"He reports the American joke correctly," Mark Twain begins in his essay, "What Paul Bourget Thinks of Us." "In Boston they ask, How much does he know? in New York, How much is he worth? in Philadelphia, Who were his parents?"
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.