons, the owner of a small group of coffee shops called Boston Brewin, came to commiserate as he ordered lunch.
“We’re down nine grand,” said Tom Barnes, the coffee shop owner. “We can’t make it on that,” he said.
Gov. Charlie Baker tried to help the state’s struggling restaurants by declaring a full Valentine's Week. But with unreliable public transit, slender roads and scarce parking, many couples have just stayed home.
On the small side streets of Beacon Hill, a few residents emerged from their homes in the late afternoon to walk dogs, shovel snow and run errands. But most steered clear of the narrow sidewalk paths, many of which were cordoned off with police tape and adorned with “caution, falling ice” signs. Instead, they walked in the middle of the small roads, hoping there would be room to dodge the occasional car.
One of them was Lauren Van Abel, a 20-year-old from San Diego who was returning from class at Suffolk University. She’s used to having to explain herself to locals.
“They just think I’m absolutely crazy for being out here, and at this point I couldn’t agree with them more,” she said. “I think I’ve experienced enough of all four seasons.”
She plans to apply to law school closer to home.
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