After living in Asia for more than a decade, a New Englander returns to one of the oldest cities in the United States to find a place buzzing with lively neighborhoods, a vibrant restaurant scene, and an even stronger sense of itself.
Sometime between the fifth and sixth blizzard of the now infamous New England winter of 2015, the thought crossed my mind that my husband and I might have made a terrible mistake in relocating to Boston from Beijing. The first few storms had given the city and surrounding towns a stark, almost majestic beauty. Glistening cascades of icicles hung from the eaves of centuries-old clapboard houses. After each storm, the streets of our neighborhood in Cambridge were blanketed in fine, powdery snow, which muffled the sound of any car or pedestrian foolhardy enough to venture out.
But by February, the once-picturesque drifts had become dirt-splattered ice mountains, while Yankee stoicism had dissolved into squabbling over where to put the blasted white stuff. Sub-zero temperatures ruined the water pipes and our resolve. At the window of her studio, an artist hung a sign with “Remembering the summer” written unevenly in magic marker. It seemed less an exhortation than a plaintive utterance about better days. It taunted me every weekday as I skittered across the icy sidewalk to the bus stop.
Or it might have been just a simple reminder. For in Boston and everywhere in New England, every brutal winter eventually gives way to spring with its smell of rain and damp earth. Before you know it, the buds on the maple and honey locust trees have unfurled into leaves, and the early purple crocuses have made room for a riot of daffodils, narcissus, and lilies of the valley. Out on the streets, a steady stream of cyclists both young and old makes the daily commute. Joggers crowd the footpaths lining the Charles River, where racing shells manned by handsome Harvard undergrads glide across the water. In the morning, the soundtrack to work starts not with the crunch of thick-soled boots breaking through fresh crusts of snow, but with the staccato beat of a couple of very determined and hungry downy woodpeckers.
One bright Saturday in late May, I greeted a neighbor as my family headed out to the park. Over the winter, Bianca and I had regularly bonded over our futile attempts to clear the sidewalks and driveway. At one point, we had both stood, shovels piled high, laughing hysterically because we had nowhere left to dump the onslaught of snow. “It’s like the world has emerged again!” she exclaimed.
She was right—hibernation was officially over. And unlike New York City, where the warmer months quickly slide into stickiness and short tempers, Boston hits its stride in summer.
Actually, snow or no snow, Boston has been hitting its stride for the better part of a decade now—though it’s taken a while to get here.
In the pantheon of great American cities, the Massachusetts capital has long had a reputation for provincialism, be it among the stiff-upper-lipped Brahmins of Beacon Hill or the more rough-and-tumble Irish-Americans of South Boston. That is, a provincialism peculiarly married with a puffed-up sense of its own importance. Before we moved here, a friend sent us an Onion article from 2013, headlined: “Pretty Cute Watching Boston Residents Play Daily Game Of ‘Big City.’ ” Indeed, my husband and I marveled at how the population of the city of Boston was about 650,000 people, equivalent to a block in our old Beijing neighborhood.
In recent American popular culture, Boston has also suffered at the hands of its own booster club. Between Dennis Lehane’s grim, hard-boiled crime novels and Ben Affleck’s nouveau-noir flicks—not to mention The Departed—outsiders might under-standably be wary. The town, or so it was portrayed, must be crawling with Red Sox–capped thugs with gold chains, speech impediments, and a propensity for using vulgarities as subject, verb, and object—in a single sentence.
To be fair, some of the bad rap is well deserved. The childhood homes of Ben Bradlee, the late legendary Washington Post editor, reflected the hidebound nature of the blueblood Boston Brahmin class to which he belonged. His family moved from “211 Beacon Street to 295 Beacon Street to 267 Beacon Street and finally to 280 Beacon Street,” the New York Times obituary reported, adding that “his boyhood, as he wrote, was ‘not adventuresome.’ ”
Closer to home, a friend and fellow former Asia expatriate described pulling up his bike at a stoplight and making eye contact with the driver of the car next to him. His amiable nod was greeted with a snarled “Do I know you?” Another friend of mine who’s re-located to Boston claimed that in the first few weeks of his arrival, he found himself walking behind two construction workers—clad in the local working-class uniform of baggy jeans, paint-splattered hoodies, and Carhartt jackets—arguing the merits of a “chowdah.” (Both conversations, of course, included more profane language.)
More somberly, Boston, like so many cities in the United States, slid into a steep descent in the 1960s and ’70s, fuelled by economic stagnation and the racial violence sparked by the city’s attempt to integrate schools. When its comeback began in earnest in the ’90s, Boston had in its court advantages deeply rooted in its past. For not only was it ground zero for the American Revolution, but it also served as the beacon of the American Renaissance of the 19th century. Then, to be a man of letters and learning, you probably spent time in Boston or nearby Concord in the company of Thoreau, Hawthorne, Emerson, and Longfellow. America’s first public library was founded in Boston, as was its first public secondary school.
To this day, the Greater Boston area is home to 53 colleges and universities, ranging from such exalted institutions as Harvard and MIT to laser-focused establishments like the New England School of Photography. And it was on these impressive academic credentials as well as a good dose of Yankee ingenuity and pluck that Boston, led by the late, great mayor Thomas Menino, began to gun its economic engines and become one of the few consistently bright spots in the post-2008 U.S. economy.