Comment: Boston -- reflect and remember

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

BOSTON -- Shssh. You cannot walk this patch of earth and speak in anything but a whisper.

The setting, right here beside one of the great municipal libraries in the world, makes it imperative. The accumulation of memorials, right here in the square, makes it unavoidable. The story of what happened here, only two months ago, makes it mandatory to speak with respect and restraint.

We are speaking -- no, we are whispering -- about the exact spot where the two bombs went off this spring, it being unnecessary to specify which bombs and what they meant, to Boston, to all of us. The area has become a shrine, hallowed by tragedy, sanctified by memory. Today the site of where the Boston Massacre occurred in 1770 is known mostly by specialists and park rangers (it's the intersection of Devonshire and State streets). But everybody knows where the Patriots' Day bombs went off.

Boston reveres its history, even if it isn't always sure where it happened. (Try to find the location of the Boston Tea Party and call me, collect, if you are sure you've identified it.) The Patriots' Day bombing is already part of Boston, the emblems bellowing "Boston Strong" painted on the fabled left-field wall of Fenway Park and on tens of thousands of T-shirts and banners. For a new generation, this was the Boston Massacre.

But Boston isn't only defined by history. It is also ruled by geography, and though on the east it is bordered by the sea, and by the boundless openness the ocean provides to the world, on three sides it is bound by parochialism, windows closed to change and then locked firmly. It is at once a city of great change and the capital of resistance to change, one of the many contradictions that make it endlessly fascinating -- and endlessly frustrating.

Boston may think of itself as the Hub of the Universe (the phrase is attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes), but the emphasis is on the hub (itself) rather than on the universe beyond it (terra incognita, and thus terrifying, or merely uninteresting).

"To those of us who know it and are part of it," John P. Marquand wrote in his 1937 masterpiece "The Late George Apley," probably the quintessential portrait of stodgy Boston and also probably my favorite book, "there is nothing unnatural in the preoccupation of a Bostonian with his environment; for order -- so lamentably lacking in other cities -- tends to make him so completely at home and so contented with his social group that he is unhappy in any other."

Which is why when my brother (born Salem, Mass., 1958) announced that he would go to Hawaii on his honeymoon, my father (born Salem, Mass., 1925), quite reasonably to his way of thinking, asked him why he wanted to travel so far to go to the beach, there being a perfectly fine beach just down the street.

Bostonians may not leave the city -- I did, happily I might add, but my three siblings didn't, two of them living within a mile of where we grew up, having breakfast every morning with their high school classmates. But millions flock to Boston, and not only (as Dave Loggins sang in his iconic 1974 song) in the springtime.

The city is one of the great tourist magnets of North America, it being chock full of historical sites, literary monuments, educational institutions and artistic treasures. Plus the food, the bounty of the water that brought so many immigrants to Boston and that so defined the city, from John Winthrop's "city-upon-a-hill" sermon aboard the Arabella in 1630 (rooted in the Book of Matthew and borrowed by John F. Kennedy in 1961 and then again by Ronald Reagan in 1984 and 1989) to "Dirty Water" (The Standells' unforgettable and perhaps unforgivable anthem released in 1966).

"Tradition is deep in the Boston scene -- thank God for it (and the Cabots and the Lodges, too)," wrote Joseph E. Garland, whose books chronicle the upper class of Boston, the sea, and of course the connection between the two, "and your true Bostonian knows the difference between reverence and respect."

To clarify: The correct outlook at the Tremont Street site is respect. The reverence is for the place, not even for the heroism displayed there. Overall, however, reverence is best expressed at Faneuil Hall, which since 1742 has been Boston's signature meeting hall. Or on Beacon Hill, standing before the Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial, Augustus Saint-Gaudens' breathtaking bronze high-relief tribute to the African-American Civil War regiment led by Shaw.

Even with all this respect and reverence, the town -- the Olde Towne, as it is sometimes called, mostly by the less creative knights of the keyboard (Ted Williams' phrase) in the press box at Fenway Park -- has changed so much in the past quarter century, which -- and again a whisper is required here, for fear of starting an insurrection -- is a good thing.

That change is principally the work of immigrants, who remade the place four times, maybe more, since its founding.

The great changes came first with the Pilgrims and Puritans, who immigrated for religious freedom but mostly denied it to others; then with the Irish, who fled the potato blight, fought implacable prejudice and then prevailed, with a long string of mayors, one Kennedy ambassador (two if you count Caroline, soon to be off to Japan), two Kennedy senators (three if you count Bobby, from New York), three Kennedy House members, and one Kennedy president; then with the immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, who contributed one Greek senator (Paul E. Tsongas) and one Greek governor (Michael S. Dukakis) plus one Italian mayor (Tom Menino, soon to retire after a star turn at City Hall) and many prominent Jews; and finally with the immigrants from Asia, Africa and Latin America (who have added immeasurably to the city's growth and appeal in recent decades).

In his "Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England," Ralph Waldo Emerson, himself a symbol of an important strain in 19th-century Boston, at once utopian and skeptical, wrote: "There are always two parties, the party of the Past and the party of the Future; the Establishment and the Movement."

Maybe so, though often the parallel lines of the two have converged. During the various rebellions of the 1960s, for example, members of the Establishment, especially those rooted at Harvard and MIT, were in fact leaders of the (anti-war) Movement.

Nothing about the place is easy, including its citizenry. Boston Strong, yes. Boston strong-willed, emphatically so.


David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1890).


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?