An August 2002 trip
to Boston by Idler
Quote: There are revolutions – social, technological, financial, medical – and then is the Revolution. Boston, best known for the latter, is a hotbed of innovation, displaying a peculiar tolerance for any ensuing upheaval. The traditional and the new coexist in this quintessentially American city.
Hotel | "The Omni Parker House Hotel"
Entering with a whoosh! through the polished brass revolving doors, guests enter the lobby of the oldest continually-operating hotel in the United States. Here it could still be 1855, the year the hotel opened, though the illusion is shattered as guests in chinos and shorts step from the elevator’s ornate bronze doors. The hotel’s founder, Harvey Parker, sought to recreate the ambience of a European hotel, and the lobby, with its mellow oak paneling, gilded ceiling, richly patterned rugs, and comfortable plush furniture, beckoned me to sit and watch the world go by.
From this lobby vantage point, the world does indeed go by – and has in years past. Luminaries such as Sarah Bernhardt, Ulysses S. Grant, and Joan Crawford have stayed here, while Boston’s literary lions - Longfellow, Whittier, Thoreau, Hawthorne and Emerson - made it their weekly meeting place. In 1946 John F. Kennedy announced his Congressional candidacy in the second-floor Press Room, just down the hall from the room where Charles Dickens first read "A Christmas Carol" to a rapt audience. A certain actor stayed there in 1865, taking target practice down the street in his spare time. He later departed for Washington. His name? John Wilkes Booth.
The hotel remains committed to Harvey Parker’s vision of elegant comfort. The Parker House was the first in the U.S. to install an elevator, have hot-and-cold running water (Dickens loved it), and to offer flexible dining rather than set meal times. This penchant for innovative comfort has continued, and a $70 million renovation in the late nineties provided all the amenities expected in modern luxury hotels, such as internet connections, cable television, a state-of-the-art fitness center, and automated check-out. In addition, we were impressed by the staff, who were unfailing polite, consummate professionals every one.
Our room on the third floor was perhaps not as large as those in modern hotels, but it was extremely comfortable and quiet. We made ourselves at home after an arduous day, showering with fragrant herbal soap and donning soft white terrycloth robes. My husband was happy to find an ironing board to press his suit, while I happily scrolled through the cable movie offerings, finding a movie we’d missed in the theaters.
We had just two small quibbles, the first being the prominently-placed basket of overpriced "bar menu" goodies ($12 gummy bears?), which became a unwanted focal point for our always ravenous preteen son. The second was the choice of morning newspaper: Why deliver a characterless rag like USA Today in a fine newspaper town like Boston?
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 3, 2002
Omni Parker House
60 School Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02108
Hotel | "Doubletree Guest Suites"
This hotel is unquestionably one of the best bargains in Boston, especially for a family. Each suite’s living room has a sofa bed, table and chairs, TV console, and coffee table. It looks and feels not like a hotel room but a living room. With the suitcases stowed out of sight, a traveller loses that "cooped up in a room with a bed" feeling as the bedroom is completely separated from the living room. Add to that a sleek bathroom with a huge mirror from ceiling to the top of the long counter, a kitchenette with mini-bar, coffee maker, refrigerator, microwave and sink, and a large mirrored closet with ironing board, and you have not just a hotel room but an efficiency apartment. Finding an internet rate of $141 per night made this package all the sweeter.
Our own bedroom featured a king-sized bed with a "just right" firm mattress, a decent-sized desk and chair, a large TV console/chest of drawers, and, best of all, a huge picture window stretching the length of the room with stunning views from our eighth-floor room out over the Charles River, Boston, and Cambridge.
Unfortunately, all this luxury and space comes with one drawback: a somewhat isolated location. Doubletree Guest Suites is neither in Boston nor Cambridge but in a no-man’s land just off the interstate, which makes it a snap to find but less than convenient to get downtown. While I was able to walk across the Charles River Bridge in front of the hotel and stroll up along the pleasant riverside path to Harvard (which took about half an hour), there was no nearby "T" stop or public transportation into town. The hotel runs an hourly shuttle van that swings by several stops downtown as well as stopping at Harvard Square, but it wasn’t the most convenient set-up. We found that it was necessary to sign up beforehand for the shuttle, which was usually crowded or full. After several days trying to juggle shuttle rides downtown and back (which is even more complex), I decided that there was a crying need for another shuttle, perhaps operating on the half-hour as well as the hour.
Aside from this single drawback, however, the Doubletree Guest Suites is a winner: attractive, comfortable, and good value for the money. Its amenities include the award-winning "Scullers" jazz club, an indoor pool, whirlpool, sauna, health club, coin-op laundry, and reasonably priced room service featuring "Pizza Uno" (a big hit with our son).
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on September 6, 2002
Doubletree Guest Suites Boston
400 SOLDIERS FIELD RD
Boston, Massachusetts 02134
Starting as a fish market back in the ‘50’s, Legal Sea Foods came to wider notice when Julia Child began buying seafood for her television program there. The owners soon branched out into the restaurant business, opening a simple no-frills spot with sawdust-strewn floors and communal plank table seating. From there Legal’s reputation for the freshest fish, expertly cooked, took off, and the single Cambridge location has gradually expanded to no fewer than 26 restaurants up and down the East Coast. Their slogan, proudly trumpeted in numerous TV spots and print ads, is "If it isn’t fresh, it isn’t Legal!"
The Legal’s Park Plaza restaurant is in an attractively renovated art-deco style building near the theater district, a convenient spot for tourists and townies alike. We were grateful we had made reservations, for the crowd on Tuesday night looked to me more like that of a Saturday night. One thing that impressed me, however, was that although the restaurant was busy, the staff didn’t seem rushed and the noise level was a relaxed rumble rather than a cacophonous din. Subdued lighting, with hanging spot lamps casting a mellow glow over each table and a hip Asia-meets-Art-Deco décor further contributed to a relaxed ambience.
The test of any restaurant, however, is its food. Legal Sea Foods, I’m happy to say, lived up to its reputation for fresh, expertly prepared seafood. We three whetted our appetites beforehand with tasty appetizers of clam chowder, Greek salad, and shrimp cocktail, respectively. Then I opted for a mixed assortment of wood-grilled fish and shellfish, while my husband had stuffed flounder and my son ordered wood-grilled trout. I was very impressed with my selection, a trio of four-ounce cuts of different fish (tuna, salmon, and blue fish), succulent grilled scallops and juicy shrimp. A baked potato and crunchy stir-fried squash complemented this ideal sampler meal. We selected a half bottle of reasonably-priced Venetian Pinot Grigio from Legal’s award-winning wine list to accompany the meal and promptly wished we’d ordered a whole bottle of this crisp, flavorful wine.
The service was attentive; in fact, one oddity was that no fewer than three managerial staff came by to ask us if we were finding everything satisfactory. Clearly, quality control is a very big thing at Legal Sea Foods, which is all to the good, but we found the repeated inquiries somewhat obtrusive. However, aside from that we were very happy with our meal and overall experience there and hope to dine at one of Legal’s Maryland locations the next time we’re up for a seafood splurge.
Legal Sea Foods
26 Park Plaza
Boston, Massachusetts 02116
Attraction | "The New England Aquarium"
The New England Aquarium is a stunner, all giddy angles, soaring open spaces, arching bridges, and a huge central fish tank, dramatically lit and viewed from surrounding spiraling ramps. It’s clear that Chermayeff understood what most attracts visitors to aquariums: the feeling of being undersea, right among the swimming sharks, shoals of silvery herring, and pulsating sea anemones. The aquarium is yet another of Boston’s seminal Big Ideas.
Any good aquarium has a dual purpose: to delight and to educate. The exhibit that dominates the ground level of the New England Aquarium, featuring three types of penguins from South Africa, South America, and Australia, does just that. Penguins are everywhere – loudly calling out to one another (who knew penguins were so vocal?), hopping about on the rocks, and diving awkwardly into the water, unexpectedly transformed underwater into sleek black torpedoes. Fascinated, we stood by the rail watching an aquarium caretaker hand-feed a group of golden-crested Rockhopper penguins. They were surprisingly picky eaters.
Proceeding through the aquarium, we viewed tanks representing different aquatic environments – everything from the frigid Puget Sound to the languid warmth of the Amazon River Basin. No doubt setting up such a diversity of marine environments posed hefty technical challenges. One of my favorite displays recreates the effects of crashing waves on a Pacific tidal pool. In time to a mesmerizing ocean-like rhythm, the tentacles of colorful anemones swirled wildly, tossed by artificial waves. Nearby, visitors entered a darkened corridor, stood for a moment adjusting to the darkness, then gasped in surprise at the intermittent flicker of bioluminescent deep-reef fish.
The heart of this aquarium, though, is one of the world’s largest round saltwater tanks, representing a Caribbean coral reef. Visitors walk around outside the four-story artificial reef, viewing its shelves and crevices. Well over a hundred species are present, though the stars of the show are the huge sea turtles and a ferocious-looking (but generally harmless) nurse shark. Luck was with us: it was feeding time. We watched in awe as a massive green moray eel snaked over a diver’s shoulder to gently take food from her hand. Vying for her attention, a balloonfish clownishly begged for (and received) a handout.
The aquarium is open Mon-Tues-Fri 9-6, Wed-Thurs. 9-8, and 9-7 weekends and holidays. In addition to the exhibits, there are whale watching tours, an Imax theatre, a wildlife rehabilitation center, a floating pavilion featuring sea-lion presentations, and an Exploration Center with numerous educational activities. A café with harbor views and a lively gift shop round off the New England Aquarium experience.
New England Aquarium
Boston, Massachusetts 02110
Attraction | "The Harvard Museum of Natural History"
Our "hometown" museum is the gargantuan Smithsonian, which is a tough act to follow, but I actually prefer a less sprawling museum like the HMNH, which doesn’t pretend to exhaustively cover all branches of the natural sciences. What Harvard has, however, are select, well-focused exhibits with an emphasis on historically important material and evolutionary theory (which is ironic, considering that the museum’s founder, Louis Agassiz, made many critical attacks on Darwin’s theory of evolution).
Using our CityPass, we entered the museum not from the main Oxford St. entrance, but, on the advice of a docent at the Sackler Museum, through the Peabody Museum’s Divinity Street entrance. Walking up the stairs to the Peabody’s displays we were chagrinned to find that the old building lacked air-conditioning. We didn’t linger in the broiling Peabody (which is unfortunate, as I’d hoped to see some of the museum’s famous items from the Lewis & Clark expedition), but pushed on to the connected HMNH, which offered some relief by way of window air conditioners.
The first "museum within the museum" we encountered was the Mineralogical collection, featuring case after case of impressive specimens. A 1,600 pound amethyst geode from Brazil holds pride of place in the main room, but equally impressive are the meteorites in the adjacent room. Moving on to the next exhibit, we got a taste of the idiosyncrasy of Harvard’s collection. The Botanical display is undoubtedly one of the most unique in the world, consisting entirely of stunningly lifelike glass flowers commissioned by Harvard in the late 19th century and painstakingly crafted by two glass artisans, Leopold Blaschka and his son, Rudolph, who labored almost fifty years to produce some 3,000 glass specimens. This, I confess, was the last thing I’d expected to see, a tour-de-force of artistry combined with scientific accuracy. Most impressive.
The last hour of our visit was spent happily pottering through the Comparative Zoology exhibits. Here we found the expected dinosaur fossils, the most awe-inspiring being a 42-foot-long Kronosaurus and the famous "Harvard mastodon" found in New Jersey in 1844. In the hall containing whale skeletons we chatted with the enthusiastic volunteer docent about the specimens in the room. My son was delighted when she pointed out the stuffed Tasmanian Tiger-Wolf, now presumed extinct. From there she led us on an engaging tour of marsupials and other zoological oddities. Only my rumbling stomach registering a steady complaint about our long-deferred lunch prompted the end of our visit.
Harvard Museum of Natural History
26 Oxford Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
Attraction | "Charles Riverboat Tours"
For messing about in boats, there are few places that rival Boston. The placid Charles River is a place unto itself, altogether separate from the tourist crush of Faneuil Market or the Common. The sails of small boats dip and sway like so many white butterflies, sharing the water with scullers and kayakers. Along the banks of the river green parklands stretch, interspersed with boathouses and band shells, all connected by bike paths and footbridges. The cities of Boston and Cambridge lie as a backdrop on either side of the river, both more attractive places (as is usually the case) when viewed from the water.
Having a view of the Charles and its activity from our eighth-floor riverside hotel room made me long to get out on the river. When the image of a graceful riverboat on a flyer in our hotel lobby caught my attention, I made plans to take a river tour first thing the next morning.
After taking the "T" to Lechmere Station and walking to the departure point in front of the Cambridgeside Galleria, my son and I boarded the charming 64-foot Henry Longfellow, a boat especially designed to fit beneath the Charles River’s low bridges. We shared the craft with several dozen rambunctious children kept suitably in check after a lecture-cum-reprimand delivered by the gruff captain.
Not long after casting off, we were out on the river. The captain began a steady stream of refreshingly opinionated narrative about the buildings and sights in view. The Harvard boathouse, for example, he deemed "the most beautiful structure" on the river, whereas that of M.I.T. was "a building only an engineer could love." As the Hancock towers came into view, he pointed out the weather beacon atop the art deco Old Hancock Building and recited the poem Bostonians use to decipher the beacon’s colored lights:
Clear blue, clear view
Flashing blue, clouds due
Steady red, rain ahead
Flashing red, snowstorm ahead
(Or today’s Red Sox game has been cancelled!)
The story of how the Harvard Bridge was measured by M.I.T. fraternity members using a freshman pledge, one Oliver Smoot, as a yardstick, was particularly entertaining. The hapless Smoot was carried by fellow pledges, who marked off the distance every 10 "Smoots" (a Smoot being 5’ 7"). The bridge measured precisely 364.4 Smoots plus an ear. The enterprising undergrads later had the Smoot registered as an official unit of length, and to this day the bridge’s "Smoot markings" are repainted every two years. The local police even use them as reference points when filing accident reports.
The one-hour cruise ended all too soon, alas. I could easily have sat on board all day and watched the river – and the world – flow by.
Charles Riverboat Company
100 Cambridgeside Place
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02141
+1 617 621 3001
Beginning at the Common itself, McCabe, a natural-born storyteller if there ever was one, gathered the twenty some walkers around him in a conspiratorial huddle near the site of the "hanging tree" used for witches and the unorthodox during Puritan times. With obvious relish, he told the tale of Mary Dyer, a Quaker banished from the Massachusetts Colony who returned in defiance and was duly hung. (A statue commemorating this Quaker martyr stands outside the State House just opposite the Common.)
Point taken: Boston wasn’t always such a civilized place. And, indeed, the greatest terrors sometimes lurk just below civilization's surface.
By the end of the Dyer monologue, McCabe had everyone in the spirit of things (pun intended). We proceeded on to the nearby Omni Parker House Hotel, one of Boston’s most notoriously haunted venues. As I’d stayed there earlier in the week, I was especially interested in this portion of the tour. Gathering in the lobby we heard of how a guest encountered the shade of Harvey Parker himself, of a room unaccountably reeking of whisky in which an alcoholic committed suicide, and of odd happenings – rooms tidied by spectral maids and the tendency of the elevator to rise to the third floor when no one had summoned it. Then, in one of my favorite parts of the tour, we went up to the mezzanine to take a look at the Dickens Room, which contains a somewhat sinister-looking portrait of the famous author. One likes to think that it was perhaps his surroundings that suggested the ghosts in "A Christmas Carol," which he first read aloud to a group in that room.
From the Omni Parker House, the tour continued to the Athaneum, the Granary Burial Grounds, and up along Beacon Street - taking in the original "Cheers" bar, an unlikely-seeming place for a haunting - before concluding in the suitably atmospheric Central Burial Ground, where McCabe, with theatrical relish, whipped out a green glow-light and re-enacted a hapless dentist’s encounter with a pushy ghost. As the group dispersed, he bestowed a keepsake on each tour member (I won’t spoil the fun by divulging just what that keepsake is!).
I was most impressed that while McCabe started the evening with a group of disparate tourists, he quickly managed to "schmooze" us into a sociable group of eager ghost hounds. Plus, he’s a nice guy: learning that several of us were headed his way home and in need of transportation, he kindly offered us a lift. There are several companies conducting ghost tours in Boston, but this is the one I’d recommend.
New England Ghost Tours
Boston Common Visitor Center
Attraction | "The Public Garden"
Created in the 1830’s as a promenade and playground for the city’s wealthy residents, the Public Garden today combines formal botanical plantings and meandering paths. The center of the park, an irregularly shaped lagoon, is the focal point of activity, with families and lovers enjoying leisurely rides on the famous "Swan Boats," and children feeding the many ducks, geese, and real swans congregating on the banks of the lagoon. Weeping willows dip their long tresses into the water’s edge, mounted policemen clip-clop by, and elderly ladies with perfect posture sun themselves on benches. This bucolic scene is best surveyed from the whimsical "suspension bridge" (the world’s smallest) that spans the middle of the lagoon
The charms of Boston’s Public Garden have been celebrated in two famous children’s tales, Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings and E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan. Visitors (especially those with children) should keep an eye out for the small "Make Way for Ducklings" statues of Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings. Adoring parents take advantage of this perfect photo-op, their little darlings sitting astride Mrs. Mallard's back. The sculpture is also the focal point of the "Ducklings Day Parade" held annually on Mother’s Day, featuring tots dressed in duckling costumes, an "oh, how cute!" concept if ever there was one. In E.B. White’s tale, Louis the mute swan makes a name for himself accompanying the swan boats while playing on his trumpet. (He also feasts on watercress sandwiches just across the street at the Ritz Carlton, where you can have a sumptuous though pricey afternoon tea.)
On this trip I was resolved to take a ride on the Swan Boats, something I’d missed on two previous visits to Boston. A tradition since the 1870’s, the boats were invented by immigrant Robert Paget; the boat concession is still run by the Paget family. He got the idea from the scene in Wagner’s "Lohengrin" in which the hero crosses a river in a boat drawn by a swan. Each boat's stately progress around the lagoon is propelled by a single hardworking (and very fit) college student pedaling in the back. My son, who initially baulked at taking a "children’s ride." was unable to maintain his preteen guise of "too cool to care about this" as we glided serenely around the lagoon: "Look, there are two swans!" (The swans, named Romeo and Juliet, are both males, I was told.) All that was lacking from an otherwise perfect afternoon in the Public Garden was music. Where's Louis the trumpeter swan when you need him?
Boston Public Garden
Adjacent to Boston Common
My friends who live either in or outside of Boston, too, refer to the various enormous civic projects with fond derision tinged with barely-suppressed pride. On prior visits to Boston, I regarded the resulting chaos with a certain asperity (if it wasn’t finished yet, what possible good could it conceivably do me in the next few days?), but on this last trip, driving in to Boston along I-93, a route which features both hair-raising traffic and awe-inspiring views of the Big Dig construction, I resolved to do a bit of investigating while I was in town about this and other Bostonian mega projects.
What I discovered was surprising.
Boston, it seems, has a long history of ambitious civic engineering projects. Most notably, before the Big Dig there were the Big Fills. Some 360 years ago, when the town was first settled, Boston was confined to a slender finger of land jutting out into the bay, terminating in a larger area, almost an island, upon which stood three mountains. The low rise of the area that is now Beacon Hill is all that remains of the mountains today, though nearby Tremont Street's name refers to them. Starting during the late 18th century, Boston began filling in the surrounding bay to extend the harbor front. Then, as the population grew, more and more land was reclaimed from the sea in a succession of fill projects.
The three mountains were gradually carted off and dumped into nearby coves to give the overcrowded town some breathing room. Tourists strolling through present-day Quincy Market may not realize it, for example, but they are walking on what used to be the shoreline of the Boston Harbor. And, before buying into the myth that Boston’s streets were laid out along existing "cow paths," consider that the original topography of the town bears absolutely no resemblance to the city’s ultimate configuration. The streets in the oldest sections were confined to the narrow oddly-shaped peninsula; subsequent landfills proceeded erratically and irregularly, and thus Boston’s notoriously confusing street layout was born.
The most ambitious of these fill projects began in the mid 1800’s and involved filling in what is now the entire Back Bay area. I heard the same story about the filling in of the Back Bay from not just one but three people while I was in Boston. For over fifty years, day and night, 24 hours a day, gravel was brought in by railroad from Needham and westward areas, up to 3,500 railroad cars of it a day. The scope of this project alone, not to mention the many other areas that were filled (West Cove, South Cove, East Cove, Marine Park, South Boston, Charlestown, the Logan Airport area, and others) surely make the creation of Boston one of the greatest American engineering feats. To get a sense of how dramatically the land was built up, take a look at this animated page displaying the Sequence of Landfill Projects in Boston. Impressive, isn’t it? And the work continues even to this day.
Perhaps, then, it is appropriate that the city which has essentially built the very ground it stands upon, has for the past eleven years embarked on what is undoubtedly the most ambitious construction project in U.S. history. Comparisons are frequently made to the Panama Canal or the Chunnel. But, if the truth be known, the Big Dig is an elaborate form of penance for what was essentially a Big Mistake: an ill-conceived elevated six-lane highway started in the 1940’s that cut through the heart of Boston, dividing communities and becoming in short order a congested eyesore. Bogged down in community protests, it was never even completed. By the late 1990’s, the road designed to carry 75,000 vehicles a day was carrying 190,000. Accident rates on the elevated highway are four times the national average for urban interstates, and the amount of pollution spewed by the countless autos inching along the clogged central artery is almost unfathomable. The elevated highway was and is an unmitigated disaster.
Boston had little choice but to go under the city to correct the mess above it. Still, this doesn’t diminish the grandiosity of the Big Dig concept. What’s most striking is that from the onset the planners vowed to keep everything running while the underground construction proceeded simultaneously. The twelve labors of Hercules pale beside the technical challenges the Big Dig’s engineers face. For example, each of the support columns for the elevated highway lies directly in the path of the new highway tunnel. An ingenious system of "underpinning," replacing each of the 67 rows of support columns and shifting the weight to the walls of the new tunnel, has been devised. Mind you, while all this restructuring is going on, the traffic on the road above never stops. (Here near D.C., in comparison, it doesn’t seem that road crews can replace a manhole cover without closing at least three lanes of traffic!) Not until the underground expressway is completed will the elevated road be demolished and replaced by a green swath of open space with limited development. It will be, whenever it is finally completed, something worth seeing.
One specific part of the Big Dig, the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, is already clearly a masterpiece in the making. This huge asymmetrical bridge rises like a gigantic stringed instrument from the center of town, a gleaming vision of taut white cables splaying out over the river. Few structures that I’ve ever seen are as visually stunning. It is something of an irony that the best views of the new bridge are from the old one running right alongside it (and the barely-moving traffic provides plenty of time to view it). Crossing the Charlestown Bridge on foot on one occasion, I repeatedly stopped to gawk at the Zakim Bridge. What a beauty.
The engineering complexities of the Big Dig project are generally beyond my comprehension, though I got an inkling of them at a display devoted to the project at the Science Museum. After we returned from Boston, still intrigued by the project, I found an even better source of information on a website devoted to the Big Dig.
While the landfills and Big Dig are rarely mentioned in most Boston travel guides and visitor websites, these phoenix-from-the-ashes urban renewal projects are in fact just as characteristic of Boston as the Freedom Trail and the Red Sox. Next time you’re in town, set aside an hour or two to check out the progress on the Big Dig, or just ask someone about it. Any Bostonian who’s experienced the years of construction upheaval is in and of himself testimony to the hardheaded idealism that characterizes this city.
Few cities have as formidable an intellectual heritage as Boston. The images spring quickly to mind: Boston’s illustrious universities, such as Harvard and M.I.T.; Oliver Wendell Holmes, Robert Lowell and other "Boston Brahmins;" eminent philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and George Santayana; and more than its fair share of poets, playwrights, and novelists, the most famous of whom are celebrated on Boston’s "Literary Trail."
For some, Boston’s high-toned, cerebral reputation provides an easy target for that all-American pastime, intellectual bashing. Frequent references to Boston stuffiness and reserve – sometimes made by Bostonians themselves, oddly enough - zero in on the dated image of the staid, stodgy Bostonian. This is somewhat counterbalanced by that other Boston stereotype, the boastful, feisty immigrant.
When I consider Boston, however, neither bluestocking nor braggart comes into focus. I see instead a city of dreamers, extending back to the original colony of Puritans who dreamt of religious freedom. Their high-minded venture ultimately led to the larger vision of self-governance that sparked the American Revolution. Scarcely had the echoes of the Revolution died than a new cry took up the cause of Abolition, and Faneuil Hall rang with the fiery speeches of William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Sumner, and Frederick Douglass. Then, beginning in the 1840’s, the dreams of immigrants held sway, as waves of Irish, German, Italian and other newcomers made Boston the second-largest port of entry, surpassed only by New York.
While dreams of freedom have fueled Boston’s growth and defined its character, the general atmosphere of excitement, bustle, and promise have nurtured dreamers in all manner of fields, contributing to what has been referred to as Boston’s "culture of invention." The list of well-known Boston-based inventors and their inventions is legion: Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone, Elias Howe and the sewing machine, Edward Land and the Polaroid camera, Percy Spencer and the microwave oven, and King Gillette and the safety razor are only a few. Equally impressive are the results of private and academic-based research groups which developed the first programmable computers (the Mark I) and the ARPANET technology which made possible the Internet and e-mail. And let us not neglect the medical pioneers: the smallpox vaccine, general anesthesia, organ transplant, chemotherapy, and genetically engineered mice are some of the better-known Boston breakthroughs.
But it is Boston’s affinity for civic-minded institutions and related civic reforms that to me best typifies the spirit of the city. Paul Revere was not just the man who gave the alarm, "The British are coming!" He was also the first chairman of Boston’s Board of Health. Boston’s city fathers were among the first to foresee the need for an organized volunteer fire department, with local ironmaker Joseph Jynks developing an "ingine" to pump water onto flames. The nation’s first commercial bank, the Massachusetts Bank (now Fleet Boston Financial), was established in 1784 in Boston, providing the capital needed for local merchants and, not coincidentally, giving the newly formed country greater financial independence from England.
Many of Boston’s best-known buildings and structures are likewise testimony to the laudable visions of civic-minded Bostonians. One early benefactor, the wealthy merchant Peter Faneuil, seeing the need for a public market, built Faneuil Hall as a gift to the town. It is interesting that it served both as a market and public meeting hall, a typically Bostonian fusion of commerce and community. The hall was twice expanded in the 19th century to accommodate larger and larger meetings and today stands at the head of the vibrant Quincy Market complex. The State House, which Oliver Wendell Holmes proclaimed "the hub of the solar system," was built on land donated by another Boston benefactor, John Hancock. The young public-spirited architect Charles Bulfinch designed the building, which later became a model for the U.S. Capitol. In Copley Square stands another great civic building, The Boston Public Library, which was America’s first free municipal library. The magnificent marble structure was conceived by architect Charles McKim as a "palace for the people."
Everywhere I turned in Boston, I saw evidence of the public-spirited visionaries who shaped the city. Clear-eyed practicality and Yankee ingenuity combined with aspirations of an ideal city and society, with sometimes chaotic (viz: the Big Dig) but nearly always well-intentioned results. Furthermore, most Bostonians believe and participate in these urban dreams in some way. Starting with pre-Revolutionary acts of defiance such as the Boston Teaparty, Bostonians have time and again expressed their willingness to make sacrifices for the greater civic good. As sociologists and scholars today bemoan the rise of the "bowling alone" phenomenon and the decline of community spirit, they would do well to consider Boston, where civic participation and the dream of community still flourish, as a model.