I Want My Father’s Boston!

What have they done to my grimy city of yore?

BOSTON—”This is not your father’s Boston,” proclaimed Brian McGrory in the July 26 Boston Globe. It was a dominant theme of the run-up to the Democratic convention. Susan Orlean, who reported in the July 26 New Yorker that once-fearsomely-tribal South Boston is losing its blue-collar character, told the New York Times that Boston has become “a place where people might flow through, rather than a city that is so entrenched that you feel like you’re walking around with a sandwich board saying, ‘I just got here.’ ” In the July 26 Washington Post, Jonathan Finer wrote that Boston “bristles at being labeled America’s Athens, a history-obsessed metropolis whose most prominent days are behind it.”

The State House

Well, gee, I kind of liked my father’s Boston. Not the racism, of course, which famously disrupted court-ordered school busing during the 1970s and made Boston a somewhat dangerous place for African-Americans to live. (A famous Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph showed an angry mob of white teenagers using an American flag as a lance to attack a black man named Ted Landsmark who had the misfortune to be walking by.) And not the Yankee prudery, which was pretty much a dead letter when I attended college here in the late 1970s. (Until his death last year, I had no idea that Richard J. Sinnott, Boston’s last municipal censor, didn’t retire until 1982.) But I did like the city’s much-mocked provincialism, which somehow coexisted with its identity as the country’s pre-eminent seat of learning. You couldn’t find a decent French restaurant here to save your life. Bostonians didn’t even know how to spell “bagel.” (The local spelling was “baigel.”) The Boston Globe was a cheerfully mediocre paper given to puffing the Kennedy family. Although the city knew it couldn’t hope to compete with New York as a cultural center, that knowledge didn’t seem to trouble its citizens much. Instead of cosmopolitanism, Boston had its own distinctive character. Hard work and learning and family loyalty were valued; material wealth and efficiency and candor were not.

Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge

It’s quite different now. The “Massachusetts Miracle” of the 1980s, which nearly got Michael Dukakis elected president, created one downtown real-estate boom; the Roaring ‘90s, another. Meanwhile, the Big Dig radically altered the public landscape by tearing down the city’s hideous traffic overpasses and designating much of the area on which they once stood as parkland. Acting in combination, these three events have caused in the last three decades a change to the look of Boston more radical than has occurred in any other major American city I can name. And the Big Dig isn’t even done! Boston is in the process of becoming a conventionally beautiful city, which it certainly didn’t used to be. Charles Bulfinch’s State House, for so long the main architectural symbol of Boston, has yielded to the new Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge. That’s where the visiting TV reporters are doing their “standups” this week.

Boston has succumbed to New York me-tooism. Where you can really see this is in the food. The Hub has become a culinary paradise, stuffed with the sort of restaurants that the writer Calvin Trillin mockingly refers to, collectively, as La Casa de la Maison House. Old-fashioned Yankee cooking, meanwhile, has become devalued, something to be embarrassed by and confined to the tourist traps rather than celebrated. You can’t find a decent plate of Indian pudding now to save your life. Meanwhile, the Globe, now owned by the New York Times Co., has become a ruthlessly tough newspaper, breaking most of the unflattering stories about its hometown candidate, John Kerry, and producing a bracingly thorough Kerry biography.

I know. I’m a hypocrite. As soon as I graduated from college, I high-tailed it to the meretricious world of material wealth, efficiency, and candor. There surely is nothing more irritating to a Bostonian than to hear a visitor like me complain that the place is no longer “quaint.” (Memo to Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam: When you attack this column, be kind.) To top it all off, I’m writing this from a Starbucks (because I haven’t yet fought my way into the Fleet Center, which replaced the sports arena that even people without Boston accents used to call the “Gahden,” and I need the wi-fi). No doubt Boston has to enter the modern world. All I ask is that, in noting this, commentators cease libeling the lovely backwater Boston used to be.