Over the past several weeks, something has changed in Boston. Actually, a lot of things. Sailboats have appeared on the Charles River. Parking spots have started to open up. Teenagers have started buying tickets to matinee movies just for the air conditioning. Music is pouring out of open car windows. Like a molting harbor seal, the city is undergoing an annual ritual as invigorating as it is familiar.
Summer is special in every American city, as public swimming pools open for business, people switch to iced coffee, and festivals fill parking lots with the smell of delicious grilled meats. But in Boston, which is home to an astonishing 152,000 people who are enrolled in institutions of higher learning, summer is something else, too: an occasion for a metamorphosis that transforms how the city works and how it feels to live in it.
“There is this wonderful little sigh of relief, like, ‘Oh boy, we have our town to ourselves for a while,’” said Mary Catherine Deibel, one of the owners at Upstairs on the Square, a restaurant near the Harvard campus. “And that’s very pleasant.”
From Medford to Newton, Comm. Ave. to JFK Street, the mass exodus of students leaves in its wake what amounts to a second city — a place that isn’t just warmer and sunnier than it is during the rest of the year, but different in specific, surprising, and delightfully measurable ways.
While some of the symptoms are predictable enough — the nightclubs aren’t as packed, liquor stores sell fewer kegs of Miller High Life — others are hiding just out of sight, embedded in the movement of our subway cars and buses, the work of our police force, and the contents of our garbage trucks. To take stock of Boston at that frequency, to listen in to its idiosyncrasies, is to appreciate exactly what it is that makes the summer version of our city a place of its own.
For Lisa Gozashti, the fiction buyer at Brookline Booksmith, summer in Boston makes itself known through her customers’ buying patterns, which change with the season. Travel guides always do well in summer, for obvious reasons, especially ones about New England. And there’s an uptick in the sale of paperbacks, which people read on the beach. But some more unexpected titles get a bump as well, including philosophical tomes by Soren Kierkegaard and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Towering about them all, however, is “Infinite Jest,” David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus, which trickles out at about one copy per month before suddenly selling a whopping 15 every June.
Gozashti’s theory is that “Infinite Jest,” which is set in Boston, does well because of its famously daunting page count — the paperback runs to 1,079 pages, with footnotes — which some readers decide to tackle during the summer months after spending all year feeling too busy to take it on. Other books that spike at the Booksmith every summer — Jack Kerouac’s coming-of-age classic “On the Road,” for example — are probably popular among adventure-bound young adults everywhere. But the seasonal Wallace boom is a particularly Bostonian form of summer reading.
At Raising Cane’s, a restaurant franchise operated by BU, the number of chicken fingers sold per week plummets from about 30,000 to just 15,000.
In summer, T trains rumble through the city’s tunnels with less human cargo: According to the MBTA, the four subway lines — Red, Green, Blue, and Orange — registered about a million fewer rides in July 2012 than they did the following October. Up in the sky, meanwhile, the density of zooming wireless signals lightens up: According to data collected and analyzed by AirSage, the number of people using tablets, cellphones, computers and other wireless devices in Harvard Square fell 14 percent from May 6, when class was still in session, to June 3, which was after finals and graduation. (Around MIT, that number fell by more than 15 percent.)
A separate analysis by the firm Topsy showed that the number of Twitter messages sent from the Boston area last year — including the city itself as well as Cambridge, Somerville, Medford, and Newton — clocked in at 7,241,994 in October and just 6,101,800 in July — a difference of almost 19 percent.
The absence of the students can be felt store by store. At Stingray Body Art, a tattoo and piercing parlor in Allston, owner Scott Matalon says his summer customers are much less likely to ask for quotes from books and movies, song lyrics, scientific formulas, and mathematical equations. And, he adds, because “more of the people who live and work here throughout the year...tend to have more money, they tend to get larger tattoos.” A few blocks away, meanwhile, Dmetrios Papaslis at the Princeton Barber Shop says summertime usually means a lot fewer young guys coming in asking for the fade, with business overall dropping off by about 20 percent.
Finale in Harvard Square, the romantically lit dessert hub, sees a similar decline, with noticeably fewer couples coming in for date night. At Raising Cane’s, a restaurant franchise operated by BU, the number of chicken fingers sold per week plummets from about 30,000 to just 15,000. And at Papa John’s Pizza on Tremont Street, which delivers to students at BU and Northeastern, the drop-off is similarly dramatic: Chris Johnson, one of the general managers, estimates that the store’s business falls by 45 percent. During the school year, he says, the phone starts ringing off the hook at 2 a.m., and pizzas are leaving the store for delivery till 3 in the morning or even later. During the summer, by contrast, the store’s management simply closes the store at 1 a.m. “You just hunker down and wait for the kids to come back,” said Johnson. “But it’s bad.”
Papa John’s is not alone in weathering a drop in demand for late-night munchies: According to the online delivery service GrubHub, the number of orders placed between midnight and 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights drops in the summer by 10 percent and 14 percent, respectively. And the amount of waste that leaves the area declines, too. Boston University produces about 160 tons of recycling per month during the school year; in the summer, when its dorms sit mostly empty, the total is just over half that.
For all the people leaving Boston in the summer, there are huge numbers of out-of-towners pouring in to temporarily take their place. (Nothing says summer in Boston like competing Paul Reveres leading tour groups from Park Street to Faneuil Hall.) As they do, Bostonians have some other kinds of company on the roads. The city’s iconic Duck Boat fleet begins to wake from its winter hibernation around March, and grows as the weather warms. By mid-June, its full roster of 28 amphibious craft is deployed, weaving through narrow city streets, into the river, and back out again.
Summer traffic can seem relaxed, quiet even, but drivers also know they’re in a circumscribed city with its own summer rules. Avoid Memorial Drive on Sundays, when the road closes near Harvard; track the Red Sox schedule religiously so you know when to steer clear of Kenmore Square. And whatever you do, avoid Route 3 south toward the Cape on Saturday mornings.
The city’s changing travel patterns also show up in its bike-sharing system. According to data collected by Hubway, bike racks located near tourist destinations are much more popular drop-off points during the summer than in the fall, while racks located near college campuses are relatively less active. In August 2012, for instance, a whopping 2,947 bikes were dropped off at the Boston Public Library; the following October, that number fell to 2,113. Over by BU, on the other hand, the number of bikes picked up rose from 787 last August to 900 just two months later, when school was back in session.
Of course, some things do stay the same. According to numbers from the Boston Transportation Department, parking violations bounce around from month to month but don’t really follow a seasonal pattern. So parking may feel easier during the summer, but you’re just as likely to get a ticket in July as you are in March. Which perhaps you can take as reassuring: Underneath, it’s still the same city after all.Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.