Liberty City: Meet The Real Boston

Native Bostonian Ashley Weckbacher reports on a proud city standing tall after experiencing a terrorist atrocity in the American heartland. Meet the real Boston, battered but not broken

Feature by Ashley Weckbacher | 10 Jun 2013
  • Boston

I can imagine what people see in their minds when they hear the word “Boston” lately – the wide sidewalks of Copley Square, finish line of the Boston Marathon and site of recent bombings, empty but for rescue workers and first responders? Then there are the images of a city at a standstill, as law enforcement from all over the United States searched for an injured, scared nineteen year old bomber. These images made people from outside wonder: “Is this really necessary?” I have seen Copley Square for the first time countless times, through the eyes of foreigners and friends, and still, this was new for me and for everyone. It was startling and, as they say, it’ll leave a mark.

At the time, everyone here sat on their couches, or around dining room tables, staring at laptops and televisions, thinking: “Makes sense.” We are not a city known for its stoicism, whether it is our overreaction to a snowstorm or our deep-seated rage at people who don’t use turn signals. We are a volatile, fierce city - quick to anger, quick to action, so it made sense to us that our response to a relatively small threat overwhelmed everything else. I sat in my apartment that morning feeling like the world was ending. While they looked for the bomber, I didn’t care that he was only nineteen, and that he was likely dying. I cared about my family and my home. I cared about the losses endured by the people I love most.

So allow me, if you will, to introduce you to the Boston I love - not the one you’ve met recently, but the one that will endure. The mythical, fantastical Boston - Fenway Park and the Emerald Necklace, the glow off the golden dome of our State House, and the view as you cross the Charles River into Cambridge - that will outlive any attempted rewrites. This is the Boston you need to know.

To be a Bostonian, you must be nostalgic. Yearn for your memories, yes, but also for your father’s memories, and his father’s memories, because this is how we identify ourselves. We all waited eighty-six years to end a baseball drought. We all take pride in knowing our family histories within the city, and we will bore you with the details. The city wears its scars and marks like a badge. We will proudly show you the ugly mark across our abdomen, the one that hasn’t quite healed over, from the bussing riots of the 1970s, or the perforation on our shoulder, a tick mark for every crime Whitey Bulger committed before going on the lam. “This one here,” we’ll tell you, pointing to a very faint, silvery burn on our shin, “is from the Molasses Flood. It’s great because if you didn’t know about it, you might not notice it.” They say that in June, when the weather starts to get sticky and sweaty, the scent of molasses rises from the cobblestone in the North End.

We, like many other places around the world, keep these things because we cannot bear to forget them. In the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, thirteen empty canvases hang in a single gallery. Isabella, a wealthy eccentric, established in her will that no changes could be made to the permanent galleries, so when the paintings were cut out of their frames and stolen in 1990, the frames remained. Bostonians will visit the frames occasionally, show them off to foreign friends and say: “This is my favorite part - get a load of this.” No one is quite sure what happened that afternoon, but we’re all more than willing to tell you our version.

Likewise, the old State House. In the middle of Boston’s financial district, surrounded by the closest thing we have to a skyline, there sits a brick building from 1712. It commands attention, from the out-of-place Georgian architecture to the unicorn and lion above the entrance. Despite the building of a new state house, we kept the old state house, eventually repurposed as an entrance to the T (our underground transit system) and a museum.

To speak of defiance, it was poetry that saved the unsinkable frigate the USS Constitution the first time, and pennies the second. Now, the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world today is a museum and a Naval base, where commissioned sailors give tours to the curious. But twice the government tried to sink her, citing insufficient funds for her upkeep. And so Oliver Wendell Holmes, a citizen of Cambridge, a poet, and a doctor who incidentally and accidentally coined the phrase 'The Hub' to describe Boston, dashed off a poem praising the elegance of the frigate and her storied history. Bostonians rallied behind the ship and quickly raised enough funds to save the Constitution. In the midst of the Great Depression, the Boy Scouts of America raised enough pennies to again save the ship from certain doom. Old Ironsides is an enduring symbol of American engineering and spirit, a ship slated for destruction twice, and it belongs to us - to Boston. We didn’t let her sink and we never would.

Because Bostonians are defiant, because we do not let anyone take anything from us (see: the USS Constitution) , and the last to acknowledge our legends as false, we have a map built into our sidewalks that will show you our history, The Freedom Trail, and it is not uncommon to find people dressed in colonial garb anywhere in the city, eating ice cream at the annual Scooper Bowl fundraiser (the first week of June) or showing tourists the proper way to follow the Freedom Trail. This is why we observe Evacuation Day and Bunker Hill Day. This is why we celebrate Patriot’s Day by throwing a party that takes over the entire city. We invite the world to come and celebrate with us, too.

Every third Monday in April, the city is flooded by the blue and gold track jackets of the BAA, Boston Athletic Association. It is the oldest marathon in America and the largest public event in New England. We have our triumphant rituals surrounding the day - from Red Sox games to the majestic Dick and Rick Hoyt (a father and son who run together annually) - but perhaps most important is the finish line. It is no accident that the finish line is at Copley Square. There could be no other option.

From almost everywhere in Boston, you can see it. The John Hancock Tower rises from Clarendon Street like a knife, a building designed to reflect the past without ever casting its own shadow upon it. The walls are uninterrupted panes of glass that mirror back the Romanesque Trinity Church. Across this small plaza is a Renaissance Revival palace, the Boston Public Library. Khalil Gibran is memorialized outside, an excerpt from his letter to the BPL engraved beneath him, “It was in my heart to help a little, because I was helped much.” Do not ignore the grand staircase or the Roman courtyard in the center of the library; it’s certainly not the most impressive Roman courtyard in Boston, but it is free. A 'People’s Palace,' as intended. My beautiful little patch of anachronisms.

Copley is a distillation of all the best things about Boston. Free music every Thursday in July and August. Reverence for the past, while still eyeing the future. An abiding love for literature and art, indicated by the beauty of the library’s main building. Here, we celebrate our birth as a nation - not Independence Day, but Patriot’s Day, that first insistent bullet - by celebrating the endurance of human drive. Forget Philadelphia; forget Washington DC. Without Boston, you have no United States of America.

We are an anachronistic city, anchored in tradition, yet proudly progressive. Samuel Adams called us a beacon of liberty in the 1770s; we paved the way for abolition in the 1800s. We continue, today, to pave the way for civil liberties and equality. And this is what you will find at the finish line of the Boston Marathon next year. Not bombs or tears or fear - and certainly not stoicism. You will see our fierce, defiant pride, just as you will any other day in Boston You will see how easily we let slip the things we love. Let that be your enduring image of my home.