Incredibly, although I was in Massachusetts for four months last year, I didn’t make it across to Boston, a whole two hours’ drive away from where I was studying at Amherst. Now I know why – self-preservation.
Boston is where it all began for modern (i.e. European-colonised) America. Forget all that nonsense about Columbus, because a) he was a Spaniard, and therefore not a real white-bread European (he didn’t even speak English), and b) he didn’t establish a Puritan settlement in this location, that eventually threw off the yoke of English rule in the American Revolution, leading to America’s independence from everything except oil, credit and a sense of destiny.
Not surprisingly, when a place has such an important history, well-meaning folk try to preserve as much of it as possible, both as bricks-and-mortar, and myth. Where else in the world would you find a major capital whose main streets mix early-settlement brick buildings with office towers, and populate them with tour guides dressed like something out of a Jane Austen telemovie? It took me an hour of aimless wandering to find the shops, because there’s really only one shopping street (paved with brick, of course) in the city centre, and it’s not signposted as such.
I later found that Bostonians hide most of their city shops in a harbourside ghetto called Faneuil Hall. And no, Josephine, that is not pronounced Fanny Hall (remember, this began as a Puritan community), but Fanyul Hall. It’s a pleasant location nearby on a hot day, with well-kept gardens and lawns adding a civilized touch between the hall and the dock. And it was there that I happened upon the most exciting thing I saw in all Boston centre: a mother and daughter lying on the lawn with their guinea pig in a wire cage, nibbling the grass (the guinea pig, that is – though it would have been even more exciting if the mother and daughter were grazing as well. I would have understood their actions as an entirely sane response to life here.).
Close to the city centre is Cambridge, named – and modeled – after that famous university town in England. It’s where MIT and Harvard are located. Strolling (and one must stroll, old chap, not rush) through the expansive Harvard campus, I could actually feel the privilege that attendance here confers. How fortunate for anyone in the world to study here, with the cream of teachers and fellow students, shoulders to the barricades, pushing back the boundaries of knowledge.
I wish I’d been clever enough, and sufficiently resourced, to be studying here. For everyone else seems to be – even though it’s summer break, students of all shades and tongues are wandering the streets, cramming the bars, out in their single sculls and fours on the river, practicing for the boat races.
Where Harvard’s core buildings are mostly knock-offs of Oxbridge buildings a la Brideshead Revisited, MIT’s are more mixed, but no less imposing in their own way. As befits an educational institution of this international stature, it has a large Frank Gehry building, all strange angles and droopy blocks.
I spoke to some architecture students who were assembling a seating project in one of the leafy quadrangles nearby; they told me the building doesn’t work well. Still, it is a welcome change from all the red brick around here – just treat it as a large sculpture that people can go into. It certainly dwarfs the Mark di Suvero sculpture that sits in front of it, and that usually takes some doing. And maybe it’ll help Bostonians question the ‘straight up and down’ atmosphere that pervades here.
So, next time you are sleepless in Seattle, come visit Boston. Join the rest of the locals, and sleep soundly.