By Madeleine Blais
The Boston I encountered in the early 1970s was scrappier than today’s version. The broad strokes of the city were, and are, easy to discern: the love of learning, the mix of young and old, politics as sport, and sport as religion. Sister Corita’s art (pronounced aht) on a liquefied natural gas tank in Dorchester, huge dripping bands of color, introduced whimsy where you least expected it. The waitresses at Durgin-Park shoved bloody slabs of rare roast beef at customers amid shouts of “More chowdah!” Their rudeness had the durability of a landmark. The Charles River, which everyone said would someday be clean enough to swim in, radiated, at best, a murky pride. On the other side of the river was Cambridge, home of MIT and Harvard, a city Bostonians sometimes dismissed as “conseeded” — practically the worst thing you can be in Boston, worse even than a Yankees fan.
In those days, half my disposable income went to Filene’s Basement, where every purchase was a word problem in math. How many days does a Priscilla of Boston wedding dress have to languish on the rack before it is marked down by one-third divided by a half minus 10 percent? Women stripped in the aisles to see if something fit. Forget the Combat Zone: Filene’s Basement was known as the best peep show in town.
Boston had not only its own accent but also its own favorite vocabulary, such as the word “pol,” short for politician. The more prominent the pol, the more likely he was to be known by his first name or nickname: Barney. Teddy. Tip. Dapper.
Boston had secret status markers: Slowly but surely, like a Polaroid photo (invented by a onetime Harvard student), blankness yielded to smudgy impressions and then to clarity. Eventually one learned where to dine (Locke-Ober), what to order (finnan haddie), and how to describe a person who graduated from Boston College High School, Boston College, and Boston College Law School (a triple Eagle).
Back Bay and Beacon Hill overflowed with college students. Cheap digs, still possible, became even cheaper when boomers, in faded jeans and flannel shirts, piled into them and shared the rent. The less attention the tenants paid to housekeeping, the more quickly they could lay claim to living in a commune. Groovy!
The South End (not the same as Southie; very confusing to an outsider) was all but abandoned, boarded up and decaying in the shadow of the new Prudential building. Nearby, the Hancock Tower became famous because its windows kept misbehaving — kept, in fact, popping out. In Boston, the underutilized SAT word “defenestration” filtered into common conversation. As a result, everyone in Boston sounded wicked smaht.
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Madeleine Blais is the author of In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle and other books. She teaches in the journalism department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
By Jabari Asim
“You’re the first black man I’ve ever known who actually wanted to move to Boston,” said a male colleague, also African-American.
“You know, it’s cold up there,” warned a friend who’d spent most of her winters in windy Chicago.
My nonblack friends were unanimous in their support for my family’s move east from Champaign, Illinois. More than a few of my black friends were surprised and even discouraging. Via Facebook, one acquaintance felt compelled to provide a brief lecture on the dangers of racism.
I’ve been writing about our country’s tortured racial history for nearly three decades, so Boston’s shameful past and intermittently difficult present weren’t unfamiliar to me. Episodes from that past had even made their way into my books and essays from time to time. My research had taught me that part of Boston’s famed Beacon Hill neighborhood was commonly referred to as “Nigger Hill.” I had quoted Southern opponents of Northern hypocrisy such as US Senator Robert Hayne of South Carolina, who in 1830 included Boston in his condemnation of big cities where “there does not exist on the face of the whole earth, a population so poor, so wretched, so vile, so loathsome, so utterly destitute of all the comforts, conveniences and decencies of life, as the unfortunate blacks.” I knew that one of the largest elementary schools in Boston bore the name of Louis Agassiz, a 19th-century Harvard professor and ardent white supremacist responsible for some of the most maliciously racist pseudoscholarship ever published.Continued...