Us vs. Them: The Appeal of the Urban Idea

Happy New Year’s everyone! I realize that a lot of the topics that I have discussed and will discuss will be sometimes confrontational and often something of a downer. I will discuss the things that break us apart as a city, the things that make us separate and different.

So, in the spirit of the New Year, I’ve decided to start 2011 off on a lighter note and discuss the one sure thing that brings us (the target audience of this site, that is) together: living here. And beyond living here, folks our age have, for the most part, chosen to be here. Some of us have grown up here and chosen to stay, some are here for school, others for work, or family. But all of us are here and not somewhere else and, regardless the of the reason: there is a reason. These reasons are what I’d like to explore with you in this article and I hope you’ll share your own reasons as well.

Recently I came upon a beautiful description of the reasons one chooses to live or stay here written by a far more eloquent Dorchester native, Dennis Lehane. In his new novel, Moonlight Mile, he considers that… (sorry for the long quote)”

“..More than one friend had suggested we move to the suburbs — homes were cheaper, schools were safer, property taxes and car insurance premiums were lower.

[We] grew up together in the city, though. We took to picket fences and split-level ranches like we took to shag carpeting and Ultimate Fighting. Which is to say, not so much. … I prefer subways — you pop down the hole on one side of the city, pop back up on the other side, and you never have to hit your horn, not once. I don’t like mowing lawns or trimming hedges or raking the mowed lawns or the hedge trimmings. I don’t like going to malls or eating in chain restaurants. In fact, the appeal of the suburban idea — both in a general and particular sense — escapes me.

I like the sound of jackhammers, the bleat of sirens in the night, twenty-four hour diners, graffiti, coffee served in cardboard cups, steam exhaled through manhole covers, cobblestone, tabloid newspapers, the Citgo sign, someone yelling “Tax-i” on a cold night, corner boys, sidewalk art, Irish pubs, and guys named Sal.

Not much of which I can find in the suburbs, at least not to the degree I’ve grown accustomed to…

So we decided to raise our child in the city. We bought a small house on a decent street. It has a tiny yard and it’s a short walk to a playground (short walk to a pretty hairy housing project, too, but that’s another matter). We know most of our neighbors and [my daughter] can already name five subway stops on the Red Line, in order, a feat which fills her old man with bottomless pride.”

None of the things Lehane recounts are of any real importance and certainly not things you’ll hear described in the real estate pages trying to bring people into Boston, but I have to say, I’m right with him. I have often talked about living elsewhere, traveling the globe, but the thought of raising a child anywhere but Boston (or a city like it) has never entered my mind.

I went to a high school (the same as Mr. Lehane in fact) that attracted kids from all across the state, and a good majority came from the epitome of this suburban ideal. I would sometimes visit their massive South or North Shore houses and marvel at the size of them, the expanses of land, the pools, the cars, the giant TVs, and the sheer distance between neighboring houses (particularly important during a party). But, in the end, I wouldn’t trade my hometown or upbringing for anyone else’s.

There’s something special about growing up in Boston. What it lacks in space, it makes up for in

character. Everyone has a grandfather or an uncle or a cousin who grew up in Southie or Dorchester (it seems), but no matter what neighborhood you grew up in, despite these huge differences, most of us have no problem identifying who actually grew up here. The character is unlike anything else. I love that about Boston. I love that our streets reserve the right to stop being themselves then pick up again three blocks over. I love that our pubs have more history than most city hall’s. I love that we have two JJ Foley’s and zero Walmarts. I love that Fenway has only a handful of seats that face the action, but isstill the best place in the world to watch a baseball game. I love that wherever you are in the city, you can probably walk home if you really had to. I love that even though we may have the worst architecture, there is no beating the 360 skyline view from the Mass Ave Bridge on a cold winter night. I love all of the different neighborhoods and blocks and corners. I love how different they can be from the ones across town, but still have that same character. This character, this appeal of the urban idea, is what has kept me here.

What has kept you here?



  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ONEin3 Boston and Meg. Meg said: BIG fan of today's @ONEin3 — esp for the great Lehane quote. Us vs. Them: The Appeal of the Urban Idea [...]

  2. MarkB says:

    Its’ a shame that all the ‘guys named Sal’ moved out of the city a generation ago. Or more. How, exactly, is all this different from Yuppie affectation? When I was growing up in Boston, my parents shopped at Zayre’s - a smaller version of WalMart. The WalMart thing is pure yuppie down-your-nose classism. We took the subway when we had to - not as a badge of virtue. And last time I was in Foley’s, it was full of suburban office workers and tourists. Just sayin.’

  3. Devin Cole says:

    MarkB, there’s a City Councillor named Sal LaMattina. He lives in Eastie. Does that count?

  4. Sal D. says:

    Hi Mark B,

    I’m a Sal, and I have a son Sal Jr. and we live in East Boston. Sal LaMattina is our city councilor, and the North End is full of Sal’s. So some of us are left in the city :)

  5. Chico says:

    Funny, I’ve never seen Dennis Lehane on the Red Line.

    I’m on my way out of Boston for the following reasons:

    1. Tired of looking over my shoulder for teenage thugs when I walk out of my house,
    2. Noise at all hours from Section 8 tenants next door,
    3. City is run like a dictatorship - average resident has no voice in politics with small powerless City Council, and City Hall is run for the benefit of the people that work there.
    4. My property taxes flow from my neighborhood to downtown for the further beautification of “Bostonland” for tourists and the Vault. Police coverage is grossly imbalanced to protect Back Bay and downtown, to the detriment of the resulting “high-crime” neighborhoods.

  6. TimSmith says:

    MarkB, I can appreciate your sentiment as the way you see the city is different than the way I see it. That’s great, and I want to hear other people’s views.

    I have to say, though, that I don’t really understand the ‘Yuppie Affectation’ characterization that you brandished me with. As someone who is born, raised, and currently lives in Dorchester and works for around the poverty line — Yuppie wouldn’t exactly be the right label. The mention of Walmart (for instance) in relation to JJ Foleys (for instance) was to accentuate the difference between multi-national chain conglomerates that take money out of a community vs. a family-run business with a long history in Boston. I think that’s the very opposite of classism. Not looking down my nose at anyone, just trying to look out for the working class folks in my neighborhood that benefit doing business locally. And maybe you should go in there when I go in there, because the only tourists I generally see in there are from County Cork.

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