Reimagining American Community

Following the last week of tragedy and spectacle, I rise to praise Boston, incorporated in 1630, the matrem civitatem of all New Englanders, whether they remain close to her bosom or wander alone in the diaspora. Those not blessed with Boston roots may be thinking, “What’s the big deal about Boston anyway?” For us here at Solidarity Hall Boston should be a big deal because for almost four hundred years it has embodied much of what we stand for: a robust civil society, a living tradition of civic discourse, democratic enfranchisement, liberal education, small “g” government and enduring localism. Boston is unmistakably a place. Although in many ways it is a city of contradictions – Brahmin and immigrant, working class and elite, tolerant and intolerant – Boston doesn’t suffer from an identity crisis. Her history and tradition combine to provide a overarching civic superstructure within which everyone, from the mechanic in Jamaica Plain to the professor in Cherry Hill, can find themselves at home.

Boston is a small city, at least by the standards of behemoths like New York City and Los Angeles. The city proper is home to only 625,000 people, making it the 21st largest municipality in the country. But Greater Boston, an area roughly defined by the Route 128 arc stretching from Salem in the north to Weymouth in the south, is the tenth largest metro area, with a population of 4.5 million. And the “Combined Statistical Area” (CSA) centered on Boston – essentially a 50-mile radius to the north, west, and south – is the fifth largest in the country, with 7.6 million.” In 1868, the American writer and clergyman F.B. Zinckle wrote that, “Massachusetts has been the wheel within New England, and Boston the wheel within Massachusetts. Boston therefore is often called the ‘hub of the world,’ since it has been the source and fountain of the ideas that have reared and made America.” That was surely a parochial exaggeration, even in 1868 when Boston loomed far larger in the national consciousness than it does today. But for New Englanders it remains true. We are in many ways defined by Boston and its cultural, political, and commercial dynamism.

Boston goes by many names: “Beantown,” which no one in New England ever uses; “The Hub,” as in “The hub of the universe,” which is deployed almost exclusively by Boston newspapers; “The Cradle of Liberty,” which wouldn’t occur to any Bostonian who wasn’t actively walking the “Freedom Trail” from the Common to Bunker Hill; “The Athens of America,” which resonated with the city’s Brahmin forebears, but rings a bit hollow in Southie, the North End, and Charlestown. Most Bostonians – which, frankly, includes everybody who lives inside Route 128 – refer to the city simply as “Boston.” The only exception I know is when they refer to Boston proper as the “town,” as in “I’m takin’ the bus intah town laytah.”

My aunties (that’s ‘ahnt,’ by the way, not ‘ant’) used to talk that way about making the four-mile bus trip into downtown Boston. They lived in Everett, a working class enclave on the north side of the Mystic River, a place dense with triple-deckers, working class ‘taps’ and Catholic churches. I was born in Everett in 1959. Nine years earlier my grandfather had moved the family there from the backwoods of New Hampshire. In so doing he closed a 300-year circuit that had begun in 1652, when a ship named the “John and Sara” arrived in Boston Harbor bearing Scottish prisoners of war, including my ancestor, Alexander Gordon. Alexander was sold into indentured servitude in nearby Watertown, site of the recent manhunt, and later resold to a lumber mill owner in New Hampshire. The Gordons didn’t come down from the mountains until the work ran out.

My immediate family left Everett when I was five, but my dad continued to take my brothers and me into town until we were adults. His favorite spot was the Brattle Book Shop, founded in 1825 and located just off the Boston Common. We’d spend hours there before heading over to Filene’s Basement to jostle with hundreds of other shoppers making a hash of the bins teeming with merchandise on the “automatic markdown system.” There were baseball games at Fenway Park, hockey and basketball at the Garden, and church services at Park Street Church, on the corner of Tremont, at the bottom of Beacon Hill. Much later, after I graduated from college, I spent a year living in Boston’s South End, dutifully trudging around town every day looking for work, often ending up shaking off my despondency in the heart of Back Bay, on Boylston Street, amid the stacks of the Boston Public Library, the oldest free municipal library in the country. I eventually found a job half a block from the Library, in a building that stands at the midpoint between the two explosions that last week summoned out the best in those who still inhabit the Old Towne.

Boston is not perfect, not by a long stretch. In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jane Jacobs praised the North End, Boston’s Italian district, but blasted the rest of the town – especially the downtown financial district and Back Bay – for a “lack of good mixtures in its primary uses, particularly good mixing in of night uses and of live (not musueum-piece and once-upon-a-time) cultural uses.” In many parts of Boston, Jacobs’ criticism still obtains. More significant is the Boston tradition of political corruption. Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, the legendary Speaker of the House and a representative from Cambridge, once famously quipped that, “all politics is local.” In Boston, politics is not only local, it’s a blood sport. Like all cities with insular, competing neighborhoods, politics in Boston has often featured nepotism, bribery, influence peddling, embezzlement, electoral fraud, and worse. Racism, too, has been a feature of the city’s social landscape, much of it rooted in the deep discrimination experienced by the Irish who immigrated to Boston in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

But the good overwhelms the bad. Today, Boston is best known for education, healthcare, and technology. There are 53 institutions of higher learning in Greater Boston, including universities of global significance such as Harvard and MIT. Boston’s hospitals are among the best in the world, including Massachusetts General, Brigham & Women’s, The Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, the Lahey Clinic, and the Dana Farber Cancer Clinic. The Route 128 loop outside the city is second only to Silicon Valley for technical innovation, with a particular focus on software, robotics, healthcare and the life sciences. Boston is also known for sports, of course, with the city’s four major teams routinely in the hunt for world championships, all to the delight of the city’s intense fan base.

Over the centuries, Boston has given much to the rest of the nation, and all that history can still be felt as a living presence on the streets of Boston. Thanks to some weird effect of cultural quantum physics, the Puritans still thunder from their pulpits, Sam Adams continues to rouse the “Sons of Liberty,” the Battles of Bunker Hill and Lexington-Concord are still fought, Paul Revere still rides, John Harvard still preaches, the Transcendentalists continue to dream, the Abolitionists still man their letterpresses, the Irish still disembark by the thousands, Sacco and Vanzetti are still plotting, John F. Kennedy is still campaigning, Bill Russell still grabs the rebound, and Babe Ruth still pitches for the home team. When bombs exploded on Patriots’ Day, at the 117th running of the Boston Marathon, the most democratic major sporting event in the world, bystanders never questioned what they should do. They ran into the fray for each other and for Boston.  In so doing they made present and concrete what Emerson wrote: “The sea returning day by day / Restores the world-wide mart. / So let each dweller on the Bay fold Boston in his heart / Till these echoes be choked with snows / Or over the town blue ocean flows.”



About the Author
Mark Gordon is a descendant of a Scottish prisoner of war sold into indentured servitude in 1652. The Gordons have been trapped in New England ever since. Mark earned a degree in philosophy and then worked as a commercial fisherman, Army officer, trade magazine editor, and serial entrepreneur, which just shows what you can do with a degree in philosophy. He’s written for the National Catholic Register, Mars Hill Journal, Aleteia, and a lot of little publications of no one has ever heard of.