Beantown. The Hub. Bahhston.
Ground zero for the American experiment, this precocious trade port of a city has always been ready for a fight, be it the grossly outnumbering British or the just plain gross New York Yankee fans invading its well-worn turf. But despite its modest size (just over 600,000 residents) and scale (89 square miles, half of which is water!), this city and its inhabitants take a backseat to no one. And if you don’t like it, you can take a leap into the harbor.
Pound for pound, this point of Puritanical entry just might be the most historical, cultured, educated and chowder tolerant city in the union. Just ask them. Boston is the “City on a Hill,” “the Athens of America,” “City of Notions” and no less than “The Hub of the Universe,” modestly shortened to “the Hub.” Grandstanding aside, there is much to admire in this city. “The Cradle of Liberty” seems to fit just fine.
With a renewed interest in the American ideals bandied about during a historic national election, the opportunity to get back to basics in Boston proved irresistible when my wife’s studies brought her here in March. Of course, the residents here might ask, “Where the hell have you been?” It’s here where the idea of what America should be, and shouldn’t be, was hatched. And it’s here where those notions are still firmly planted. It’s inescapable. History awaits at every turn (a fact I was reminded of stumbling from one Irish pub to another through the courtyard where the Boston Massacre took place 239 years ago that same day!).
Following a sleep-depriving, six-train trek from Philadelphia to Babylon, Long Island to Boston (including three hours of delays) over a two-day period, we felt like we’d just gone a couple of rounds at Guantanamo. My double-knitted, LL Bean tourist hat would have to hang steady another night. Fortunately, our hotel on the cusp of Beacon Hill was within walking distance of several authentic Irish pubs (as is every hotel, flophouse and tent in Boston). Finding a quick fix of Sam Adams, clam chowder and shepherd’s pie was easy peasy. Ten minutes east on Cambridge Street (which felt like an hour in the snow) put us inside Kinsale’s, a pub constructed in Ireland that serves mostly as a Government Center lunchtime spot, but was lively enough for the post-dinnertime push. From there, it was off to the Black Rose in the historic Faneuil Hall-Quincy market. The fabled Rose has played host to the likes of the Chieftains, flutist James Galway, Tommy Makim, Liam Clancy, John Denver and even members of an Irish rock group called U2 over its three decades. On this weeknight, a sparse crowd seemed content with an acoustic trio alternating Neil Young songs with Simon & Garfunkel. Kinsale’s and the Black Rose are certainly two of the more touristy pubs, but on this frigid night, with a pint of locally brewed Sam Adams in hand, it always felt like a good decision.
So where to start when visiting Boston? That’s easy — just follow the red brick road.
The Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile walking path, begins smack outside the visitors center at Boston Common (a park established in 1634!) and winds its way to more than 15 stops in and outside historical downtown. A painted red line soon morphs into brick and before you know it, you’ve landed in the land of Adams, Franklin and Revere.
Like the European cities on which it is based, Boston is above all else, a walking town, with its manageable growth, divergent neighborhoods, narrow streets and cobblestone footpaths, everything is within reach. Don’t bother renting the hybrid to show off your bleeding green prowess. The city’s Transport system includes subways, buses and regional rail lines that get you anywhere in the city within minutes, and where it doesn’t, you can walk. And with the notorious Big Dig having stuffed cluttering highway overpasses underground, the city is not only easier to maneuver, but more open and breathable.
What’s old is new again.
That adage springs to mind frequently when visiting Boston. Being one of America’s oldest cities, it was the first to face the problem of having a bunch of decidedly cool old buildings losing their usefulness. Take the former City Hall building on School Street, stop No. 6 on the Trail. Situated on the former site of the Latin School — America’s first public school, counting Ben Franklin, Sam Adams and John Hancock among its alums — Old City Hall was abandoned in 1969 in favor of more modern legislative digs. In the 1960s, adaptive reuse was a new concept, but the Civil War-era structure has enjoyed a Third Act in the form of public office and restaurant space.
That policy of creative reuse continues today, with the Liberty Hotel being one of the most striking examples. The former Charles Street Jail is a landmark liberated, with its foreboding granite cruciform structure now beckoning travelers with the same intensity it once served to deter them. Following a five-year, $150 million renovation, the 90-foot central rotunda now serves as the lobby, jail cells as luxury hotel rooms and the former drunk tank as a nightclub.
“When we opened, the building itself was enough to attract new business,” said Katie Archambault, the hotel’s marketing manager, over breakfast at Clink, a brick-walled, metal-gated in-house eatery that once housed Boston’s unfinest. “Now, a year and a half after our opening, it’s ‘what are you going to do to keep them coming back?’
“In a word, service.”
Ironically, when the Charles Street Jail opened in 1851, it was the model of humane service, providing each prisoner with an 8 by 10-inch brick cell and ample natural light. Flash forward six score and seven years and they were packing their “guests” in like sardines, four to a cell. The jail was deemed unfit in the 1970s, but the prisoners’ loss is our gain. The jet set has already gotten wind. Billionaire Richard Branson celebrated the launch of his Virgin airline service in Boston with a jailhouse lobby bash. It’s also a mainstay of the Hollywood sect. Paul Rudd and Jason Segel were checking in when we were heading out. I resisted the urge to shout “I Love You, Man!”
Break out of the Liberty (www.libertyhotel.com) and the North End neighborhood — the city’s oldest — is a timeless stop for dinner. After getting off at the wrong Transport stop, Henry, a North Ender for 26 years, led us on a de facto tour back through Freedom parts and into this Italian hamlet that comprises Paul Revere’s house, 140 Sinatra-loving restaurants and about as many Catholic churches.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Henry said, when asked about the cost of living in Boston. “I just buy my food and leave.”
Fair enough. He was throwing dizzying dinner choices at us like Tim Wakefield knuckleballs, then was off. We settled on Antico Forno, a brick-walled (what else?), brick-oven Italian restaurant that (honest to God) served up the best gourmet pizza we ever had. I miss it already.
In fact, I miss Boston already. Not just the food or the culture or the history that smacks you in the face with the winter wind. And not just for its 21 eclectic neighborhoods, each with a unique story mirroring America’s maturation. For it’s no small thing in these times of fiscal worry to remind yourself why you live like you do, where you do, and to recognize how it feels to lose a lifestyle you’ve convinced yourself was a right, just like our forefathers came to believe.
Michael Tittinger left as editor of the Daily Press for the security of being an unemployed screenwriter. Check on the status of his beard at email@example.com.