I recently concluded a two-year stay in Boston. I don’t wish to idealize my experience, but it’s hard for me to consider the city with much objectivity. It marked an important period in my life, and I accomplished a fair amount, personally and professionally. Of course, it is also impossible to overlook what the city went through during my time there.
Boston has character. It doesn’t sound like much of a compliment, I realize. The phrase in itself isn’t inspiring, doesn’t imply anything about what that character entails. It’s a purposely vague descriptor, open to interpretation. But it isn’t nothing. Having character means something. Whenever Calvin’s dad (of Calvin & Hobbes) wanted him to do some bullshit task, like shovel snow, he’d always say that the task would “build character.”
The idea of character is indeed often associated with misery, suffering… endurance, simply. I find it especially appropriate here. Boston’s one of the oldest cities in the country, and it certainly feels it. The subway system is a mess, especially the old streetcar lines. There’s unending construction, though it only does so much given the city’s fundamental infrastructure. Further, colonial-era laws regulate alcohol sales, and even more innocuous things like Black Friday. It’s impossible not to notice how antiquated the city and state can be.
The misery and suffering, meanwhile, stem largely from the harsh New England winters. I got but a taste of it*, but even that sliver was enough for me to understand how enveloping it can be. There are logistical issues: heating oil (!) deliveries, driving difficulties, reliance on snow plows and so forth. There are the physical annoyances: trudging, shoveling, scraping, general struggling, really. But more than anything, I found the weather to be psychologically taxing. There’s an acute lack of sun for months. You feel trapped inside. Your routine changes, by necessity. It’s jarring.
*including one of the mildest winters on record
There’s a certain distinctiveness to Boston that is hard to capture in words. It is marked by contradictions and seeming contradictions and counter-intuitions. The people are a mix of new and old worlds, not quite in conflict, but not necessarily in congruence either. There’s an underlying segregation at work, never completely obscured by the relative cultural openness and diversity of the city. A great number of locals seem content to never venture beyond the area, even as the considerable number of colleges imposes a migratory pattern for the other half of the population.
The city is small, but not suffocatingly so. Still, it’s geographically compact, immensely walkable with a modest population – and can oftentimes feel more like a community than a city. Police officers stand on site at every public works project, even if only to direct pedestrians. Public transportation stops running at 12:30 am (when bars go until 2 am). There’s something fitting about the fact that the five-term mayor – who provides an unrelenting, uncompromising progressive voice* – makes ‘Drunk Uncle’ on Saturday Night Live seem understated.
Boston is Boston. People don’t necessarily visit, it seemed to me. Certainly, there are historic sites, prestigious institutions, some points of interest. But the city’s location makes it a rather inconvenient trek. That isolation in the far Northeast perhaps offers one final nod to symbolism. Rest assured, however: the city sits there. Enduring.