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Should It Stay Or Should It Go? The Uncertain Fate Of Boston’s Citgo Sign

The half century-old Citgo sign is changing hands in a changing neighborhood. Alex Green makes the case for preserving an imperfect piece of Boston history.  (lee/Flickr)
The half century-old Citgo sign is changing hands in a changing neighborhood. Alex Green makes the case for preserving an imperfect piece of Boston history. (lee/Flickr)
This article is more than 3 years old.

When it comes to the deep history of this place, Bostonians know it well and do a good amount to ensure its protection. But in a fast-changing city, the historic landscapes that lack the same vintage as the Revolutionary War are increasingly vulnerable to developers. The iconic, kindergarten-like triangular block of light that flashes out from Kenmore Square is a prime example. The half century-old Citgo sign is changing hands in a changing neighborhood, and the Boston Preservation Alliance says it should be declared a historic landmark before it goes the way of the West End.

Not everyone agrees.

As the alliance’s petition sails across social media, some have suggested that it is time to end our love affair with Citgo. They point out the fact that, where most folks have ceased to see any underlying meaning in the sign, it once belonged to an oil company, and our addiction to oil is nothing worth commemorating, especially when it takes 9,000 feet of lights to do it. As one commenter put it on Facebook, the sign is “a symbol of our utter failure as a society to value people and the environment over fossil fuels and profits.” For those of us who care about the twin goals of combating climate change and preserving history, however, this argument speaks even more in favor of keeping our bright LED beacon by the river.

...in a fast-changing city, the historic landscapes that lack the same vintage as the Revolutionary War are increasingly vulnerable to developers.

Make no mistake, the Citgo sign is an homage to our perilous dependence on oil. It is, quite literally, the most potent sign of our devotion to a product that will result in large parts of Boston flooding as climate change reclaims the waterways we began filling before the colonists started dumping tea in the harbor. When the original Citgo sign was erected in 1940, Bostonians depended on public transit, horses, walking and a small number of cars to get around. A quarter century later, automobiles had choked the narrow streets, reshaping the city and obliterating neighborhoods in order to accommodate suburban commuters.

Highways were added, barreling through the downtown for the Central Artery, and bisecting the James Storrow memorial park along the Charles. In 1965 — the same year Citgo swapped the old sign for the one we can all see from Fenway today — the last leg of the Mass Pike connected the Central Artery to the western edge of Allston, completing Boston’s conversion to a car city.

Ever since, the Citgo sign has been a point of contention. Gov. Ed King targeted it during the 1970s oil crisis. The waste of keeping the sign lit seemed particularly distasteful while working people were waiting hours each day in gas lines. Advocates later blocked its removal by Citgo, and it has remained in the news, on and off, ever since.

Perhaps it seems perverse to say that we should save this sign precisely because it represents the beginning of the problems that will beset the city of Boston. This is the argument we need, however, when we consider what to preserve, because we cannot save everything. Landmarks should be sites that are remarkable, create instant curiosity, awe or wonder, and leave people talking about how their own lives relate to the past.

Sometimes, this means that we should keep them because they are beautiful representations of terrible decisions; the best parts of history can withstand the bad, and are often better for it. For example, Salem has done an impressive job grappling with the history of the witch trials. Their memorial site drew Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel for its dedication in 1992. New revelations about slaveholding in Boston only make the later abolitionist movement here seem more impressive. Nor do these issues seem so distant. We continue to grapple with demonization and oppression in the present day. It is a comfort to know that our forbears have been in the exact same positions, making the same decisions, for better and for worse. Beyond their simple beauty, landmarks can remind us of this.

Landmarks should be sites that are remarkable, create instant curiosity, awe or wonder, and leave people talking about how their own lives relate to the past.

So it is with climate change. As Fort Point is developed along the precarious edge of the city, where water could soon flood in, the Citgo sign should stand as a reminder that we know better. As effort after effort to enlarge public transit is met with political resistance from the governor’s office, the Citgo sign shines to remind us how we got to a place where moving away from oil takes such extraordinary effort.

As for its current energy consumption, hook the sign up to solar power. Or put a windmill next to it. Or have Boston University keep the building instead of selling it, and use it as a giant experiment for engineering students to find alternatives for keeping it alight without relying on the electrical grid to do so. And at night, along the Esplanade, or out at Fenway Park, let people enjoy it for another generation as something pretty. Something strangely whimsical. Something hard to find in a Boston blasted apart by cars, roads and overdevelopment — a perfectly Bostonian landmark with an imperfect history worth preserving and commemorating, too.

Related:

Alex Green Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Alex Green is a writer and researcher.

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