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City life fits to a T

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-credit Rebecca Gibbon

In 1970 we bought the first place we saw — the ugliest building on the ugliest street in Boston on the north slope of Beacon Hill near the Charles Street T station. The concrete sidewalks were cracked. There were no trees. Although the neighborhood is famous for its red-brick Greek Revival houses, ours was a forlorn four-story yellow-brick tenement.

We paid more for that building than we would have for any of the suburban houses our contemporaries were moving into. We combined two apartments into a duplex for us. The two apartments above helped with the mortgage. When my husband's mother saw our building, she cried.

She wasn't the only one who thought we were missing the good life. We took our little girls camping in Nickerson State Park on the Cape one weekend. The campers next to us, from South Boston, said how sorry they were that we weren't able to move from the city. That was their plan, and that was before busing.


But we wanted city life. Both my husband and I had grown up on Illinois farms, 2 miles apart. Since college we had lived in big cities. We feared the suburbs had none of the pleasures of either a rural or an urban location.

Besides, my husband worked downtown. We wanted him spending time with us, not in a car.

So we remodeled. A couple at my husband's firm gave us their old kitchen cabinets. Every evening we sanded and painted. At first we barely noticed the small yard behind our building, but soon we were digging up weeds, lugging in bluestone, and erecting a jungle gym.

Things weren't perfect. Our battered car was stolen. I caught a thief: He was hanging from the top-floor tenant's window, and he scrambled in when he saw me. He ran down the adjacent building's staircase, and I grabbed him at the front door. By then the police were there; he went off to prison in Concord. My husband's parents, visiting at the time, became even less impressed with our housing choice.

But we were OK. The mayor, Kevin White, had promised improvements to every neighborhood. Beacon Hill got brick sidewalks, gaslights, and trees. Our street didn't look so bad.


Our children's preschool was a short walk away. So were small grocery stores, the post office, and the cleaners. We met other city-devoted parents through a baby-sitting pool. We took the subway. For two years, we hadn't owned a car.

When our duplex became too small for our growing girls, we bought the two buildings next door because they had gardens, which we now appreciated. We sold one building to a wonderful neighbor, who is still here. Our new building had five stories, so we would live on three, again with two apartments to help pay the mortgage.

City living got better. It's safer. It's now desirable. Our T station was remodeled, the old copper walls preserved. The jail our girls used to watch to see whether anyone escaped became a hotel where we celebrate Christmas Eve. Our daughters, one in New York City, the other in rural New Hampshire, have families of their own. They thank us for raising them in Boston.

We never had to downsize because we never had much space anyway. As empty nesters, we never had to move back into the city. We are already here.

Karen Cord Taylor, who founded and served as editor and publisher of the Beacon Hill Times for 13 years, is a columnist for four downtown Boston weekly newspapers and two websites. She can be reached at karen@bostoncolumn.com. Send your essay about your first home to Address@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won't pursue.