The Thing About Boston
Who and what and where are we?
The thing about Boston is its unique sense of history.
Many places boast a history, of course—history exists everywhere humans have trod the earth—but in too many communities, the past has been hastily buried in the lunge to the present and future. In Boston, the past lies right at your feet and finger-tips. It radiates from the squares and markets, the clapboard houses and the brick and granite buildings—but more importantly, from the oddly accented New Englanders themselves.
More than anywhere else, the history here exists in thick, vibrant layers, waiting to be peeled back to reveal to us where our American collective came from and who we really are.
Bostonians are great story-tellers.
Maybe it's the Irish influence, but everyone you meet, from bartender to shopkeeper, from taxi driver to lay-about, has a gripping tale to tell. Is everything you hear 100% factual? Probably not—how could it be?—but it doesn't matter. Anyone who claims that history can be deconstructed into precise, verifiable bits of experience has spent too much time with television and not much time with the past. Some stories are just better than others, and that's why we keep re-telling them. A handful of the more remarkable layers you'll peel back in Beantown, Titletown, the Athens of America, or the Hub of the Universe:
The American Revolution:
The rebellion that started in Boston wasn't the same Revolution that outlasted King George's patience and defeated Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. Long before Washington and von Steuben converted their militias into a modern, well-trained army at Valley Forge, a rabble of New England farmers, dockhands, merchants, roustabouts, and ne'er-do-wells took on the greatest Empire in history, armed with nothing more than bloody-minded obstinacy, spectacular marksmanship, and an occasional swig of rum. And booted them out of town before the Revolution even got rolling!
That's the reason you won't find an individual hero dominating the narrative of the rebellion in these parts. A plaque here, an oddly named cobblestone street, a grave marker there, a crooked eave. If you search beneath the surface of events, you'll find thousands of personalities who arose, did their part, and then eased back into the mists of history.
The North End:
American neighborhoods have taken a bad rap in the last couple of decades, as many confuse access to resources with churning all of us into one bland, massive blob. Boston has always been a city of neighborhoods—the North End and East Boston for the Italians, Southie for the Irish, Roxbury for the Blacks, and Beacon Hill for the Brahmins—not to mention Chinatown and several smaller congregations. But from the beginning, the intent was never to exclude, but to protect one's language, religion, and politics from the nastier rampages of an occasionally ugly democracy (just ask Sacco & Vanzetti).
So the North End, which is where the Puritans are buried and the Revolution started, became home in quick succession to the Jewish, Irish, and then the Italian immigrants. Today, the Italians are struggling to preserve their heritage against an invasion of partying millennials who have no idea how Cotton Mather, Paul Revere, Rose Kennedy, and Sacco & Vanzetti came to be memorialized within a few blocks of each other.
To the casual outsider, the North End might look like an Italian culinary Disneyland, but dig a little deeper than the nearest cannoli shop, and the Old Country still resonates.
In the 1960s, when we first arrived, Boston was a cultural backwater to New York. Harvard and Radcliffe were little more than finishing schools for the increasingly calcified elites. The Irish ran the city politics, the mob controlled the North End, and the neighborhoods, which had done so much to make the city livable and interesting, were fossilizing into a bitter confrontation over education and busing.
The Kennedys changed everything. They made the city hip and likeable, and started an influx of young people who didn't give a damn for the old divisions. They bridged the divides between the elites and the Irish machine, between the pipe-smoking academics, the Brahmin bean-counters, and the Irish, Italian, and Black laborers who competed to toil in their temples. Nothing changed overnight, of course, but by the turn of the 21st century, Boston was a far more tolerant and easy-going place than the backwater that had nurtured Jack, Bobby, Ted, and that army of offspring.
It's no exaggeration to say that America learned to dine out in Boston. In the early taverns and oyster houses, drunks and travelers ate whatever the woman of the house fed them. In the mid-nineteenth century, when grand hotels like the Parker House opened, men dined at a fixed-price buffet that was more a brawl than a culinary cornucopia. Women needed to be fed, of course, and their more decorous dining rooms evolved into something we might recognize as a restaurant—with courses, table cloths, wait service, and even menus and prices. Eventually, those pioneer establishments even managed to tolerate (or civilize?) the men.
And then, in 1891, Fanny Farmer took over the Boston Cooking School and set out to transform the bland, unhealthy American diet that so horrified European visitors into what we recognize today as a nutritious domestic meal. Fanny Farmer's Boston Cooking School Cookbook turned America into a nation of household chefs, and is still in print today. Try the fish cakes and beans.
Not just the ocean—or rather, the Massachusetts Bay—but the Inner and Outer Harbors, the Fort Point Channel, the Charles and Mystic Rivers. The Fens of the Back Bay, the clam beds of Ipswich, and the sea-faring brawlers of Gloucester. The sedate sands of the South Shore and the raucous inner-city escape valves of Revere and Carson Beaches. Not to mention the rain.
At one time, the Port of Boston was so busy, that its customs contributed 20% of the United States government's revenue. But the industry that first transformed the landscape was wooden shipbuilding. The New England of the Pilgrims was a thick, ubiquitous forest. When the Napoleonic Wars shut down the ports and shipyards of Europe, the world turned to New England. Within decades, the eastern forests were sailing the Seven Seas.
Today, most of what we call Boston is landfill—including one of the most beautiful parks in America, the Public Garden, where the Redcoats once put into their boats to cross the shallow waters to Bunker Hill and oblivion.
There is nothing more smug and satisfying than a morning Bloody Mary in a stormy dockside bar with a deluge of rain pounding at the windows. There's nothing more gratifying than being dug out of your car on the Expressway in 27 inches of snow by the heroes of the National Guard. Obviously, Nor'easters and their less violent kin are to be feared and respected, but Boston wouldn't be Boston without them.
In 1976, with the coming of the Bicentennial, the City produced a film for tourists with the peculiar title, Where's Boston? Bostonians themselves flocked to see it. At first, we attributed the film's popularity to civic narcissism, but then realized that the citizens really wanted an answer to the question they'd been asking themselves for centuries—the same question Americans are asking themselves today:
Who and what and where are we?
You won't find many slick, easy answers in Boston, but you'll find more clues than you know what to do with.
I love these articles and the wonderful pictures!
Thank you Marsha! There's plenty more where these came from.