Planting a bomb at an event like the Boston Marathon seems almost unimaginably perverse. If it’s a symbol, it’s a symbol of what people are willing to do for one another: Dick Hoyt, who pushes his wheelchair-bound son to the finish line every year. The hundreds who run for leukemia research, or the Jimmy Fund. Exceptionally engineered humans arrive from Kenya, Ethiopia, Germany, Japan, and the city enfolds them like homegrown champions. Cosmas Ndeti won the Marathon three times and gave his son, a boy born in Kenya, the middle name Boston.
The spirit we see at work on Marathon Monday has become a vogue in sociology. It goes by the name social capital—the rich capacity of people to support one another productively, to build networks, to cooperate. And we need these opportunities to build all the social capital we can. The statistics show that trust is actually declining in America, in cities as much as anywhere. An event like the Marathon, a parade of strangers cheering for strangers in a grand civic spectacle, somehow pulls us out of that dive.
Economists and planners have become fascinated by cities’ ability to bring us together in spite of ourselves—and by what happens when they do. “People create ideas by literally bumping into each other and finding each other. That’s the wellspring of ideas. That’s what advances humanity,” says Columbia University development professor Vishaan Chakrabarti. He has calculated that an astonishing 90 percent of America’s gross domestic product comes from just 3 percent of its landmass—that is, from the densest cities.
What happens there requires care, cultivation, even planning. A century ago the visionary landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted designed spaces allowing for people of all classes to mingle, those beloved city parks that include Central Park and the Back Bay Fens. Today modern urban planners have returned to that idea, eschewing privacy in favor of plazas, boulevards, openness—features that allow what Chakrabarti calls “the spark of urban serendipity,” or, more touchingly, “public joy.”
The sound of those two explosions abruptly ended the feeling of easy serendipity and public joy in Boston, at least for a while. In the days afterward, the Back Bay, one of the nation’s most beautiful urban neighborhoods, lay barricaded off. If we think of the city as a dense grid of people, and not just streets and buildings, it is fair to say that a chunk of the city went temporarily missing. The bombing removed it.
But perhaps it is more accurate to say it was dispersed. When the news began to spread, shared documents arose online: People who lived in suburbs around Boston, with beds and sofas free, began to invite strangers visiting the city to their homes. It is easy to imagine that an event like this would fracture trust the way it fractures glass, slicing apart the thin web that holds a city together. Instead the web spread outward. “I can drive to pick you up,” wrote one person. “It’s an Aerobed, but it’s a comfortable one!” wrote another.
As of this writing , we don’t yet know who planted the bombs on Boylston Street. And, importantly, nobody knows how officialdom will react over this next year. As much as we worry about safety, we also worry about blame, and crackdowns, and rightly so: Humans are prone to excess in reaction. New York City returned to normal in many ways after the 9/11 attacks, but in some ways it did not. The immense concrete bollards that went up around government buildings remain; Boston has those, too. All over the United States, we are scanned and detained and filmed in ways that we have never been before.
Openness and security, we’re forced to remember, are a trade-off. The city of Boston has taken plenty of heat for its insularity and guardedness, but in the full sweep of its story, Boston is a stake planted in the ground for freedom. The first school in the country is still here, and still public. The green heart of the city is still called, simply, the Common.
Nothing, no virtue of cities, can make up for what the victims of the Marathon bombing lost on Monday. But no amount of safety, no security regime, would be worth exchanging for what we have gained from this way of life over the centuries: the shifting web of human connection, the knowledge and prosperity that were born here—not in spite of our vulnerability, but because of it.
There will be another Marathon next year, the 118th. It will be different. Boston will be locked down more securely before the event. Perhaps there will be metal detectors on city streets; there will be more surveillance cameras, more dogs. We will be less vulnerable, more guarded.Continued...