This isn’t simply a story about transformation, however. Boston’s sense of self resists wholesale reinvention—there’s no reckless urge to tear down those Georgian brick edifices, Victorian brownstones, and humble, early 20th-century triple-deckers. From Bunker Hill and the USS Constitution in Charlestown, to Minute Man National Historic Park in Concord (where the opening battle of the fight for indepen-dence took place), monuments to history are woven into the landscape.
There are more prosaic reminders of Boston’s steadfastness as well. When we first arrived in the fall of 2013, I was struck by sights that I remembered from childhood visits with my family. Perfectly coiffed ladies in pearls and twinsets still walked their retrievers and labs in the grassy mall that stretches along Commonwealth Avenue in Back Bay. The swan boats still languidly slid across the lagoon of the Public Garden, and antiquated trolleys still lumbered along the Green Line from gritty East Cambridge to the genteel, leafy neighborhoods of Brookline.
Prior to our move, my deepest entanglement with Boston dated to the early 1990s, when, as a high school student from Connecticut, I hung out with friends in Harvard Square at the temples of adolescent artistic striving: Café Pamplona, Newbury Comics, and Oona’s, where I once bought a black cashmere topcoat glossy with age. Now a fortysomething mom, I’m startled by the fact that all those establishments have survived the onslaught of fancy gastropubs and chain stores that have encroached on the Square. But I’m also weirdly comforted by their presence, as I am by the Fugazi and other late ’80s post-punk bands that the tattooed and flannel-shirted young baristas at our local café, Dwelltime, like to blast when they make, as locals say, wicked good lattes and cappuccinos.
Instead, with its mixture of old and new charms, Boston has just become more accessible to the outside world. For every middling French bistro in Back Bay, there are restaurants like Island Creek Oyster Bar, where my husband and I recently took some friends from New York. Slick with chrome and glass, the dining room wouldn’t be out of place in Manhattan, except for the fact that it’s cavernous and the bearded servers are endearingly friendly and earnestly helpful. The oysters—the ever-changing selection hails mostly from the shores of Massachusetts—were plump and briny, but the real surprise was the thoughtful wine list. Our server recommended an Austrian riesling so good that as soon as we kicked the bottle, we ordered another to remind ourselves immediately of what it tasted like. Even the New Yorkers are impressed.
The grande dames of Boston’s art scene, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, still loom, but there’s fresher energy in the form of the Institute of Contemporary Art’s new digs, which opened in 2006. Occupying a stretch along a revitalized seaport, the museum’s minimalist, heavily cantilevered form was a shock to this architecturally stodgy town. But it has since seduced Bostonians and visitors alike with its edgy contemporary art shows, DJ nights, and open-air concerts.
More recently, a radical reinterpretation of the Harvard Art Museums complex by celebrated Italian architect Renzo Piano has given art lovers a reason to cross the river into Cambridge. As you would imagine from one of the world’s richest universities, Harvard has accumulated a massive art collection of more than 250,000 pieces, ranging from ancient Chinese Buddhist cave paintings to murals by Mark Rothko. But the former cramped quarters of the Fogg Museum, the German-focused Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Asian art never did justice to the magisterial scope of the collection. Enter Piano, with his love of glass and natural light. Keeping the neo-Georgian red-brick entrance and Italianate courtyard of the original Fogg building, Piano has extended the space upward and outward with a mix of concrete, glass, and steel. It’s not the loveliest structure to look at, but inside, it gives the artworks on display room to breathe.
This past winter, the museums also served as an easy weekend sanctuary for us. It didn’t take long after we moved to the U.S. for my husband and I to decide to settle in Cambridge. With Harvard and MIT anchoring it, Cambridge has long been buffered from the ups and downs that plagued other areas of Greater Boston. But despite its population of students—many of whom are moneyed and cosmopolitan—and well-educated professionals, Cambridge has never been hip. It was always the sort of town where you could get a decent and filling meal, but not a great and memorable one.
But thanks to a thriving biotechnology sector, Cambridge is undergoing a boom, the likes of which is comparable to what has been happening in San Francisco’s Bay Area, complete with soaring real estate prices and disenchanted locals. That boom, however, has also precipitated the emergence of a much more sophisticated restaurant scene, from the 2001 opening of Oleana, chef Ana Sortun’s take on Turkish and Mediterranean mezze, to Café ArtScience, a modernist newcomer in Kendall Square where every plate is a perfect visual and gustatory feast.