City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

I spent last week in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, over for a conference. I overstayed my welcome by a couple of days in order to tramp around the city, my companions a digital camera and a cracking little new book, A Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston [Amazon UK|Amazon US]. I’d never been, so consider these observations to be broad and wide but with little depth. Additionally, I really only ventured around Cambridge (Kendall Square/MIT; Central Square; Harvard Square; Puttnam Ave; Somerville once), and Boston’s Back Bay, Fenway and Beacon Hill districts, so my remarks should be taken with that hefty pinch of salt. Please feel free to use the comments space below to make corrections and add further observations. And consider this a book review as much as a city review – I did read the whole book. I did not read the whole city. What follows is an intro – there are specific observations, with photos, to follow.

Part of Boston/Cambridge Diary series

The week before I arrived in Boston and Cambridge, the 2004 Democratic convention had rolled through town. There were still traces of the city being on best behaviour, lobbies strewn with city guides and smelling of fresh paint. The local press – whom I always scan to try to get a handle on things – were still in reactive mode. The ‘broadly right-wing’ Herald moaning about how little the Convention’s attendees had contributed to the city – they just didn’t go out enough! – and the ‘broadly left-wing’ Globe reflecting on a very successful week for Democrats, in keeping with John Kerry’s current rise and rise.

Kerry is a local resident (more later) and this city is Democrat for sure. As a city, it plays on a rich cultural heritage of arts and literature, enlightened politics, education and urban form on a human scale – all qualities which appeal to a particular, familiar kind of Democrat. However, it’s all too clear that there are many layers to Boston, and many equal and opposite histories that don’t fit into that heritage, and not at all into the Democrat vision of the US. My guide – A Good City [Amazon UK | US] – despite being a boosterish tome timed to coincide with the Convention, doesn’t shy away from detailing a shameful history of prejudice and oppression, with the Puritan fathers kicking the Catholics/Irish, and then the Irish kicking the African Americans and Jews, and now gentrification indiscriminately kicking the disenfranchised out of their rented homes – and so on and so forth, ad infinitum? This contradictory history weaves a rich fabric, emblazoned with glaring contradictions and the frayed seams of a contrived official story.

At first glance, however, Boston wasn’t that easy to read at all, all these histories imperceptible well below the surface. If first impressions count for much, popping out of the subway in the middle of downtown didn’t present much to the casual glance. Clean, empty, without character. It didn’t present a particularly welcoming, open face, with sparsely populated streets and a tangible, somewhat haughty, attitude in the air. I’m used to this of course, being English, but this softened as the week wore on, and I figured out where the people were (essentially Newbury Street). The city itself began to unfurl a little. I began to be able to locate myself, geographically and culturally.

Paul S. Grogan’s introduction to A Good City cleverly introduces the history of Boston itself – I’m sure American kids are brought up to be able to recite the utterances of early settler and Puritan founding father John Winthrop, who spoke of the shining “City upon the Hill” with biblical fervor … or of Boston as “the Hub” lent by nineteenth-century author Oliver Wendell Holmes – as in “hub of the solar system”. This idealised version of urban America – perhaps in response to Jefferson’s, and arguably white America’s, distrust of cities (following the English?) – leads to a city which is proudly and distinctly urban. It doesn’t attempt to hide its form as anything other than a modern city, created by an industrialised taming of nature. The ‘Hill’ was effectively leveled; the riverside is basically man-made and dammed-up. The city was built in, variously, the Georgian English styles of squares and terraces and parks, then French boulevards, then American blocks and grids. Finally, inevitably, sadly, sliced and diced by the automobile, delivering suburban sprawl – which several writers in A Good City rail against, again indicating the idealised vision of The City that liberal Bostonians believe into being, drawn from a selectively drawn and loosely ‘new urbanist’ affectation for the organic growth of the 18th and 19th century neighbourhoods and the attempts of ‘city landscapers’ Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles Eliot:

“Olmsted and Eliot had the right idea in their attempt to create an integrated environment in which people would have access to all the advantages of the city, as well as the salutary and even spiritual benefits of nature. But what began well enough in the 1850s was dismantled in the 1950s by the blind devotion of city planners to a singularly destructive invention, a machine which has undone even the best designed and most pleasant cities – the automobile. If there is one thing we could do to give this, and other cities, a sensible future, it would be to banish, expel, deport, and forever exile this noxious device and all its associated poisons. Boston is still a contained city; you can walk anywhere in the town in the space of an hour, and jitneys, trolleys, subways, buses, and a few taxis could carry those who can’t or won’t walk … To my knowledge, no one has ever attempted a citywide ban of the private automobile, but given the moral foundation of the shining city on the hill, Boston would be a good place to begin.” [From ‘An Eden of Sorts: An Unnatural History of the Shawmut Peninsula’, by John Hanson Mitchell, in A Good City]

Appropriately religious reverie from Mr Mitchell there. Almost a cleansing! Indeed, the car has ruined at least one vital component of Boston (more later) but the city still feels like it’s built around the length of your stride rather than your miles per gallon – more Manhattan than LA in terms of urban typology. I quote that as much for the “moral foundation of the shining city on the hill” aspect as for the anti-car sentiment. It gives an idea of the way this particular vision of Boston is articulated – you can sometimes feel it in the air too, particularly around Back Bay and Beacon Hill. This could be interpreted as a suffocating sense of pious superiority and resistance to progress – in common with the worst aspects of a ‘new urbanist’ agenda – however I drew a lot from this utter faith in urban form on a human scale – in common with the best aspects of a ‘new urbanist’ agenda, perhaps!

There is much talk of Olmsted (creator of Central Park) and his shaping of an Emerald Necklace of parks through the city. These are indeed gentle pleasure spaces, seemingly modeled on the grassy promenades designed for the mid-to-late-nineteenth century European flaneur, familiar from pointilliste visions. Actually though, the vision – made clear in Mitchell’s excellent essay on the ecology and geology of the Shawmut Peninsular – was actually to recreate some of the primal wilderness which greeted the founding fathers. Not very urban at all. And sections of the Fenway parks do feel ‘wild’ rather than manicured (‘Fenway’ after the English Fens presumably, familiar to East Anglian settlers like Winthrop).

Still the city also has its trappings of all modern ‘western’ cities, with a built up downtown of shining glass and streets lined with Starbucks, Pottery Barn, Emporio Armani and Gap. Several writers point out that the lure of making money in order to build A New World (or was it vice versa?) might have been seemingly antithetical to the improving spirit of the original Puritans but was too strong to let a few doubts get in the way. To be clear though, Newbury Street – where the aforementioned stores reside, alongside small private galleries and many restaurants – was immediately the place I felt at home. Bearing in mind Justin O’Connor’s observation on Shanghai, after Koolhaas/Jameson, shopping is a principle raison d’etre in a modern city, for better or worse, and me buying a For Carnation or Bonnie Prince Billy CD or McSweeney’s or The New Yorker is part of that process, whether from vaguely edgy independent stores on Newbury or not. I might as well as walked into Pottery Barn (which is actually something I never want to do, seeing as how they hassled poor Kramer in Seinfeld once).

A Good City, and the city itself, doesn’t really dwell on this aspect of the modern city – except some references to how the cuisine has improved radically in recent years – but generally details the cultural backdrop and concomitant trappings of this American version of a classical city. It’s almost as this self-evidently oldest of major US cities has not been able to shift the Old World that much at all. There is little of the brutal modernity of Chicago or Detroit here, never mind the flashing postmodernity of Los Angeles – there are instead debating societies, gentlemen’s clubs, a decent Museum of Fine Art, the obvious presence of a classical music scene, urban walks and so on. This, of course, is no bad thing per se. What’ll be interesting is how – or rather if – Boston moves forward. How it deals with the tensions of the 21st century city in the context of these pervading, seductive, Old World instincts. Can it take the best of its discrete urban form, strong culture of innovation and knowledge-based economy, obvious intelligence and some natural opportunity into a world based around constantly shifting rootless patterns of trade, culture and identity? Worst case scenario: it becomes an Olde Worlde American theme park, exemplified by the Cheers bar, the Red Sox, and Harvard University, with subtly virulent conservative undercurrents. (This approach is all too familiar to a Brit, sadly – except in those British cities truly looking forward). Best case? Boston builds on its tradition of immigration, education, technical innovation, cultural capital and that the best aspects of the founding principles of the USA were forged here, not losing sight of its glittering past but facing up to the worst chapters in that story too, solely in order to fix them (see forthcoming note on ‘race’). Much much easier said than done, though there is a sense in A Good City that many in Boston do have a clue about this stuff.

What’s interesting is that the city government – the traditional arena for formulating and implementing these strategies in US cities – seem counterbalanced by a tradition of optimistic and relatively radical local activism, who appear to care deeply about the city. The city had its fingers burnt at the hands of the city government through the 1950s and 1960s – in common with many other cities of course. Perhaps as a result, though A Good City may have been commissioned the Boston Foundation, it is comprised of essays from (largely) local residents – albeit the chattering classes of writers and journalists. This direct engagement from a particular layer of the city’s intellectual strata must make it ‘challenging’ to work in urban regeneration in Boston, but is also leaves the city profoundly richer for all that – if the city can harness that energy to become a truly decentralised, networked urban decision-making entity. It needs to reach out a little further than A Good City does – arguably, for all its plurality of voice, it’s still a little ‘heritage’ – but there seems to be a desire to do that too. Paul S. Grogan’s introduction closes with a fine sentiment, which simultaneously – possibly inadvertently – articulates this potential for the potential networked approach:

“The saving grace will be that the politicians will not be left entirely to their own devices. As important as our politicians are, all of their decisions will be influenced, modified, and occasionally overturned by Boston’s truly distinctive asset – the vast web of private individuals and groups passionately active in city life. Boston birthed the abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century, and it has bred a special brand of impatient activism ever since.”

“These are the activists who dreamed of a New Boston with John Hynes, these are the citizens of Boston who stopped the highway with Frank Sargent, who staffed Kevin White’s little city halls and community schools, who transformed race relations with Ray Flynn and combated youth violence with Tom Menino.”

“Do you want to know why I’m an optimist about Boston? Because that activism is an inexhaustible resource. It will guide us – and save us – in the very interesting days ahead.” [from ‘Introduction: The Comeback City’, by Paul S. Grogan, in A Good City]

I truly hope so. Despite the occasional off notes sounded in my preamble above, I found Boston and Cambridge eventually highly engaging and utterly fascinating. A Good City indeed.

I have a few distinct, targeted, personal and uninformed, observations to follow, littered with photos, and centred around race, architecture, urban form, public typography, sounds, the relationship between Boston and Cambridge and so on. In common with the current vogue for pseudo-Victorian partworks on blogs [cf. Shanghai Diary], I’ll post these over the coming days, given a fair wind.


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