Field Report:
Boston — Home of the Bean and the Cod: And Many Other Things, too ... Boston, MA

Diana, MaceVindaloo, Diasala, Zit, SuSu

You might remember a ditty about this most historic of American cities:

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Cabots speak only to the Lowells,
And the Lowells speak only with God.

This shouldn't surprise anyone who's studied pre-Revolutionary American history at any time. We were taught in grade school about the Puritans arriving here, doing a poor job of survival until a native American taught them how to plant corn, etc. And how as the colony prospered, the inherited concept of hierarchy took root so that there was a very dry "holier than thou" attitude throughout the colony. And then there were Boston Brahmins, families so snooty that they weren't satisfied with simply being richer than everyone else, but they claimed to be a stronger moral fiber and smarter and have connections with Harvard University ... and thus they could walk and talk with God directly ... Blahblahblah.

It's useful to keep in mind that this is a very old city, built back in the time when it was not uncommon for people to live and die never having left an area further than they could walk; horses and boats were expensive, and anyway, all communications to England (which was considered "home" for many generations) depended on harbor traffic. These were English people and they imported peas, tea, fabrics, etc. to emulate the life they left behind.

So it's again no surprise that there is a distinctive post-Medieval Londony type of feel to some areas of this city, with cobblestoned streets, hilly, curving streets, building built flush to the walkway (instead of set back a bit), and limited height to the older constructions. For those of us who lived during the American bicentenniel, Boston and Philadelphia got a lot of publicity for their key roles ... and thus we tend to romanticize these places. It's a big industry for tourism!

In fact, downtown Boston is ideal for tourism these days and there seems to be a big "skin the tourists" type of boom, with many a tour available, both walking and riding. And you can find it all within walking distance of the market square.

Like many early towns, Boston was build with a sort of town square or palazza concept with a town center, where markets for just about everything would be set up and taken down daily, where business could be conducted, etc. Fanueil Hall and Quincy Market — two buildings which were always used for markets — are the core of the square. There are shops galore on every level, and buildings on the perimeter are also packed with shops for food, clothing, all kinds of tchotchke. There are many music and performance buskers, and at the edge of this sort of palazza on the Government Center side, the Big Apple Circus was in residence! It really is constructed and retained as an old-fashioned city.

And because they're old, driving can be a nightmare on these streets which were created for horse and carriage. There is something nicknamed "the Big Dig" which has been going on for over a decade now. The idea is to excavate and put many traffic pathways and public transportation features underground. At the same time, residential construction is going on in the wharf/harbor areas to feed the unstoppable need for higher quality housing as executives who work downtown prefer to live here too, at least during the week.

There is a long tradition of "townhouse" versus "country house." Part of this tendency has to do with the nickname for this state: "Taxachusetts." If you have a home in, say, New Hampshire, you are charged income tax based on where your primary domicile may be. Since New Hampshire does not have personal income tax charges, you end up not paying those on what you get paid. Thus, the result is a big commuter traffic jam, in and out of the city bracketing weekends and long holiday periods.

The Big Dig is purported to be the largest excavation in the world. This always brings up arguments about larger digs (the English-French Chunnel, for instance), but we are talking about an open excavation, not a burrowing or tunneling project. In addition, because Boston has been occupied by humans for so long, there are myriad archeological and civil engineering nightmares awaiting every time another shovel of dirt is upturned. Other cities have gotten around this by simply digging deeper than the occupied depth, but that's difficult to do in an old wharf city, where water pressure can make for interesting hazards.

Anyway, the gentrification of the wharf areas has resulted in many public projects like parks and walks, and other things like museums being built or suddenly improved. There are also piggyback tourist features, like the aforementioned guided tours. For example, next to the New England Aquarium is the Whale Watch boat tour; in front of the Museum of Science is the Duck Tour, which takes an old open-topped amphibious vehicle with the capacity of a small bus. You drive around Boston (it's a small town, it doesn't take too long), then you plunge into the Charles River and return to the Museum!

Adjacent to Boston is Cambridge, which prides itself in housing Harvard University and MIT. There are many other colleges and universities here, for the Puritans — for all their faults — believed in education of their masses. In fact, the concept of the public education of a minor being a "right" came from this colony, where churches would solicit money for the education of children, regardless of their parents' income.

Near the other school (Boston University, which was notorious a few decades back for having a president who kept exclaiming / sputtering, "We're just as good as that other school across the river!" Yeah ... protesting too much never convinces anyone ...) is Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. This city loves this team so passionately that they refer to losses of post-season games as "heartbreaks." The legend is that when Babe Ruth was traded to the Yankees, a curse was put on the BoSox, so they couldn't win a World Series. They finally broke the spell in 2005, and so engrained is the curse on Bostoners that a MasterCard commercial was made where "they" came to collect all the things Bostonians swore they'd trade for a Red Sox win ... like their first born ... or in comedian's Denis Leary's case, their left testicle. And when the collection men came, Bostonians willingly paid up (at least, according to the commercial).

The colored lights on top of the old Hancock Building (there are two, a new one and an old one) will let you know the weather (pronounced here as "weh-thah"):

Solid blue — clear view
Flashing blue — clouds due
Solid red — rain ahead
Flashing red — snow instead

The exception to this smoke-signal style messaging is during baseball season, where a flashing red means the Red Sox game was rained out (shouldn't be snowin' in summah anyhow!) So, not only do Bostonians need some indication of what the weather will be like today (it is mercurial, for sure, in the true American tradition) but also whether their team had played today or not. (Knowing that it's raining is not sufficient information.)

The universities themselves are tourism targets because of the amount of respect accorded these schools. There are tours available, especially during the "season" when students are applying. However, the grounds are gated and are considered private property, so step lightly and be nice!

The "T" is the public access train/bus. Yes, we know it's a sort of mass transit subway system even though it doesn't run all night, but in some areas they are overland, and there are no tollbooths to deposit your fare, so it's not a real subway. Instead, a conductor is in every other car, and they open only the door adjacent to them to make sure you submit your fare in the coinbox. And if you want to go to one place, you stand on one end of the platform, and the short train will stop there ... if you want to go elsewhere, you stand on the other end of the platform ... so the same track can service multiple lines. You really do have to pay attention to the label on each train, like you would have to for a bus. Also, the platforms are on rail level, and you need to step up into the car ... so it really does feel more like a bus and less like a train.

The "T" is being renovated these days, and much of the Big Dig is to put these tracks below the surface. So, lines change, and sometimes stations even close — as evidenced by the "white out" over the isometric subway maps over the doors of the train cars. In addition, there are commuter rails for those who live in the suburbs, and they do not mesh seamlessly with the T, but they're trying. So, best pay attention to where you are and why before disembarking.

There are many wonderful restaurants in this town, though it doesn't compete in certain qualities with a town like NYC that way, and a lot of history as well. Every restaurant that's been around for 70+ years seems to need to extol their connection to the Kennedy family, which has been nicknamed "America's royalty." There is something to that; they have suffered many glorifications and tragedies, and still wield power in the state and federal levels of government.

When one of us arrived in Boston via rail years ago, it was really, really cold. He was a Commonwealth type, and seeing a big, steaming teapot on the edge of Government Centre, he went in for a cup of tea. The apparent decoration actually did boil water for the shop — it was erected in 1873 and holds over 200 gallons of water. These days, it houses a Starbucks Coffee front, and the water is likely not used. It still boils, though and you can see the steam pouring out of the spout.

Ye Olde Union Oyster House actually preserves a booth where Jack Kennedy would sup, near his Harvard stomping grounds. The restaurant is not the first or the oldest, but their claim to fame is to be the oldest in continual operation: 180 years, since 1826. Durgin Park, a steakhouse with "family style seating" (you get placed next to others not in your party on long tables), has been around only a year less.

Across the street is a glass monolith-lined narrow traffic island park, a Holocaust memorial. The starkness contrasts with the old architecture and materials of this area of town, and at night, the lit columns give a ghostly glow to the old cobblestones. It's about a decade old and when it first went up, I wasn't thrilled by it. But now, it seems to just keep the ghosts happy and warm, no matter in which war they died.

Boston has a big pub culture, due these days partly to the many college students which make up the population of this city. But remember that the people who lived here were considered English until the Revolutionary War, and they partook of tea, ale, and used the pubs and taverns as meeting and business places, just like across the pond. Of course, after the non-representative taxation of tea and other goods, Americans switched to other drinks like coffee, but this place still seems awfully English, and the pub crawling possibilities remain strong.

Nowadays the bars are filled more with college memories and television monitors so you can enjoy the games of your choice with the company of others who are cheering for one side or another. We liked the bars located close to the water; some have decks so you can avoid the stuffy humidity of excitable crowds inside. Smoking is not allowed in bars or restaurants here, so if you are a smoker, you can enjoy the company of other smokers shivering out there for your fix. (We think its ironic that you go outside, with the smokers, to avoid the stuffiness of inside!) Nightlife in this part of Boston seems to consist mostly of pubcrawling, dressed in various levels of preppiness ... if you like that sort of thing, you can find one suited to your level of clothing allowance and snootiness quotient.

There are many marinas along the wharves; the days of big tankers and deliveries being unloaded here seem long past. There are a lot of sailboats and yachts. In warmer months (which means "up to Thanksgiving," when it's not actually warm at all in anything but concept), you can see crew teams rowing the length of the Charles River, and any other straight narrow waterway, too. Boston is a water town, so how come Water Street has no water?

If you walk around the harbor enough, you will see there are still warehouses and what look like fish processing plants here and there. They are fast disappearing to the pavilions and other touristy features and public fun centers; the place does smell better for it, but we'd long associated Boston with fishing. In fact, formerly in the town hall and now in Fanueil Hall, the "Sacred Cod" is a suspended sculpture of a codfish (originally carved and gilded in 1784) hanging from the ceiling, in deference to its importance to the Boston economy. Or so the story goes.

As for beans, it's an important food for religious zealots — you let it cook in a warm (not too hot) beanhole on the Sabbath, when you aren't supposed to do any work at all, and you still manage a meal in the days before fast food and restaurants. This isn't "American style" ketchupy sweet beans, but instead "Boston" style made with molasses, and a virtual rarity on American store shelves these days. This qualifies this style of bean dish as a local delicacy, so have some while you are here.

Speaking of molasses, in nearby areas of the old wharf, there is a tide-line commemorating the bursting of a 2½ million gallon molasses tank in January, 1919. The sticky wave was 15 feet high and traveled at 35 miles an hour ... and thus the saying, "Slower than molasses in January," which is actually pretty fast, don't you think? We're not kidding, it's called "The Great Boston Molasses Flood." The dock area was apparently stained brown for years, and residents claimed to suffer smells and molasses seepage from the ground for 30+ years after. Nasty! (A sort of other kind of Dark Tide: Ruin, eh?)

Why was there so molasses stored in an area near where the New England Aquarium now stands? Well, where do you think rum come from?

The city is a really nice place to visit, full of history and also full of modern fun, too. You can see and do a lot in a weekend or a week, and you can claim education credit for just walking around where Paul Revere or Samuel Adams trod. There wasn't much in the way of town planning through much of the history here, simply because it was an old place with a lot of transient people coming in and out. So you get to enjoy a very different feel from other more typically American cities. Boston is small enough that you can manage a lot of things in a day, and eat a lot of good food, mostly seafood. In fact, we recommend you stick to seafood here ... I mean, why go to Hooters or Pizzeria Uno? You can get that anywhere! On holiday, you should imbibe in the local specialty (even if it's not very good). So we ate cod, scrod (which is a young cod), scallops, lobster, baked beans, Indian pudding ... the baked beans and Indian pudding weren't that good, but we did like that we tried it!

We even went a bit out of our way to go to a place which had had no name, and thus was nicknamed No Name Restaurant, though these days, that's its legal name. We told the cab driver, "No Name" and he said, "Yes, on Pier 4" and took us there. It's as if its lack of name made it more famous than it might have been otherwise.

We couldn't find a fish place for breakfast however, though we don't regret trying a rather boutiquey looking place on the old wharf called Rudi's. There didn't seem to be anyone named Rudi there, and it wasn't really a diner. That's the thing with places in Boston ... if the "concept" is newer in age than the Revolutionary War, then it didn't seem to fit in. But that shouldn't stop you from trying them and maybe discovering a good breakfast place, even sans fish! (And you get a great view out the window of the Big Dig.)

So, Boston is going through a lot of changes. Like many American cities, there is a sort of renaissance where gentrification becomes the norm as the needs of the downtown areas change. This means some destruction, of course, but also interest and preservation. In the meantime, there are still years of construction in progress, and the routes and pathways around town will continue to change. So remember to just park your car (whether in Harvard Yard or anywhere else) and just walk the town. If your feet are the same length as the cobblestones, you'll stumble a bit. But enjoy it; they even have a wire-cut glazed cobble brick colored and called "boston." Honest.

As for the Boston Brahmins, they still do exist. Senator John Kerry's heritage was much-discussed during his bid for the US presidency, and the answer was yes he was a Brahmin from his mother's side, being related to the Forbes and Winthrop clans. But his father descended from a Jew in what is today the Czech Republic, and who changed his name from Fritz Kohn to Frederick Kerry and converted to Catholicism. This resulted three generations later in making people assume John Kerry is part-Irish in the Kennedy mold. Yet, Kerry is a Yale grad, rather than a Harvardite ... So maybe the poem needs to be revised:

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells have no one to talk to
Since the Cabots speak Yiddish, by God.


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