Great Cities: Boston

by John Spragge

After spending years in the United States and Canada, for most of my life in the eastern part of the continent, I have come to the conclusion this part of the world has many big cities, but only two truly great cities: Boston and Toronto. By great, I mean cities large enough to have the variety which gives a city its soul, making the life of the city equal or more than equal to the sum of the lives lived in them. Put simply, I mean cities that can bear comparison with great European cities such as London, Paris, and Amsterdam.

My wife taught me an old saying from Canada's maritime provinces: "you'll die a fool if you've never been to Boston". A year living and working in "the Hub", as the citizens of Boston call it, has taught me that, and something else: having lived in Boston for any length of time, you will lose a part of your heart to it forever. I have never met anyone who had lived in Boston who could not name all the faults of Boston: the murderous traffic, the insufferably cocky attitude of a city that thinks itself the hub of the universe, the absurd layout of the streets, and who didn't love the place with a passion.

For all Boston's faults, it has a central virtue: it knows itself. The city founded by pilgrims with attitude, determined to create the New Jerusalem and convinced they could do it; the cradle of the American revolution; the great gateway shaped by centuries of migration from throughout the world; the Athens of North America; the people of Boston have never doubted they have a place in the world, that they have something to give.

That sense of belonging both in history and in the present makes Boston able to assert itself with a sometimes infuriating cockiness at the same time as Bostonians can genuinely laugh at themselves. Boston drivers have the worst reputation on the East coast, and they earn every word of it, but Boston also has a comprehensive and efficient public transit system, including a street railway which, like all street railways, stands as a visible sign for a deeper sense that cities belong to people, rather than cars.  Boston traffic moves at the same glacial pace as the huge project for relieving traffic, the central artery project which Bostonians lampoon as the "big dig", a project they appear never to expect to finish. Meanwhile, they board the "T" and ride into town, enjoying the advantages of having tamed the car, a considerable feat in a country where the construction of expressways has devastated cities in ways even Genghis Kahn couldn't have imagined.

The most positive manifestation of the Bostonians' sense of their place, their willingness to preserve the historic landmarks of their city, has left Boston a far more handsome place than many North American cities. The inhabitants of many cities show their contempt for history and their own place in the world by continually tearing down their cities; any excuse will suffice to crank up the bulldozers. In some North American cities, if the bulldozers can't tear things down fast enough, the inhabitants express themselves through arson. Bostonians think far too much of themselves, their city, and its heritage to do anything like this, and as a result they have a very handsome, in some places stunningly beautiful, city.

The confidence which has preserved the beauty of Boston has also collected a stunning variety of intellectual and cultural resources. When I lived in Boston, I belonged to the Museum of Fine Arts: if Tolkein's greedy dragon "Smaug" had seen a treasure house like that, he would have abandoned his stolen hoard, closed up shop, and applied for social assistance. The Museum of Fine Arts collects the arts from around the world, and preserves the best from American and New England art and industry. Their collection includes models from the McKay clippers, the great sailing ships built in Boston with names that ring through marine history: Flying Cloud, Young America, Great Republic; possibly the most beautiful things human hands ever produced. But the intellectual and cultural resources of Boston do not derive from mere preservation or collection: with 17 Universities and Colleges, the famous "128 loop" collection of research companies, and some of the most respected journals in the world, Boston's culture continually renews itself.

Boston expresses much of the best in the American character: a sense of optimism, and a sense of generosity. Boston's history has confirmed, time and time again, that Boston has something to offer the world, and Bostonians have not stinted with the gift. At the same time, Boston has the vices which go with its virtues, when self confidence falls over into arrogance, and when the certainty of Boston's own identity shades into intolerance of other people's. Yet I have never met anyone who knows Boston who did not think the faults an acceptable price for Boston's virtues. Boston's success matters because it shows that a dream can produce greatness; not perhaps the greatness the original dreamers intended, but a greatness that the citizens of the city can hand down as a living inheritance through the generations.

John Spragge is a Canadian software developer presently living in Michigan.