At 2:50 on Monday afternoon , with a spring sun casting crisp shadows across Boylston Street, two bombs detonated in close succession, turning the city’s largest annual public gathering into a tableau of glass and blood. Exhausted marathoners wheeled in shock, stumbled, collapsed. Doctors expecting to treat leg cramps found themselves running trauma units instead.
The disbelief curdled into anger—who could have done this?—and a profound sense of worry. Was there enough security? Did someone carrying a bomb really walk undisturbed so close to the finish line of the city’s most famous annual event? A feeling of vulnerability coursed through Boston like an aftershock. If it could happen at the Boston Marathon, it could happen anywhere in the city.
The Marathon is an exceptional moment, of course: tens of thousands of people lining the streets, cheering behind barricades, clustering together, exposed. But an urban tragedy like the bombing unsettles us more generally, because it wakes us up to precisely how much we have to fear every time we set foot on a city street. Simply to live or work in a city is to open ourselves, daily, to almost unimaginable risk. We stand unprotected in crowds; we travel underground, beneath water, or 300 feet in the air. We buy weird food from strangers in trucks. City life means violating every rule your parents taught you, every day.
After events like Monday’s, it can be easy to conclude that there is just something wrong about cities. Perhaps people were never meant to live so close together, to be so unguarded in large groups. It’s inarguably safer to disperse, each of us behind a lawn and a driveway and a “beware of dog” sign. But there is another way to think about it: that what we felt this week, the collective vulnerability, is an exact reflection of what makes cities work in the first place, what makes them productive, and vital, and almost unimaginably resilient.
After decades in which Americans flooded out of cities as soon as they could afford it, there is a reason that people have begun flocking back. The exceptional safety of suburbs, their vanishingly low rates of crime and risk, turned out to come with a steep price. Increasingly we are recognizing that when new things happen, they happen in cities: the places where people stand shoulder to shoulder, meet strangers, have conversations they didn’t expect. Where they accept unpredictability. Where they leave themselves open to something going wrong.
It is possible to see dynamism and risk as flip sides of the same coin. Every once in a while, that openness comes with a horrible cost. Boston has been lucky in this regard: Not since a courthouse explosion sent 22 people to the hospital in 1976 has anyone been seriously hurt in a public bombing here. Now, sadly, Patriots Day will commemorate the moment that streak ended.
But in the wake of a tragedy like last week’s, it also matters to remember that within the openness that leaves us vulnerable lie the seeds of recovery. Some of it will take years. Some of it we have already seen.
In the videos following the Marathon bombing, amid the horror, the screaming, the concussion of the bomb and the confused runners, something else is visible as well: people running not out, but in. They muscled apart barriers to allow pedestrians to escape the chaos; they tore what fabric they had into tourniquets. They sensed that a rift had been opened. The risks were still there; there could just as easily have been a third bomb awaiting them. But the city had already begun to close around the rift.
Long-distance running is a metaphor for isolation, for individual achievement and willpower. The stories of marathon runners every year focus on their private resolve and superhuman dedication.
But anyone who has run the Boston Marathon, or lives along its route, knows that the actual feeling of being there is precisely the opposite. It’s an expression of collective energy so total you can feel it. Once a year, a small city spontaneously arises just to take care of the crowd flowing through Greater Boston. In town after town, people set up chairs and sit on their lawns to hand water to strangers. They crank inspiring music at full volume for the benefit of people they have never met, and will never see again.
To run the Marathon is to be greeted by a nearly unbroken string of spectators, kids pedaling on trikes alongside you, an entire college trying to slap your hand. You could eat a case of oranges, hand-quartered, offered to you by children. There is almost no event that so perfectly encapsulates what it means to be a citizen.Continued...