Back to Boston

I went back to Boston for the first time since the early 1990s for the American Literature Association. I was bowled over by the changes in my home town in the last fifteen years. I walked about a fair piece, mostly in the Back Bay and South End. These were the neighborhoods that I hung around in as a kid and young adult: it is the “scene of the crime.” One morning, the day I read my paper I woke up early to proofread my presentation one last time and I went to a park on West Newton Street and worked on a park bench.

I left Boston in 1979 and more or less severed all emotional ties with the place, or so I thought. “Boston Sewer” is how I simplified things, melting adolescence, racism, segregation, self-centered (and imagined) betrayals. I’ve spent 26 years gleaning negative reports about Boston, its environs and inhabitants. (My favorite is pointing out to people who say they are from Boston that they are actually from the vanilla suburbs). Going back I found that it was much more complicated.

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I walked all around the old neighborhood and looked the changes. After I worked over my paper I walked back up to the Back Bay, sat in front of my old High School and spontaneously wrote the following:

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In one of the Star Trek Movies they seed a barren planet with some sort of super-mutant-DNA-bomb, with Spock as the yolk, turning the stone sphere into a lush tropical paradise in minutes. There is a similar phenomenon occurring in Boston [and I guess New York which I haven’t noticed because I live here]. Rather than the the genesis bomb, they’ve dropped the wealth bomb. Like the planet, the basic geography and contours have not changed, but on each of the surfaces, details, and facets you can see the wealth crystallize and accrete. It is hard to say how it started; perhaps the sidewalks spontaneously turned to brick and the streets to cobblestones. Maybe the depressing, functional gray-steel mercury vapor streetlamps of the 1970s began to melt: past the beaux-artes -street-poles of Paris they stopped at the neo-colonial-stained -glass-gas-lamps that I could imagine Ben Franklin lighting, if it weren’t for their hermetically sealed computer ignition systems.

It is like Boston got beaten with the rich stick. Charitably the metaphor would be like a coppersmith hammering a rod into a beautiful plate or piece of jewelry. You can see the patina of wealth on every surface, whether it dates from 3oo years ago or the 1970s. The stone and brick has been cleaned so the black church I went into in the 1970s is now beautiful shades of honey and dusk. Trinity across the Square is “Pink granite [and] Longmeadow sandstone.”

Uncharitably it is like “the ugly stick” that they beat “yo’ Mama” with in the HS locker-room. The rich have money , style (of a sort) and class (which they get to define), but they don’t have taste. Wealth is like the ugly stick because of the garish repetition of before (what’s worked before).

As I sat on the bench in front of my old HS, a place where I had made out and been beaten up (thank god I’ve grown up), I was taken by the hyper-rich character of Newbury Street, which was never that poor. I watched the city wake up from there, a black man selling newspapers on the street, a white woman collecting cans (she turned up the bottle of tequila in the garbage with a corner left in it) and checking phones for uncollected change.

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By 7 ivy league t-shirts drew their owners out for runs to and from the public gardens. By 8 I saw a few extremely well healed older women hop out of double parked Scandinavian cars to get coffee and pastries from Starbuck’s (It’s own kind of viral wealth-growth). I wore less make-up and less elaborate costumes when I played Gandolf in Ms. Tisset’s theater program than these women did. The cobblestones didn’t slow either of them down when they walked over on the 4″ heeled pumps that looked like stilts that early on a Sunday morning. These are my first impressions of one morning on the corner of Newbury and Dartmouth Street in 2007. south-end-bancroft-school-3945-small.jpg

Before this I had walked around the South End, which sharpened my feeling of alienation. Now I know that I am part of the gentrification of the South End. My parents, my family, our commune (or boarders) were part of what changed the tenor of the neighborhood. As I recall fondly the friends I made, the adults that lived there and were kind to me as a child and adolescent (and being kind to adolescents is not easy), I realize that our presence on the block was part of why Tommy Thompson can no longer live there with his two dogs and a motorcycle. I wonder if any of the working class people (or their descendants) who lived on the block before we moved in still hold the titles? When the good intentioned hippies and artists move in, the rents will soon reach escape velocity and become astronomical.

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Home

But there were those years when kids and their families could afford these old houses and have lots of space. Some had more, others had less (I wonder if the Coles are still renovating their house on Rutland Sq?). It was a good childhood, and I can only think fondly of the people and times. I hope I haven’t written anything here that is untrue or unkind. I’ll end with Ben’s e-mail and poem. I have to say I am of the same ambivalent opinion.

Maybe it’s only the inexorable creep of money, but the South End and all of Boston looks great. Actually, it smells, tastes, sounds and feels better too.

You can ride the urban rocket
so long as coin is in your pocket

But if you can’t pay the fare
get the fuck on out of there.


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19 responses to “Back to Boston

  1. gentrification happens, indeed. intensely felt, acutely observed, and filtered through some damn fine writing. love the pictures– both photographic and word. wonder if this tendency to see the ’70s of our childhoods in gritty kodachrome versus the HD of the present day is generational?

  2. It was like when I went back to Berkeley after I moved here: everything is familiar, but alien. It is all laquered away under a patina of wealth, distance and time. My memories are as dust bunnies scurrying from the driven yuppies who now rule the roost.

  3. Hate to be out in front, but everything you mention was evident in`1979. You couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
    I only liveda couple of blocks away(across Mass. Ave) but I and others that lived in da projects saw the changing landscape as early as 75′. When you get black teens talking about gentrification and how it sucks and what you gonna do about it.
    Some white folks got robbed in an effort to get them to change their mind about living in the South End…….it didn’t work.

  4. Interesting stuff. Yet perhaps I know the author too well, having been at his side throughout the 70s. Changes to the South End I can see. Changes in the author, profound and personal, occuring something around 1979, are a more compelling mystery. That story I would like to hear.

    Love the post’s close! To have my scribblings recieve a lateral promotion form obscurity–by a man of letters no less–is an honor.

    Your pal,
    Ben

  5. I seriously doubt that I would have survived the 1970s, especially the year in question 1979, without the aid and comfort of the two previous responders. I wrote so much here and I really haven’t covered the subject. Nothing -no words- can really tell you about another man’s heart. I try because I’m vain.

    Now Wade might have seen it coming, but I doubt he could have guessed at the scope of the phenomenon: The whole place feels like it was done over by Louis.
    http://www.louisboston.com/

  6. Michelle Davis

    Well, I’ve stayed in Boston and for the most part appreciate the influx of people (which probably goes along with the money). I think the populations was down to about 500,000 or so in the 1970s and I think it’s up toward the 800,000 mark . You are right about money paving the cobbled stone roads. I wish that money had made it’s way to the school system, which remains less then adequate.

    Whatever happened to Tommy Thompson? I have many fond and foggy memories of listening to James Brown, dancing and drinking at his house. Retrospectively, it seems a little creepy that a grown man would let all these teenagers crash in his pad; however, he was always the consumate gentleman and probably kept us out of trouble.

    About the racsim issue. It’s the one thing that really continues to trouble me about this city. I go to other cities and there’s more integration and socializing between people. For a bastion of liberalism, this city is “cold.” And I mean that in every sense of the word.

    Finally, I remember Stafford as my little brother’s friend. I should have paid more attention to him back then because obviously he’s grown into a thoughtful and interesting person.

    Ben’s older sister signing off.

  7. While I’m glad I left, and sad that I have lugged around resentments for all these years (28 and counting), going back was a strangely liberating thing. I thought of Tommy when I saw that Emile’s house hadn’t been renovated. He was alwasy nice to me and Ben abd all of the kids. He was a happy drunk. There was an ol’ coot named Ricky, a toothless Italian AMerican WWII vet who let all of us get high and drunk in his basement apartment on Columbus (Me and Ben’s generation). SO I guess that the South End had drunken doyens to show adolescents the low-life in a positive manner.
    I could feel teh vibe of segregation as I walked around, though it is not as violent as it was in the 70’s. My brother Jerry, who lives in Belmont, used an anlogy of when he moved to Maryland in the 1960s as a teenager: whites would get angry and then realize that he wasn’t a southern black, so they’d cut him some slack. I wasn’t cut out to be a Boston black (especially one without an education and an upwardly mobile trajectory like I had through the 1980s).
    Frankly, had you paid more attention to me, you probably wouldn’t be talking to me today. The fact that Matt and Ben are still my friends is one of the blessings of my life (I was/am such a jerk sometimes).

  8. There once was a boy from Boston’s South End
    Who befriended a effette lad named Ben
    The boy upped and moved to New York
    Where he became quite a literary Dork
    And now writes essays about “Remember When?”

    Okay, so I need a rhyming dictionary and a whole lot more. But I very much enjoyed your spot on essay and Wade’s revealing comment.

    Ah … to be listening to Earth Wind & Fire on a hot summer day….

  9. Yeah, It’s funny thinking back on the way-back machine. While I am a bit morbidly reflective, and obsessed with journaling my (ever so important) life experiences and observations. I think it is good what Michelle (and you and Ben) do, keep in touch with the old ‘hood (Owen Donovan, Bobby Webber, Chris Coombs, Danny Azzariti, JoJo Salami, and Jimmy Mochiolli). Hanging out as Jimmy shaved his world famous 70s ‘fro and we’ve all aged, bloated and sagged, must keep you from the morbid nostalgia I felt last weekend. Of course teaching at LaGuardia CC, being in the fetid pool of hormones that a college can be, also makes me glad to have survived to middle age. SO Listening to Earth Wind and Fire is nice, but god help me if I had to survive on a diet of Kanye West (whom I like) and Mariah Carey (whom I don’t), I’m sure I’d go postal. I think I’ll break out my Spinners CDs and swoon away tonight.

    The lawyer Davis faced damnation
    Always he avoided th’ Bar Association
    Though he was fly
    With his sporty bow tie
    His style didn’t equal salvation

    And it is not particularly surprising you guys can stomach my blahblahblah because I’m basically coming out of my 28-year-old-hissy-fit. Thanks for putting up with my sanctimonious ass for so long.

  10. what a beautiful portrait. Stafford, as always the writing is perfect the tone- spot on. Also everyone’s comments finished the scene. a pure pleasure to read.

  11. Thanks for your kind words. “I’m UNworthy”! The comments, in many cases, are from from dear friends from my youth. Who’d have thought so many people who mean so much to me would read it. Gratifying.

  12. “the wealth bomb” LOL

    nice one. i think that was called the Genesis project. it’s a killer metaphor. especially because in the next movie it turned into this lush rainforest paradise but then proved fatally unstable; by the end of the movie the whole planet was shaking to pieces like a cheap breakapart condominium built atop a toxic brownfield. or the Arris Lofts still overpriced and empty in the shadow of the Citibank tower.

  13. Funny. I think I was so blinded by the glare of the obscene wealth of my home town that I forgot that I am supposed to “hate” (as in be a hater) the faulty inequalities of late stage capitalism. Of course, as my friends from the way-back machine above and I lived through the rougher parts of the (de-)evolution from working class to rich, I cannot be entirely negative about the weathification of Boston, though, of course, none of us can afford to live their anymore, and we’re all successful!

  14. Just to add to the understanding of the Boston transformation: My wife and I moved our little family into the Boston suburbs in late 1979 and worked diligently to keep all the wealth from seeping from Boston out into the suburbs. It was an uphill fight but the politicians were all on our side and we were fairly successful. Enough so that when our oldest child, Ashley, decided to move into the Boston environs after high school, she was able to move from one little space to another (always with her kind father’s semi-muscular assistance), shocking us with how little one can get for so much; that is, until she moved into the Upper East Side of Manhattan to live with another young woman in a walk-up (five tight flights) that probably had a total of three or four hundred square feet priced at a king’s ransom per square inch. (Thank God that itch got scratched out in quick order.)
    Since there wasn’t sufficient money in the suburbs to support yet another starving attorney, I changed careers and we moved to the exurbs of New Hampshire.
    Your looking back over decades of change has happened to almost everyone, I would guess, who has moved and not gone back for a long time. In much of the world, particularly in the U.S. the accretion of wealth, pretty much at all levels has gone on unabated. Vast new commercial areas; ever nicer housing developments, technology, … Thomas Wolfe the Elder was right; Home is gone.
    In the way of thanks: What you and so many did in changing Boston for the better will be the basis for ever more changes and, we could hope, improvements, though we might not understand or appreciate them (at all at all sometimes).
    As for the ethnic/cultural/racial thing: I grew up in an enforced STRICTLY European-descent culture in western Kansas, moved around in college, military and law school and ended up working for Raytheon for almost twenty years, at times closely tied to people of other cultures, at times completely apart. Strikingly in Andover, Massachusetts I worked in a giant plant that was nearly all (~96-97%) Euro. We nearly all ate in the same cafeteria and didn’t have any reason not to eat all together, but we continued to be almost completely segregated, apparently by mutual choice, with, of course, numerous exceptions. And, yes, I have to agree with Michelle: There is a cultural coldness to “Boston”. All I can conclude is: Idiots abound–no reflection, of course, on the ‘Boston Irish Mafia’ I married into.

  15. Thanks Frank,

    When I moved to NYC, they year you moved to the ‘burbs of Boston, ’79 I paid $218.00 a month, three blocks from Gramercy Park (I had to live in Manhattan then). I love living in queens (Sunnyside, 11104) now, and actually I don’t want to be at the center of things now, though a short subway ride is fine.
    Two of the people I had dinner with when I was home (I am a native son of the bay state) told me that they didn’t like coming into “the city” (from Cambridge and Belmont). 20 years ago that distinction would have been laughable, to day I get it completely. When I go into Manhattan I find it -hurm- forced. The people who are there naturally (pre-existing tenants, as opposed to the college educated immigrants who are driving up the costs) seem a bit perflummoxed by the shape of it now. The people I’m blaming for the wealth and prosperity remind me of kids in Disneyland, amazed at the possibilities.

  16. By the way, Stafford, did you grow up near the old Sears store? If so, then I do have my bearings to some extent. Am also awaiting the news that your muse has re-arisen.

  17. Does anyone know Copley Square High School? If so , do you know the name of the principal in 1985?

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