Posted December 29th, 2009 at 8:20 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment

For some reason, this is the time of year that I think of Boston, the unofficial capital of America’s northeast New England region. That’s odd in a way, since I’ve never spent the holidays there, and now’s when the gray skies and snow and slush set in for the winter. One memory that I have of Baahston, as the natives call it in their flat New England twang, actually traces to a day in April, when I was astounded to see an awful lot of homes still displaying festive outdoor Christmas lights. I suspect it has something to do with prolonging a little cheer, since snow in April is not unusual at all.

Any time of year, though, Boston oozes history.

If freedom were a concrete thing, something that could be seen and touched, Boston would be the place for the seeing and touching. The Cradle of American Liberty is an endlessly fascinating living-history museum of the 17th and 18th centuries. And it is so much more: a city whose libraries, colleges, medical centers, museums and parks, and architecture compare with the best on the globe.

In my experience, Boston is the nation’s pre-eminent walking city, built to a human scale that, remarkably, has been preserved. So many roads and streets follow the routes of old cow paths — or permit only one-way traffic — that only a longtime Bostonian can decipher where they lead. Locals say that what sometimes seems like their superior Brahmin bearing stems not from their pedigrees or intellectual accomplishments — though the streets are crammed with smart, cultured people — but from the simple fact that they know the shortcuts!

Superhighways skirt the city, save for one that cuts right across renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted’s “Emerald Necklace” of serene parks and greenswards on its way across the Charles River. Approval of that concrete intrusion into the lovely Back Bay neighborhood, and the decision to raze an entire old community of homes in the West End in the name of urban renewal, are seen as so misguided that historic buildings and green spaces are doubly and triply protected today.

None more so than the 16 sites on the Freedom Trail, a self-guided walking tour of 15 Revolutionary War and other colonial sites conveniently marked with red bricks or a red line down the sidewalk. National Park ranger tours cover six of the locations, including Paul Revere’s house, the Boston Massacre site, and Faneuil Hall.

An interlude to explain each of those:

• On the evening of April 18th, 1775, Boston silversmith Paul Revere caught a rowboat ride across the Charles River. In Charlestown, fellow revolutionaries plotting against British rule had seen a pre-arranged lantern signal — “one if by land, two if by sea” in the bell tower of Christ Church across the river in Boston. “The British were coming! The British were coming!” — by sea. Revere borrowed a horse and galloped to Lexington, Massachusetts, to warn two other men whom we now call patriots — Samuel Adams and John Hancock — that British forces were on their way to arrest them. This adventure was later made famous in the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem that begins, “Listen my children, and you shall hear/of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” and that millions of other kids and I recited in school.

• The Boston Massacre had ignited the colonists’ revolt five years earlier. A brawl between citizens and British soldiers on a March day after a boy had thrown a snowball at a sentry — I told you winter lasts into Spring in Boston — erupted into gunfire in which five colonists died. The first volleys of the American Revolution had been fired.

• Faneuil Hall, now a sort of tourist jumping-off point, is the town market and meeting hall where the flames of revolution were first ignited.

Visitors are wise to bring sturdy shoes to Boston, as there is yet another fascinating walking path to be trod: the Black Heritage Trail on the North Slope of Beacon Hill. Beginning on a short street where African Americans once occupied all of the houses, it passes Boston’s first interracial school, a house that was a stop on southern slaves’ Underground Railroad to freedom during the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s. Open to visitors is the African Meeting House, the oldest black church in the nation that is still standing. The structure, known early in its history as the “Black Faneuil Hall,” served as a church, school, and nexus of the anti-slavery crusade. Abolitionist orators, including a former escaped slave, Frederick Douglass, declaimed from its pulpit.

Ironically, given Boston’s reputation as a bastion of liberalism, the thrall of segregation was once so strong that for the dedication of the African Meeting House in 1854, blacks were forced to sit in the balcony while whites occupied the premium pews below.

The story of Boston as a settled place begins with John Winthrop and his band of about 750 pious Christians called “Puritans,” who sailed in 11 ships from wicked England in 1630, with a charter from King James I in hand, in search of what they called “a city upon a hill.” The charter entitled their “Massachusetts Bay Company,” as it was called, to occupy a sliver of land near the mouth of the Charles River that reached, at least in theory, as far west as land extended.

They had no way of knowing, of course, that the land stretched all across North America to the Pacific Ocean.

Other English religious dissidents called Pilgrims had preceded the Puritans to New England, founding a settlement called Plimouth, south of Boston. Upon landing, Winthrop and his Puritans spread out, forming separate settlements that included Boston, named after a town back in Lincolnshire, England. It was a crude place, built among the marshes in what would one day be called Boston’s North End. So full of swamps and brambles was the neighborhood that Bostonians derisively referred to it as the “Island” of North Boston. Houses were scattered in no apparent order on hillsides and in dales, so that streets — the same streets one struggles to navigate today — wound to and fro in no logical pattern.

The Puritans were a smart bunch. A fellow named Cotton Mather, the son of a pioneer minister, for instance, became an astronomer, botanist, and such an astute student of physics that he would be elected to the British Royal Society clear across the Atlantic.

The Puritans had expected to farm in the New World, but they soon realized that the sea held out their best shot at wealth. By the late 1600s, Boston merchants were sending cod to England, importing manufactured goods, and distilling rum, which they traded for West Indian sugar and slaves. We don’t call entrepreneurship “Yankee ingenuity” for nothing.

(The term “Yankee” has long been around as a sometimes-unflattering name for folks living in the New England states. Specifically, for “Connecticut Yankees,” referring to the state just south of Massachusetts. In 1889, humorist Mark Twain published a novel called A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. “I’m a Yankee of Yankees — practical, yes,” the leading character, Hank Morgan, described himself, “and nearly barren of sentiment.”)

Somehow the slave trade was reconciled with the Puritans’ holier-than-thou religious beliefs. Until the colony grew too large to be kept under the church’s thumb, dissent from stern Puritan teachings was not tolerated. Free spirits like Roger Williams or Anne Hutchinson, who argued for religious tolerance, were banished, as were Quakers and members of other faiths. Williams founded a whole new colony next door, called “Rhode Island,” even though it’s part of a peninsula.

Those who persisted in questioning the church’s teachings, including a woman named Mary Dyer, were hanged.

But eventually the Puritans caved in. Cotton Mather himself opened holy communion — the sacred ceremonial sharing of bread and wine meant to signify the body and blood of Christ — to Baptists and Lutherans. Methodists and Anglicans built their own churches in the North End, and people of many political leanings moved to town.

Few of these people, though, could be characterized as freewheeling or carefree. Early Boston was a prim and proper place, just as it seems to be today. The people aren’t prickly, exactly, but neither do they appear eager to welcome you. The word “starchy” comes to mind when you meet them. Maybe it’s their lofty education level. After all, there are something like 60 highly rated colleges — including Harvard University, the nation’s oldest institution of higher learning — right in Boston and its suburbs.

While some Bostonians prospered in the “triangle trade” of fish, molasses, finished British goods, and slaves, others suffered and chafed under British rule. When George III imposed several new taxes, including the 1765 Stamp Act levy on legal documents, many in town simply refused to pay. A committee of firebrands who called themselves the “Sons of Liberty” — Paul Revere was one — led street protests and a boycott of British goods. King George lifted the Stamp Act but imposed new tariffs on goods like paper and tea. In 1773, Revere and a few dozen other Sons of Liberty, poorly disguised as Indians, took out their wrath against these taxes by dumping a cargo of British tea into Boston Harbor.

The “Boston Tea Party” only steeled the Crown’s resolve to assert control. Parliament ordered the harbor closed and installed a military governor, Sir Thomas Gage. In Massachusetts and elsewhere, talk of revolution spread. In September 1774, the First Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, authorized the recruitment of a colonial army.

Paul Revere’s ride and guerrilla-style skirmishes followed. In one, at the North Bridge in nearby Concord, the British tasted blood, the deaths of 70 men, and defeat for the first time. The colonists’ victory there would be immortalized as the “shot heard ’round the world,” signaling the start of a full-blown revolution. In the summer of 1775, colonial commander George Washington — later our independent nation’s first president — arrived in Cambridge across the river from Boston. He plotted strategy while the British laid siege to Boston through the bitter winter. Come spring, Washington directed a skillful bombardment of British ships in Boston Harbor, forcing thousands of Redcoat soldiers and their Tory supporters to flee Boston for good.

From that point forward until independence was achieved seven years later, Boston was spared further fighting. Two centuries later a Bostonian would remark to me over coffee that had the British realized what riches the vast continent would later reveal, they might have fought harder and longer, bringing in whatever reinforcements were necessary to hold onto the rebellious colonies.

Imagine it! We’d be bowing and curtsying to Queen Elizabeth whenever she flies across the “pond” to visit us.

After the Revolution, control of Boston fell to a new aristocratic class of merchants and artisans who built mansions on Beacon Hill and striking new public buildings downtown. Charles Bulfinch, for example, created a magnificent new, gilded-dome Massachusetts statehouse before moving to Washington to work on the U.S. Capitol. The members of this new gentry were soon dubbed, derogatorily, “Brahmins” — like the educated elite of British India — as if they were a snooty, contemptible upper class.

As more colleges sprouted, Boston became America’s undisputed intellectual capital and, at least to some in the North, its conscience as well. It was there that the abolitionist and women’s-rights movements first flowered.

Bluebloods would keep political control of the city until 1884, when Hugh O’Brien, the first in a long line of Irish mayors, took office. Poor Irish Catholics had arrived by the tens of thousands in the mid-1800s. Most lived in slums in South Boston and, if they were lucky, found menial jobs as ditchdiggers on canals and railways. At almost every turn, they were greeted with loathing and violence. Signs reading “ONLY PROTESTANTS NEED APPLY” abounded. Mobs attacked Irish settlements and even burned down a convent, and priests were denied permission to enter the city’s charity hospitals to administer last rites to the dying.

For the Irish, neighborhood politics and service as police and firefighters were the only road out of poverty and into power — and they took it with vigor. Who could forget “The Singing Mayor,” John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, who would croon “Sweet Adeline” in barbershop-quartet performances? Or the “Mayor of the Poor,” James “Boss” Curley, Boston’s four-time leader who once ran for city council from his jail cell — and won. He also won a mayoral race while serving as a U.S. congressman, and kept both jobs! Free on bail after a conviction for mail fraud, Curley hurried home on the train from Washington in order to organize his own mayoral victory parade.

A departure from the ward-heeling, cigar-chomping Irish “pol” was millionaire Boston businessman Joseph P. Kennedy. ”Honey Fitz’s” son-in-law, he made some of his millions running illegal whiskey during Prohibition in the 1930s, when sales of booze were, wink-wink, illegal. Kennedy’s second son, John, later to become the nation’s youngest president, was the first of a long line of idealistic but shrewd Kennedy politicians, serving to this day, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1946.

As Boston politics evolved, so did its landscape. An estuary known as the “Muddy River,” off Boston’s Back Bay, was an open sewer for 150 years. But it and its surrounding fens (from which Boston’s iconic baseball stadium, Fenway Park, gets its name) changed for the better once landscape architect Olmsted moved his offices from New York to a Boston suburb in 1883. Appointed Boston’s park commissioner, he wasted little time reshaping the city’s topography to solve drainage problems and create “public pleasure gardens.” His resulting “Emerald Necklace” would include three delightful parks, including the pentagonal Boston Common — now America’s oldest public park — on a spot where sheep and cows once drank from a frog pond and British and colonial soldiers both trained.

Indeed, Boston is America’s city of firsts. It was the nation’s first commercial center, first significant port, the seed ground of the Revolution. It was the first center of learning, the first place where immigrants in large numbers debarked.

Why, then, did New York and Philadelphia, and, later, upstart inland cities like Chicago, become megalopolises, and not Boston?

Unfavorable geography in the form of those fens hemmed the city in. Boston’s distance from the heartland discouraged the development of good roads. Though it quickly became the hub of all of New England, and even though it built its airport practically downtown, Boston never had the land to create a giant air hub.

And did I mention the bleak winters?

But the answer also lies in the Boston mindset, its love of things old and tested, and its suspicion of too much change. Boston relishes its role as the trustee of a good portion of America’s colonial heritage, and it approaches modernity with caution. Even visitors take comfort in knowing that they can leave Boston, perhaps for 20 years, and return to find most of the places they love still intact.

Boston remains difficult to reach and tricky to get around in, and the natives seem to prefer it that way. It’s part of Bostonians’ character, almost as if they are saying that it does a person good to feel a little discomfort. Don’t let a little thing like a traffic jam or a blizzard slow you down. Lace up your boots and get on with it. April’s theater, ballet, and festival season will be here soon enough.

There’s an ironic twist, though. At the same time that Boston remains enraptured by its past, it has also been the center of remarkable intellectual innovation, owning in no small measure to those 60 exceptional colleges. Computer and biomedical miracles begin here, and Boston is one of the nation’s three top venture-capital cities.

The vagaries of innovation produced boom-and-bust cycles, however, leading to a gradual loss of population. The 1950 federal census counted more then 800,000 people inside city limits. In 1990, the count was down to 575,000. And it’s within a few hundred people, one way or the other, of that figure right now.

Other reasons for the decline? Winter. Winter. Winter.

Yet Boston has managed to get wealthier as newcomers of means — and graduates of those acclaimed colleges — moved into and refurbished whole neighborhoods.

Boston’s cuisine has never been much to write home about, unless home is somewhere else in New England. Scrod — a fish so mysterious that you’re served cod one time, haddock or some other species the next — is big. So is New England clam chowder, distinguishable from other varieties by its thick broth made with cream.

And then there are Boston’s famous beans. In 1883, Boston’s young baseball franchise, the Red Stockings, changed its name to avoid confusion with a Cincinnati squad of the same name. Boston’s team became the “Beaneaters.” And there are still “Beanpot Classic” sporting tournaments. But one is hard-pressed to find a bowl of dark, slow-baked, steeped-in-molasses beans in Boston any more.

Thanks in no small measure to the “Cheers” television show, which played for 11 top-rated seasons into the 2000s, Beacon Hill, where the real Cheers tavern still draws tourists, is Boston’s best-known neighborhood. Its well-kept buildings and impeccably presented residents — with their faintly British accents, gray and tweed suits, and red-silk ties and ascots — are stereotypical of the Hill’s Brahmin past. Less well known are the warrens of students and young working people on Beacon Hill who can afford the rent and dig the vibrant nightlife on Charles, the Hill’s one commercial street.

Photographers like Carol, searching for a neatly packaged skyline shot of the city, will be frustrated. Boston’s tall buildings — including designer I.M. Pei’s shimmering John Hancock glass-front tower, New England’s tallest building — pop up in widely separated clumps. So shutterbugs often settle for a lovely shot of a few skyscrapers in the distance, behind an inviting armada of sailboats zipping to and fro along the Charles.

Years ago when I briefly lived in Los Angeles on the West Coast, I was struck by how many people yammered on and on about their various avocations — hiking on Big Bear Mountain, skateboarding in Santa Monica, scuba-diving near Catalina Island — rather than their jobs.

Bostonians are a bit like that. Many of them either have a place on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, or Nantucket, or visit friends there as often as they can. Cape Cod is a scorpion-shaped peninsula of Massachusetts, whose ring of dunes and beaches is unmatched in New England. Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are islands lying south of Cape Cod in Nantucket Sound. More upscale than the Cape, both are full of heaths, cliffs, biking and hiking trails, saltbox houses, and a precious commodity in this day and age: peace and quiet. Nantucket, in particular, is a town in the midst of the sea, full of cobbled lanes and byways, open moors, and delightful shops that milk visitors’ fascination with the days when the place was a thriving whaling port.

In any season in Boston, the baseball Red Sox and local politics are likely to dominate a conversation over coffee or lunch. Then, to prove that this is indeed America’s walking city, Bostonians are liable to finish their coffee and cranberry muffins on a long stroll through the Common or the Public Garden, as if they were discovering them for the first time.

Not so often in the winter, however.



(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!) 

Fen. A swampy bog or marsh. 
Saltbox. A common style of home in New England, often marked by a flat front façade and an uneven arrangement of stories to the rear. 
Tory. Tories were American colonists who supported the British side during the American Revolution. The name is taken from a British political party that was an opposition party to the Whigs. 
Ward Heeler. A “machine” politician, part of a clique that controls a city or party for its own ends as much as to serve the public. The “heeler” part of the term refers to the legwork that menial party members are ordered to perform around town. 
Yammer. To cry loudly, in the manner of a howling wolf or an incessantly barking dog.

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One response to “Beantown”

  1. catalina island hotels says:

    >I went to Boston once quite a few years ago. I was really young but I loved it. All of the old buildings and crisp air was amazing! I need to go back soon!

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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