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Perspective

Confessions of a reluctant suburbanite

Why did I move out of the city? It wasn't (just) the schools.

By Doug Most
July 10, 2011

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Mowed my lawn the other day. Hardly a significant achievement. Edge to edge, it’s about the distance of a Dustin Pedroia toss over to Adrian Gonzalez. But it was the first lawn I’d mowed in about 25 years, and I had to borrow my friendly neighbor’s mower to do it. It ran out of gas halfway through the job, so I had to drive down to the gas station to buy one of those red 1-gallon jugs. This one-hour chore was all it took for me to realize that mowing and driving had just replaced biking and walking in my new suburban life. I wasn’t sure I was entirely happy about that.

For eight years my family enjoyed the urban feel and flavors of Jamaica Plain. That meant having Thai, Cuban, Japanese, Mexican, and Indian food all within walking distance, not to mention J.P. Licks, three great bakeries, and one of the best fine-dining restaurants in all of Boston (we miss you Ten Tables – sorry we took you for granted).

Our kids have spent all their young lives riding the T, the ultimate urban experience if there is one, and they loved every minute of it (my son’s favorite color is now orange). We also got to see up close the true melting pot Boston has become. You can see it, too. Just go watch the kids dance and the parents gather at the Tony Williams Dance Center in the revived Brewery complex. That’s the new Boston. And it’s an awesome sight.

But as anyone who has done the city condo thing knows, it’s not all clam chowder and Dunkin’ Donuts iced.

There was the guy who left angry screeds on car windows when somebody took up two parking spaces on our narrow street. There was the squabbling over who shoveled out what space, followed by the debate over how long, exactly, one could then reserve it with a lawn chair. Carrying 10-pound bags of groceries or 20-pound slumbering children up three flights of stairs wasn’t exactly the exercise we enjoyed. Then there was the guilt about not being able to rein in the children stomping through our condo at 6:30 a.m. while knowing our downstairs neighbors might actually still be trying to sleep.

And, of course, there were the schools.

Oh, Boston Public Schools.

When we told our friends and neighbors we were moving to Needham, the looks we got ranged from disappointment to frustration. Some assumed the schools were the only reason we were leaving – they were a big factor (the BPS lottery did us no favors) but far from the only one. These parents thought we should stay and be cheerleaders for the system’s improvement alongside them; to do anything less would be abandoning a place we all love.

In fact, one of the things we love about JP is that it’s constantly changing. That’s a good thing. I can’t believe trolley tracks ran up and down Centre Street just a few years ago. I love how a new, boxy Post Office building, of all things, now anchors the main drag quite nicely. I never could have imagined a slick new shop called Salmagundi that sells hats and scarves drawing people from all over the city. And a good local sandwich chain, the Real Deal, finally arrived, filling one of the neighborhood’s biggest voids. None of those changes ruined JP. A new Whole Foods won’t destroy it either.

The truth is, we didn’t leave JP because we had to. We left because we wanted to.

If Rhode Island had a Needham, that’s the town where I grew up, shooting basketball over our garage door, playing ultimate Frisbee on the streets until dark, washing our car in the driveway, throwing a baseball with my dad in the backyard, and mucking around in the swamp down the street. So it makes sense that when it came time to buy my first real house, it would be in a town that looked a lot like the first suburb I knew – right down to the lawn that always needed mowing.

None of those things would have been possible for us in JP. We already miss it. But we can at least be happy our old neighbors are getting the chance to sleep in.

Doug Most is the Globe’s deputy managing editor for features and, for the last month, a resident of Needham. E-mail him at dmost@globe.com.


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