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My farewell love letter to Boston

New York and Paris had their charms, but I needed to come to the intellectual capital of this continent to truly feel free.

"This city is special," the author writes, "and Boston, so restrained in emotion, deserves to hear this more often."Wasin Pummarin

The first time I fell in love with Boston, I was living in Toronto. I had just turned 14 and it was late October, a time of hopelessly cold days, dark days. I was a kid without heroes.

I switched the television on and a baseball game was playing. The announcer said that the Boston Red Sox were down 3-0 in the American League Championship Series to the Yankees and that this one was a wrap. I sat there and watched, hour after hour, as Boston held on and players whose names soon became lore fought to keep their team alive. It was late into the night when David Ortiz smashed a home run to win the game. So began one of the greatest comeback stories of all time.

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I cheered that night and never forgot that feeling about Boston as the underdog, the insurgent, the outsider, cursed for a century but never losing faith.

Over the years, Boston would become a North Star for me. I lived and worked in many other cities and loved the experience and milieu each of them provided, but my mind was aspiring to Boston. New York had more money, and Washington had the seat of America’s government, but Boston — it had a certain spirit.

Last summer, I came here to begin a Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard University. Though I was living in Cambridge, I felt connected to Boston and the surrounding area. Cities can often disappoint, and those cities romanticized or put on a pedestal can be the most frustrating. Everyone has their “hit by reality” moment in New York, when the inevitable gluttonous rats (or landlords) make a misery out of one’s welcome. Meanwhile, in Paris, in addition to the merde de chien on the sidewalks, there are months-long stretches when it feels like a gloomy 4 a.m. outside at all hours.

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But after I arrived in Boston, I felt my shoulders relax as I inhaled the fresh New England air. I rented an apartment that became my sanctuary, a little intellectual headquarters by the river. I threw myself into my work, energized like never before, and spent time in the surrounding communities — Somerville, Brookline, and different parts of Boston itself. I would walk all over and watch as the buildings changed from street to street and new immigrants mingled with old at coffee shops and parks.

I valued this city for its history and energy — the intellectual climate. Boston is the cerebral center of this continent, even though that’s often taken for granted by locals. It is often the people born in a place who can become immune to its charms. For me, as a working-class Muslim kid, coming to Boston felt like a pilgrimage — here lay the temple of knowledge, the city seemed to be saying, and yes, you too can enter it. At some point, I started using the words “we” and “us” in relation to Boston.

In a world where so much is going wrong, there is much that Boston gets right.

Boston has clean roads and good parks — a big city with the soul of a small town. The people are polite for the most part, despite the loud honking and wild driving. Our monuments to liberty and people who have fought for it are humble compared with the gigantic and despotic monuments to enslavers that they have in the South. Our spirit is expansive, which is why the brightest minds flock here to study and be trained before they go heal the sick or repair democracy, locally and around the world.

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Boston is not without a history of racism and discrimination. It is sort of surreal to walk through Harvard and see the Agassiz family name adorning buildings: Louis Agassiz practically invented “racial science” and classifications based on arbitrary categories. Eugenics was once in vogue here. Racism is still too common in Boston. Inequality is also a major problem. The racial wealth gap is especially stark. It can be a struggle to make it in Boston.

Unlike in other cities, however, people here understand these problems, discuss them openly, and think about how to do better. Boston has a capacity for radical self-critique and improvement that transcends race or class. There’s a culture that encourages learning and self-transformation, and the legacies of the past are vibrant here. The first person to take a bullet for the cause of American liberty was a Black indigenous Bostonian named Crispus Attucks. It was here that the intellectual and moral case was made to crush what was once called the “Slave Power” that threatened the Union. For many of the dispossessed, Boston symbolized freedom.

Martin Luther King Jr. lived in Boston for three years, studying theology and receiving his doctorate. Malcolm X lived at 72 Dale Street, dropped out of middle school, and got into trouble on the streets of Cambridge and Boston. Before both these pioneers, Hồ Chí Minh — later North Vietnam’s leader — worked as a cook in the kitchen of the Parker House Hotel. Boston has a tendency to attract revolutionaries.

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But my Boston will forever be walks along quiet streets, the glitter of the Charles River, the serenity of the Common in the late afternoon amid Bostonians old and new. My Boston is a bookstore late at night, charming brownstone homes coming to life like fireflies as evening settles. It is the conversation with the Ethiopian cab driver who tells me he is blessed to now be from Boston. It is the feeling of expansiveness — of inspiration — I feel when I get off a train at South Station at dusk. My heart flows with gratitude for this place, because, in a way, I became a real man here, unafraid.

This city is special, and Boston, so restrained in emotion, deserves to hear this more often. I’m leaving again for new adventures, but I know it is temporary. I will be back in this great city that gave me what I always needed most: the space to think and be free.

Omer Aziz is the author of “Brown Boy: A Memoir” and a 2022-23 Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard.