“He was born and raised in Jamaica Plain, knows that trying to defend Boston from uncool is like blocking a bullet with a slice of bread.”
-Junot Diaz, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”
After college I moved to Sweden, the land of all good things. I built a life for myself there: had a job, an apartment, a circle of friends. I’d learned the language to the point of fluency. But after two blissful years, I found myself strangely eager to return to Eastern Standard Time. All my Swedish friends assumed I’d move to New York, reasoning: if you’re going to leave your favorite country for the U.S., you might as well move to the best city there.
Following this logic, I found myself browsing apartment listings from Far Rockaway to Yonkers. I thought about taking an entry-level job in the city and commuting from a picturesque Hudson Valley studio. I thought about taking bartending classes. I thought about living in New York, for real. And then I moved straight back to Boston.
Though, I had to wonder: Did the first time even count? I’d spent four years studying English at Boston College, famous for, among many things being a “bubble” which traps students in a picturesque corner of the secure and tranquil Garden City for four years, rendering them hopeless at finding their way around the city for which their university is misleadingly named.
Resistant to the bubble, I went out every chance I got. MFA, ICA, BSO, and all the other acronyms I could sink my teeth into. I loved it. This time around, inundated by the realities a New York City life might entail, I remembered how much I’d loved it and found my appetite whet again, but to experience this city as a professional adult and not a college student. But upon returning, I found a different city awaited me; with most old friends having moved to New York or San Francisco, and many of the ones still in Boston uninterested in picking up where we’d left off two years prior. Having lost all cushion, all safety net, the city had been transformed into unnavigated terrain for me.
I’ve been back to New York a few times this summer, still flirting with the notion of the bigg(est) move, and was repeatedly struck by an interesting social dilemma I secretly describe as “the New York yuppie complacency problem.” It seemed to be ubiquitous. Whether I was in Chinatown or Park Slope, the Lower East Side or Crown Heights, twenty/thirty-somethings appear to land in New York, find an apartment (somehow), and then simply settle. Sure, they do the things one can do in New York- it’s almost impossible to not interact and engage with the city- but for the most part, the wealth of opportunities and offerings in a single neighborhood, let alone a borough or the city as a whole, apparently has an overwhelming effect. At three different gatherings, all independent of each other, I sat in horror as all the proud City-dwellers around me talked of nothing but their jobs, their apartments or their never-ending apartment searches, the various brutal financial details of both, and the cost of groceries. We could have been anywhere boring in the world.
A New Yorker friend of mine recently told me: “You should move to the city, you know Boston is just smaller version of New York with far less to do and terrible public transit.” She’s missing the point. As I plunged anew into the city I chose to return to, I found that as long as there’s the BSO, the Beehive, the Publick House, the Boston Public Library courtyard, Diskovery, Corey Hill Park, the Emerald Necklace, Shiki, the Hatch Shell, the bonsai garden in the Arnold Arboretum, that lush grass in front of the ICA, bagels at Rosenfeld’s in Newton Centre, the seven new galleries in the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the MFA (and oh, I could go on), I am and will remain completely satisfied. It’s not just about my favorite local haunts; the thread that stitches them together is a group of communities, fiercely devoted to their local identities but also proud, at times defensively so, of their greater urban home.
And as for the public transit question, there’s no denying the shortcomings of the MBTA, but isn’t it just one more opportunity to make small talk with friendly strangers as we wait? In the past two years alone, the number of frustrated commuters who have taken to the bicycle and nudged the city into accepting this new breed of transport has skyrocketed. I’m almost never alone on the street when I’m biking (old Scandinavian habits die hard), and always exchanging a friendly salute or tip of the helmet to a fellow two-wheeler.
The point is, Boston’s not at that New-York-level of coolness which creates this weird breed of young adult complacency. Bostonians stay hungry for innovation and improvement; they stay committed to their neighborhoods and supportive of local businesses (and sports teams, and watering holes, and traditions). As urban space, it’s small enough to be manageable and accessible, but big enough to remain stimulating, with piles of events, performances, and screenings to sift through, food to taste, drinks to imbibe, markets to support, and people to watch. Local ineptitudes are scoffed at, but they often lead to mobilization for improvement, and no shortage of causes to champion.
Because we’re not overwhelmed by too many hip institutions, venues, restaurants, and art collectives, we seek out, enjoy, create, and engage in dialogue about the few “cool” places we have. Like that great line in the Diaz short story, no one is trying to pretend Boston is something it’s not. We’re okay with not being New York. We’ll take the Fung Wah to New York, but we’re always so glad to see our Citgo sign down the Pike on the white-knuckled way home.
The Boston skyline stops no hearts. The city’s name doesn’t resound with a million myths, but it does leave enough room for the creation of new ones, with energy and verve and insouciant uncool-ness. And that’s why I love Beantown.