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When Tough is Not Enough: After the Marathon, Boston's character shines

Posted by Scott Kearnan  April 17, 2013 09:04 AM

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It was only Monday. But by now you have already been inundated with opinions. You have been deluged with pontification on the nature of tragedy. You have been scolded with commentary on the right and wrong way to grieve. You're still just trying to make sense of it all. Me too.

Why did it happen? What can we do? Where is this world going? I don't know that I can add any wisdom to the conversations that surround those questions.

But media, images, photographs, video. These are things that I can at least try to talk about, and try to make sense of. And as TV crews and news reporters descend on us, telling the world what has happened and sharing with it a glimpse of Boston - its streets, its people, its character - I thought it was worth taking a moment to talk about how I hope others will see us. And how I hope we will continue to see ourselves.

Many commentators have been unable to resist the temptation to see Boston only through a particular lens: one that makes us look a lot like The Departed or The Town. There has been a lot of talk about how Boston is a tough and gritty city. That we're scrappy fighters. That we're resilient. That we're unafraid of anyone who tries to compromise our identity, and unwilling to accept any affront on our home.

This is true. All of it.

But it's only part of who we are. And that's a good thing. Because right now, tough is not enough.

If you're a cable news reporter from out of state, or even a fellow New Englander with great affection for Boston but little regular exposure to its daily heartbeat, it would be easy to correlate the city with a one-note character generated by Hollywood. The type played by Ben Affleck, maybe. Or a Wahlberg.

After all, media images do create personalities out of cities. They can turn a metropolis into a stock character: Portland becomes a hipster college kid, Vegas a permanent bachelor, New York a sassy best friend who still manages to splurge on designer clothes with her entry-level salary. But these are simplifications: constructs we consume. Partly reality, but mainly media-cultivated shorthand for some collective urban identity.

So if, when waxing sentimental about Boston, your main point of reference is Gone Baby Gone, late-night sketch shows that goof on our attitudinal accent, or that cartoonish graphic of retaliatory sports mascots making the rounds on Facebook, you might have a narrow view of what makes Boston - well, Boston. You are identifying us through caricature, and overlooking ten thousand shades of our true nature.

Boston is a tough city. It is a lot of other things too: many things that don't lend as well to movies or memes, but are sources of incredible pride. Please know these things about us, to really know us at all.

We are a smart city. Our historic buildings reverberate with the lingering presence of young America's great thinkers, leaders, speakers. Our streets are lined with schools, some of the best universities in the world. We prize them. Communities are built around them. Beautiful minds are born here - if not in maternity wards, in classrooms. Students come, learn, create, leave, like tides. Their energy refreshes us, keeps us vital and bursting.

We are a committed city. All work is duty, and dedication is sacrosanct. Over the last two days we have rightly heralded the first responders who rushed toward billowing smoke and danger - not necessarily without fear, but certainly in spite of it - in order to aid victims. That they did so instinctively, unflinchingly, is certain. I know it. Because to Bostonians, the abdication of responsibility is not an option. Here loyalty to an ideal - of behavior, or of the way things "should" be - ranks second in importance only to fidelity to family.

We are a city with a tremendous sense of humor. Okay, that you know. And you're welcome.

We are a creative city. You don't see much of it in the movies, but Boston's tremendous respect for history has always been coupled with a great appreciation for art. We see beauty in the bricks of a well-preserved brownstone. Our orchestra soundtracks the Fourth of July, and our music clubs teem with talent. Yesterday, in the wake of the tragedy, two of Boston's major museums provided free admission: the Museum of Fine Arts, a palatial refuge, and the Institute of Contemporary Art, with its inspiring views of the harbor horizon. We craved their comfort and offer of escape. And annual Sox games aren't the only family tradition: just as parents buy their kids matching Sox caps during summer nights at Fenway, they dress them to the nines for "The Nutcracker" once Christmas comes.

We are a compassionate city. We show this often. Sometimes it makes us a political punching bag, a target for eye rolls about cultural liberalism. But it is also why, even at our most afraid, we opened our homes to perfect strangers by the thousands. If that makes us soft, we will never be embarrassed by it.

I could go on.

But my point is, we are more than tough - and we will need to be. This is not a movie. But it is a chance for the world to see Boston's true character. And we will need to call on every part of it.

Because healing is far, far ahead. But we will get there, one step after another. Through heartbreak. To the finish line.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About this blog

Scott Kearnan (@thewritestuffSK) is a Boston-based writer, editor, and communications consultant focusing on lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment. He's also a part-time smart aleck and buffalo wing connoisseur. "Media Remix" is where couch potatoes meet pop culture criticism. More »

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