Welp, the time has come for my annual tradition (of which I have many). Just as I gave my impressions of Nashville, Seattle and New Orleans, it’s time to give Boston it’s very own report card. As usual, I must give my caveats about subjective experience and the limits of any person to fully experience all that a city has to offer in a year. Yes, 12 months is a lot of time to explore a city, but it could never be enough to be definitive.
Boston couldn’t be more different than my previous city, New Orleans, so those contrasts (for better and worse) will inform my impressions and my evaluations. But, I am not comparing cities. I’ve lived in 9 different cities for this project, and the point has never been to list them from best to worst (though I am frequently asked to do just that). If life in Boston is dramatically different than life in New Orleans (or Seattle, or…), it represents a variety of choices, both personal and metropolitan, that are no more comparable than filet mignon and a ballpark frank. Two totally different experiences, two totally different expectations.
That doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t have expectations for city living, which is what these grades are all about. I base my ratings on what I look for as a resident. Completely subjective, completely personal, completely mine. So, naturally, completely right.
Without further ado, my final thoughts…
Public Transportation – Boston has a subway system. That right there is an automatic ‘B’. Buses are fine and every city has them, but what truly transforms a city from functional to liveable is the ability to jump on a (fairly) reliable mode of transportation. No, the ‘T’ doesn’t always run on time, and yes there are occasions when you’ll be stuck between Copley and Arlington for 20 minutes with no explanation. Live in enough cities and you’ll realize that’s just reality. Maybe someday they’ll make a citywide train system that isn’t interrupted by human error, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Not only does Boston have a subway system, but it actually hits pretty much everywhere you’d want to go in the city (with enough transfers). No, it’s not as extensive as New York City (what is?) or even Chicago, but it’s certainly got more tendrils than San Francisco’s Bart and it’s basically on par with D.C.’s Metro (maybe even better). The point is, if you want to go somewhere in the city, odds are good that you can catch a train there.
Odd note: Two things happened with the ‘T’ during my year, one good, one bad that basically balance each other out. First, they closed Government Center Station for a 2-year restoration. Seeing as this station is a major hub, it’s kind of inconvenient, though it had little effect on my day-to-day. The positive, though, is that the city voted to keep the trains running until 3 am on Friday and Saturday nights (rather than just 1 am), which is such a no-brainer I can’t believe it took a vote.
Grade: A- (I don’t generally do minuses, but in this case I think it’s necessary to point out that the system is excellent, but there’s always room for improvement.)
City Planning – Ironically, for a city that has such good public transportation, you actually don’t need to take the train because Boston is damn walkable. That’s pretty important in my book. On numerous occasions, I’ve left my job down in the Financial District and decided to walk through Boston Common, and then up Newbury St and before I knew it, I was on Commonwealth Ave and less than a mile from my apartment in Allston. The city is laid out in such a way that there’s really nowhere to go that is completely off the beaten path. Are there sketchy areas in the city? Of course, but they’re avoidable.
Boston manages to stuff three times as many people and sites in land that is roughly a third the size of New Orleans. To reiterate, I’m not pitting one city against the other so much as I’m suggesting that because of necessity, northeast cities pack a whole lot of city living in very compact areas. Southern towns tend to sprawl because they can, which I’m sure is very appealing to people, but not to me. I live in cities because I like cities: Tall buildings, rows of bars, great views, that’s what a city is for me. Boston also has the luxury of being built along the Charles River that gives it a nice shot of nature running through an otherwise concrete jungle.
If you visit Boston, bring walking shoes and skip the rental car.
Bars/Nightlife – If you’re like most everyone, hearing the name ‘Boston’ brings to mind Cheers and Irish alcoholics. Fair enough. The truth, though, is that Boston (and Massachusetts) is surprisingly conservative when it comes to alcohol. Bars close at 2, which isn’t unusual, except that many bars close at 1 and most nights of the week public transportation shuts down at 1. Basically, go out on Friday or Saturday night, otherwise you’re in for an early evening. I guess that makes sense for a city that is largely young professionals and college students, but it’s sad that going out on a Thursday night can be more of a hassle than it’s worth (don’t even try on Mondays).
Obviously, there are no shortage of bars and clubs in this city, and there are a lot of fun parts of town to hang out in. Allston is teaming with college life, while Fenway is usually a good spot to barhop, same with the Harbor. Southie is cool, and you can always head up to Cambridge and drink with the smart kids. No question, Boston doesn’t lack for options. It just needs to pull the stick out of its ass, because if I want to get drunk on a Sunday night, my only choice shouldn’t be drinking bottles of champagne in the Common. Hypothetically.
Oh yeah, no Happy Hour. Process that for a second, because after a year of living here it still blows my mind. Liquor laws make it illegal to have hourly specials on drinks. In fact, if a bar has a drink special, it has to run for an entire week. So while people do still go out for drinks after work, they don’t get any specials (except on fried pickles). The absence of Happy Hours isn’t a deal-breaker or anything, but it’s certainly indicative of how buttoned up the city can be when it comes to drinking.
Art Scene – Boston isn’t as famous for its music scene as New York, but it’s got a more than respectable history of birthing musical talent (no doubt in part to the presence of Berklee College). Aerosmith, the Pixies, the Dresden Dolls, Dropkick Murphys, Passion Pit and Rob Zombie all trace their heritage back to the Boston area, just to show some of the diversity. And for that reason, there are no shortage of venues to see concerts in the city. Huge arena spectaculars and small club shows are plentiful here. In fact, I might have seen more live music this year than I did in New Orleans (though that’s mostly because the bands I like don’t tend to get down to NOLA often).
Other arts are represented by museums, plentiful bookstores and a collegiate scene that is a breeding ground for all types of artistic pursuits. Every city in this corner of the country will forever live in the shadow of NYC, but that shouldn’t take away from what a city of Boston’s modest size does well. Plentiful statues and murals express the city’s impressive historical significance, filling every park and common area with something beautiful to admire. Boston may never be the center of the art universe, and most people in the city are business-minded, but that doesn’t keep it from fostering an admirable art scene.
Grade (Music): A; Grade (Everything else): A
Living – I’ll just say it: This city is too expensive. It’s not unmanageable but it’s on par with San Francisco, and at least with San Fran the lack of space makes the exorbitant prices make sense. There is no reason I should be paying the same price for an apartment in Allston that I paid to live in an apartment a few blocks from the beach in California. People are willing to pay it, obviously, so I guess the market has spoken, but I don’t get it. It probably doesn’t help my impression that New Orleans is half the price and a lot more lucrative for servers.
With that out of the way, I’ll say that Boston is a very liveable city. I already touched on how walkable it is. Along with the ease of getting around the city, every neighborhood feels fully equipped to sustain life. No matter where you are, grocery stores, restaurants, bars and other necessities are within reach. If the residents are being overcharged, at least they’re being compensated with ample amenities. Heck, the city even has movie theaters, something I greatly miss every time I live in the south. I can’t speak for every neighborhood, but from what I’ve seen it feels like no one is truly cut off from the perks of city living.
People – This is always the hardest one to write because it’s the most important. The right people can make a shithole fun, while the wrong people can ruin Shangri-La.
I’ll start by addressing the common reputation of east coast cities: Yes, people here are rude. That is to say, if you’re from another part of the country (Seattle, California or the midwest, for instance), people out here are going to come across as impatient, brusque and even downright mean. The reason for this is that (how do I put this nicely), people from other parts of the country are pussies. Making it in the northeast is not like making it anywhere else. It’s just that simple. There is more competition, a larger pool of candidates and far too many people on the sidewalks. Either keep moving or get out of the way.
It’s not that people in Boston are really less compassionate than people other places, it’s just that niceties cost extra. Besides, some of the worst people in the world hide behind a toothy smile and a friendly handshake.
Since Boston is such a massive black hole for college students, most of the people I’ve met haven’t even been from the city. None of my 3 roommates were from here, nor were a good percentage of my coworkers. Most of my nights out were spent with my roommates, which was a lucky break. We hadn’t met in person before living together; it could have been a nightmare. Lord knows I’ve had my share of bad roommate experiences. But while tensions could occur in our apartment, generally the experience was smooth. (We won’t discuss the dishes.)
And then there was one roommate with whom I explored half the bars in the city, drove across country, attempted to sneak onto other people’s rooftops, had 3 am dance parties, drank frequently in the park (hypothetically) and even got a tattoo. Those aren’t highlights, those are the foundation of my year. My memories of this city will be of such nights. What else need be said?