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Becoming Bostonian

Stories of how we got here — and why we stay — from the forthcoming ‘Our Boston: Writers Celebrate the City They Love.’

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LET’S FACE IT, Boston isn’t a city you dream of moving to when you grow up. It doesn’t promise the glamour of Paris or the spitting energy of New York. There are plenty of places with more pleasant weather. No, Boston tends to be a city you come to for school, or for work, or because you’ve followed some boy or girl who, if you didn’t, would surely break your heart.

Yet, once you’re here, Boston has a way of getting under your skin. Maybe you graduate, or lose that job, or get your heart broken after all, but something still keeps you tied here. Perhaps it’s the friends or the food or the culture, perhaps the sports or the smarts; who knows, for these few perfect weeks of the year, it might even be the weather. Whatever it is, live here long enough and Boston will stop seeming provincial and reveal what it truly is: the perfect size for building a life. You can see yourself settling down here, getting a dog, maybe even starting a family. You can see a future.


Somehow, this all happens without you really noticing. One day Boston is a stopover on some journey heading to some other place, the next it’s home. And that’s when you realize: There’s no place on earth you’d rather be.


By Tova Mirvis

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This city wasn’t supposed to be mine. As a child, faced with the prospect of my family moving from Memphis to Boston, I tore up my Red Sox baseball cards in protest. “Is Carl Yastrzemski a good player?” I asked my brother, and upon discovering who he was, took extra pleasure in ripping that card in half. At a restaurant, I ordered the Boston cream pie — “hold the Boston.” “I AM NOT MOVING TO BOSTON,” I wrote on page after page in my diary.


Boston was a world away from the city where I was deeply rooted, where my family had lived for five generations, in a thicket of more relatives than I could identify and a close (sometimes overly close) community where I was identifiable not just by my name but by who my grandparents or great-grandparents were. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” my grandmother once said to me in her Southern drawl as she sat in the living room of the house she had lived in for more than 40 years. For her, Memphis wasn’t a place where she happened to live, but something visceral, entrenched, necessary to who she was.

To be from a place: For a Southerner, this was the crucial thing. Not where your house was, not where you happened to live, but some core element of who you were. To be from a place: This implied an almost metaphysical connection to this one spot of earth; it was indelible, regardless of where you lived the longest. To be from Memphis — this didn’t mean to have lived there for years but to have had a parent or a grandparent who was born there.

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Once I got over that early horror at the prospect of leaving Memphis (we didn’t), I longed for cosmopolitan, intellectual, arty urban spaces. “There’s nothing to do here,” my friends and I complained, imagining that other cities offered endless options for bored, restless teenagers. I left to go to college in New York City and knew that I probably wouldn’t live in Memphis again.


I was right that I wouldn’t again live there, and right, too, that Memphis — even just the word — would always evoke what it means to be rooted, to feel connected and necessary and whole. “How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home,” wrote William Faulkner, who captured more than anyone the Southern sense of place. More than 20 years since I have lived in Memphis, and the hottest, stickiest of days, in any city, when the air feels thick enough to swim through, makes me feel as if I am there. The sound of a Southern accent instantly carries me home: “Where are you from?” I feel compelled to ask strangers when I hear that slow lilt, wanting to tell them that even though they hear no trace of it in my voice, I, too, am from somewhere nearby.

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But New York — the Upper West Side more specifically — this was the city of my choosing. I went to college there, then graduate school, but was certainly not from there, never rooted, always transient. I finished school and stayed, still feeling as though I were on some kind of long-term student schedule, on an emotional visa that let me stay as long as I liked without ever becoming a resident. I carried a Tennessee driver’s license for 10 years after I stopped living there and only gave it up when it was pickpocketed from my bag. In Manhattan, it didn’t matter. I didn’t need a license. I had no need for a car. You needed to rent a car only when you intended to leave the city, which I could go months without doing.


I was newly married, then a young mother with a baby I walked to sleep on the streets of the city. That baby became a little boy who studied bus maps at the age of 4. For entertainment, I took him on the crosstown bus, where he happily told strangers how to get from any one location to another. He played T-ball in the living room of our apartment; a home run was hitting the wood of the china cabinet. Once, when visiting my parents in Memphis, he looked at the grass and asked if he was allowed to walk on it. We had another child, whom I strapped to myself as I pushed his brother in the stroller to school through rain, through snow. I was not going to move, not ever. One by one our friends with kids peeled away to the suburbs. I was still not going to move. Our apartment grew smaller. The city was too expensive. And there were other problems: a husband’s job that required him to be in his office at all hours, a growing feeling of something not right, and the strain of trying not to know that. We had to move, but where? We ruled out large swaths of the New York area. Anyplace felt random: a town in New Jersey — why there?


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Boston started to creep into the conversation. This was the city my husband was from, the city he loved, the city where his family lived. He was tired of being a Red Sox devotee among Yankees fans. He loved the Boston architecture, loved the intangible qualities that make a city itself. More than anything, Boston was his home. After 13 years in New York City, I, too, was ready to again feel a sense of permanence. I agreed. If not Manhattan, I thought, then anywhere else.

We strapped the kids into the back of a Volvo station wagon, our first car, and drove to the blue-shuttered white Cape we’d bought in Newton. We would have a yard. Our sons would play in Little League, not in the living room. Most of all, we would create the sense that we, together, were from somewhere. I watched how at home my husband felt here, and I hoped for vicarious belonging, a Bostonian by marriage. “What brought you to Boston?” people asked, and I would say we moved because my husband is from here, because he loves Boston, and I, a writer with a transportable career and no other place I wanted to live, could go anywhere.

All these good intentions, yet it caught me off guard how foreign Boston was, how decidedly not-from-here I felt. I spent my first few months going back and forth to New York. “How often do you go into the city?” someone here asked me, and I said about once a month — until I realized they meant Boston, not New York, which for me is still and always the city. Still feeling like that kid who’d asked the waitress to hold the Boston, I secretly rooted for New York sports teams, purposefully read the Times, not the Globe.

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More than anything, driving was how I knew I was not from here. Bostonians were a different breed of driver than the deferential Memphians I knew, where the only time you honked was when you were passing a friend and wanted to say hello. Here, there is no mercy for the tentative driver. What am I doing here? I asked myself again and again. I had foolishly decided not to buy a GPS, so I studied the maps, trying to take hold of the city in my mind, to grasp its turns before I set out in the car.

Months passed, and years. I made some friends, found things to like about living here. But still, I knew that this would never be where I was from. One day, I thought, we would move, not back to Manhattan or Memphis but to some other place where I would feel less of this sense of dislocation. Before we moved here, we had agreed that if I didn’t like it after three years or four years, we would leave, though that possibility was quickly lost amid the realities of jobs and mortgages and children. I begrudgingly learned to shovel snow and barrel over snowbanks at the foot of the driveway. I feigned good feelings toward the sports teams, though I quietly hoped for playoff losses so the kids would go to bed on time. The highways were still the stuff of my nightmares — I was terrified of making a wrong turn and somehow ending up on a bridge that would take me to some unknown highway, with no exits and no way back.

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After almost nine years of living here, we got divorced — this in its own way is to be from nowhere, cut off from your own past, every day unrecognizable, as you search out the most basic of landmarks. Gone is the idea that you know where you are headed, that you know who your friends are, that you know who you are. To get divorced is to feel entirely lost on streets that you could once navigate with your eyes closed. The past feels cut off, across a divide, barely visible behind you.

“Why did you move here?” I am asked now from time to time, and I stumble over the answer. Why exactly did I, I ask myself. What if we hadn’t moved here? I sometimes wonder. How would this, all of this, be different? “Because my ex-husband is from here” makes for a drawn-out story and a less than compelling reason, as though I’m some kind of stranded shipwreckee. In this city of history, my own personal history feels fractured. “Are you going to stay in Boston?” a few people asked soon after the divorce — people who clearly know little about custody law. Now there is no choice about Boston; like it or not, this is where I will be living for many years to come.

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But even if I could realistically entertain the idea of moving away from Boston, I’ve found, to my surprise, that I no longer want to leave. I have, however ironically and belatedly, started to feel at home. It’s not the at-home kind of feeling that my children have here, they who are emblazoned with Boston logos, who root for Bruins, Sox, and Celtics with the undivided passion of fans who know from where they come. Nor is my belated notion of home anything like that deep-seated sense that my grandmother expressed, that where you live is where you must live.

Instead, it’s the happenstance at-home feeling of a transplant — which is perhaps the most fitting way to feel in this college town and immigrant hub, a city of people who are from elsewhere, who live with a backward glance toward other homes no longer their own. How many of these people came for one reason — for school, a job, a fellowship — and have stayed long after that reason disappeared? How many of these people have found that Boston is a city in which you can always find another reason to be here, in which you can always start again?

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To be from somewhere else is to know that things change, that connections are broken, that people move on and away. It is to shed the idea that what is now will always be, that life can only be lived one way in one place. We all leave home sooner or later, all leave the idea of home as well. Living here still has an accidental feel, yet life itself has an accidental feel. It feels less important to be from somewhere, more important just to be somewhere.

In the past year or two, I’ve lost my fear of Boston driving, finally quieted that voice in my head that seeks an easier, alternate route, that whispers I can’t go there. The city and its surroundings have opened up. There are endless places to go, and I feel newly determined to explore them, as though I were arriving wide-eyed in the city for the first time. I’ve come to accept the inevitability of getting lost. There is an odd pleasure in not knowing exactly where I am. Even after living here for 10 years, few places feel cast with immense familiarity. It is easy to continually see this city anew.

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A wrong turn, trying to get to the Boston Common to take my daughter on the Swan Boats, and somehow we are across the Charles from where we intended to be, yet the consolation prize is to pass the domes of MIT and gaze at the white sails of boats against a bright blue sky, shimmering silver buildings in the distance. Keep driving, in varied direction, through the streets of downtown where history beats so loudly, past the Boston Public Library, in this city of writers and artists, past Trinity Church, which looks like it belongs more in some fabled fairy tale of castles and witch houses than in the middle of a modern, busy city. On an early summer day, drive past the Esplanade, where it seems the entire city is walking, because why would you be anywhere else — anywhere except for one of the kayaks or sailboats passing by, which remind you that you, too, could be spending your day doing this. Keep driving, and everywhere there is an abundance of students and colleges, fooling you into thinking that you are still this young, unencumbered age. Drive west on the Pike and the skyline gives way to the rise of mountains, a reminder that the abundance of tall buildings and the crowds of people are only one part of this larger place in which we live. Closer to home, Crystal Lake, where swimmers reportedly cross in the dark of night even though it’s prohibited, and the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, around 6 o’clock on a summer evening, where everyone, it seems, is fleet-footed and you believe momentarily that you, too, can run swiftly, endlessly.

For me, Boston is a city in which there is no grid, in which it’s all too easy to get lost, in which there is no clear pathway but an abundance of windy streets that change names and become one-way and lanes disappear as you drive down them. It is a city that reminds me we don’t end up where we thought we would; we don’t live only where we belong. We don’t always follow the paths that are laid out for us; we don’t arrive where we once were intended to go.

Tova Mirvis is the author of The Ladies Auxiliary and The Outside World. Her third novel, Visible City, will be published in 2014.


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By Madeleine Blais

The Boston I encountered in the early 1970s was scrappier than today’s version. The broad strokes of the city were, and are, easy to discern: the love of learning, the mix of young and old, politics as sport, and sport as religion. Sister Corita’s art (pronounced aht) on a liquefied natural gas tank in Dorchester, huge dripping bands of color, introduced whimsy where you least expected it. The waitresses at Durgin-Park shoved bloody slabs of rare roast beef at customers amid shouts of “More chowdah!” Their rudeness had the durability of a landmark. The Charles River, which everyone said would someday be clean enough to swim in, radiated, at best, a murky pride. On the other side of the river was Cambridge, home of MIT and Harvard, a city Bostonians sometimes dismissed as “conseeded” — practically the worst thing you can be in Boston, worse even than a Yankees fan.

In those days, half my disposable income went to Filene’s Basement, where every purchase was a word problem in math. How many days does a Priscilla of Boston wedding dress have to languish on the rack before it is marked down by one-third divided by a half minus 10 percent? Women stripped in the aisles to see if something fit. Forget the Combat Zone: Filene’s Basement was known as the best peep show in town.

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Boston had not only its own accent but also its own favorite vocabulary, such as the word “pol,” short for politician. The more prominent the pol, the more likely he was to be known by his first name or nickname: Barney. Teddy. Tip. Dapper.

Boston had secret status markers: Slowly but surely, like a Polaroid photo (invented by a onetime Harvard student), blankness yielded to smudgy impressions and then to clarity. Eventually one learned where to dine (Locke-Ober), what to order (finnan haddie), and how to describe a person who graduated from Boston College High School, Boston College, and Boston College Law School (a triple Eagle).

Back Bay and Beacon Hill overflowed with college students. Cheap digs, still possible, became even cheaper when boomers, in faded jeans and flannel shirts, piled into them and shared the rent. The less attention the tenants paid to housekeeping, the more quickly they could lay claim to living in a commune. Groovy!

The South End (not the same as Southie; very confusing to an outsider) was all but abandoned, boarded up and decaying in the shadow of the new Prudential building. Nearby, the Hancock Tower became famous because its windows kept misbehaving — kept, in fact, popping out. In Boston, the underutilized SAT word “defenestration” filtered into common conversation. As a result, everyone in Boston sounded wicked smaht.

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Madeleine Blais is the author of In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle and other books. She teaches in the journalism department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.


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By Jabari Asim

“You’re the first black man I’ve ever known who actually wanted to move to Boston,” said a male colleague, also African-American.

“You know, it’s cold up there,” warned a friend who’d spent most of her winters in windy Chicago.

My nonblack friends were unanimous in their support for my family’s move east from Champaign, Illinois. More than a few of my black friends were surprised and even discouraging. Via Facebook, one acquaintance felt compelled to provide a brief lecture on the dangers of racism.

I’ve been writing about our country’s tortured racial history for nearly three decades, so Boston’s shameful past and intermittently difficult present weren’t unfamiliar to me. Episodes from that past had even made their way into my books and essays from time to time. My research had taught me that part of Boston’s famed Beacon Hill neighborhood was commonly referred to as “Nigger Hill.” I had quoted Southern opponents of Northern hypocrisy such as US Senator Robert Hayne of South Carolina, who in 1830 included Boston in his condemnation of big cities where “there does not exist on the face of the whole earth, a population so poor, so wretched, so vile, so loathsome, so utterly destitute of all the comforts, conveniences and decencies of life, as the unfortunate blacks.” I knew that one of the largest elementary schools in Boston bore the name of Louis Agassiz, a 19th-century Harvard professor and ardent white supremacist responsible for some of the most maliciously racist pseudoscholarship ever published.

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In the modern era, while the Willie Horton spectacle and the Charles Stuart fiasco also have extensive shelf lives, Boston’s turbulent busing years continue to resonate beyond the city’s borders, perhaps even more durably than Bostonians realize. Many African-Americans of my generation have never forgotten the photo showing a rabid young white man attacking a black Boston attorney, Ted Landsmark, with an American flag in 1976. That image, although thirty-some years old, was cited more often than any other when black friends responded to my moving plans.

I was only dimly aware of Boston’s busing turmoil when I came to town a year after the flag attack for my sister’s graduation from Brandeis. While I was taking an evening stroll with my father not far from campus, a car pulled up beside us. The young white men inside shouted at us, calling us “niggers” and urging us to “go home.” We declined to acknowledge them and they soon tore away, spewing a cloud of exhaust. Earlier that year, whites in my hometown of St. Louis had called me that same epithet twice, once at my high school and another time as I walked to tennis practice at a nearby park. It had been just as ugly and stupid then, and the experience in Boston simply confirmed what I already knew: Racism was everywhere, and you didn’t have to go looking for it. As sure as the sun rises, it will find you.

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On that same trip, my father tried and failed to use the facilities at four different gas stations. At each stop the proprietor coldly looked my father up and down before derisively informing him that the restroom was broken, closed, or otherwise unavailable. Did they turn him away because he is black? He couldn’t prove it, he admitted, but he had a feeling.

He had felt the same sensation many times in St. Louis, where a lifetime of slights had sharpened his awareness. My hometown, as much as many other American places, has a twisted history of racial outrage, laden with atrocities, humiliations, public confrontations, and systematic deceptions. As with Boston, the significance of its track record can hardly be overestimated, but is by no means unique. Whenever a friend singled out Boston for its racism, I always wondered where the accuser had been born and raised. Did his hometown have a miraculously blemish-free history? Each time, I recalled that scene in A Soldier’s Story when the sergeant, played by Adolph Caesar, tries to distinguish himself from the dysfunctional South. “Well,” says Private Peterson, played by Denzel Washington, “where are you from? England?” If blacks want to live in a place free of a racist past and free of present-day racists, we’d have to go to the moon.

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I don’t expect racism to end any time soon, and a flurry of events unfolding as I write this essay — Paula Deen’s wistful recollection of the antebellum South, the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, the George Zimmerman murder trial — demonstrate that post-racial America remains a fantastic ideal, “to be pursued but never attained,” as Haile Selassie would have put it. W.E.B. Du Bois, himself a son of Massachusetts, once argued that the typical black American simply wished to pursue his destiny without “having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.” My wife, Liana, and I have always felt that the best way to honor those striving African-Americans of yesteryear is to become Strivers, relentlessly chasing after our own fate. Opportunity awaited us in Boston, and we saw no reason to resist its overtures.

In 1945, Richard Wright wrote about blacks in cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago desiring “a life compatible with the dignity of their aspirations.” For us, Boston held as much promise as any other place we’d lived. We arrived to find a black governor presiding at the State House and black athletes welcoming the adulation of sports fans once widely considered the most racist in the United States. That such heartening occurrences can take place amid economic inequality, disparate incarceration rates, and other dispiriting realities is almost to be expected in a country whose citizens can elect a black president while keeping his most reactionary opponents in office.

Boston at its best and worst embodies the profound contradictions of our age. The warring impulses and unreconciled strivings that Du Bois attributed to African-Americans are symptoms not just of the Bay State but also of the country at large.

An associate professor of creative writing at Emerson College, Jabari Asim is the executive editor of the NAACP’s Crisis magazine. Among the books he has authored is The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why.


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BOSTON, 1972

By Katherine A. Powers

In her notorious hatchet job of 1959, Elizabeth Hardwick wrote that Boston was “wrinkled, spindly-legged, depleted of nearly all her spiritual and cutaneous oils, provincial, self-esteeming.” Its great vice, she said, was smugness. I daresay that was true enough in the circle in which she moved, being married to Robert Lowell and all, but her crowd was quite a different one from mine.

When I arrived in 1972, lonely and poor, my plan was to get a job, probably as a bartender, and once I had made a lot of money, I would become something more distinguished, perhaps a novelist, maybe a doctor. Step one was a little more difficult than I had expected, as there were few openings for women behind the bar in the Boston of that distant day. Indeed, a number of them banned women from even entering their sacred portals.

I eventually got a job behind the takeout counter at the Schrafft’s restaurant in the Prudential Center’s arid shopping concourse. I showed up at 6:30 a.m., Monday through Friday, in a black nylon skirt and white Dacron blouse to start the coffee and set out Boston’s breakfast: piles of doughnuts and a few crullers for more sophisticated palates. I had to learn what a “regular coffee” was and, when it came to lunchtime, the meaning of BLT, tonic, frappe, and even mayo. Behind my counter, I worked the morning rush with a man called Joe, who I am sure is dead now. He looked like an ancient jockey and liked to call me — who could give him at least 6 inches — “the wee Irish colleen.”

Joe was visited practically every day by a runner for “the numbers,” but his greatest pleasures were romantic. He liked to arrange the doughnuts and crullers in obscene formations not recognized by the female customers for whom they had been erected. “Grab a crullah,” Joe would invite selected typists and secretaries who came down to us from the Prudential Insurance Co.

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I recently went to the Prudential Center to try to figure out where Schrafft’s used to be, and it was impossible. The building’s wind-torn plaza and forlorn concourse have been given a transfusion of life. Those gray and lonely spaces are now filled with plants and people, shopping and eating, something Bostonians used to do, but not in so many places and certainly not with such festive abandon.

When I first came here, the food, except in the North End, was as dispiriting as any you could find in Ireland or, indeed, in the resolutely unfrivolous Cambridge, across the river. Boston was, lest it be forgotten, the birthplace of Fannie Farmer’s cookbook, a work in which the first sentence of the original edition’s opening chapter sounds the tocsin: “Food is anything which nourishes the body.”

Put another way, this was a city whose inhabitants thought Indian pudding was edible and for whom the only known culinary sin was putting tomatoes in clam chowder, as the godless people of New York did. Except on the subjects of chowder, steamers, and pie, I sensed a resigned feeling about eating in Boston, but then the New England of that time was permeated with such an air of frugality that the lines between traditional Yankee stinginess, actual lack of money, and simple indifference were not easy to draw. But something else was at work. I began to see the city’s attitude toward food as being part of a general air of endurance, one that sprang from one source: the Red Sox. Even though in 1972 Boston had two winning teams in the Celtics and Bruins, the tribulations of its baseball team colored its character, injecting the populace with a rueful, stoical streak, which dissolved finally, and I think forever, in October 2004.

A former books columnist for the Globe, Katherine A. Powers writes “A Reading Life” for the Barnes & Noble Review.


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By Joan Wickersham

Every city has a nickname, used primarily by people who don’t live there. New Yorkers don’t talk about “The Big Apple,” tourists do. My sister, who lives in Chicago, has never mentioned the wind to me. Boston, where I’ve lived for more than 30 years (well, Cambridge, which for the purposes of this essay is close enough), is sometimes referred to as “The City on a Hill.” If nicknames in general have little chance of catching on, this one seems particularly clunky. It reeks of rhetoric — in fact, it was first applied to Boston in a Bible-quoting speech by Puritan John Winthrop in 1630 — and it has a kind of self-conscious eagerness about it, a panting and futile wish to be adopted. It shows up in guidebooks and political speeches, but that’s about it.

Still, though I never heard the phrase while I was growing up in New York and then Connecticut, that’s what Boston seemed like to me. I first encountered the city in a novel, Johnny Tremain, which I read in fifth grade. Boston! It was a place of sunlit wharves and screaming fishwives, silversmiths and revolution, coffeehouses and roasted squabs, and arrogance and heartbreak, and a night spent crying alone among the gravestones. Its place names — Hancock’s Wharf, Beacon Hill, Copp’s Hill, the Neck — were deeply familiar to me (I read the book at least a dozen times) and imbued with a kind of bright glamour. Boston was sharp, smart, alive, beckoning. It shimmered in the distance on its hill. I lived there, though I’d never been there.

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In our early 20s, my husband and I moved from Connecticut to Cambridge. He was starting architecture school, and I got a job as an advertising copywriter. We fell in love with the bookstores in Harvard Square (in the early ’80s there were more than a dozen), found records at the Coop and Briggs & Briggs, bought cards and Advent calendars from the gentle hovering ladies at Olsson’s gift shop. We did volunteer work for Physicians for Social Responsibility, went for walks in Mount Auburn Cemetery, saw the Christmas Revels in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre.

That was all Cambridge, but I was getting to know Boston, too. The first ad agency where I worked was in Back Bay and the second was downtown. Walking around on my lunch hour, I found places that made me nostalgic for an older Boston I had never known, vestiges of what I thought of, affectionately, as Stodgy Boston: the little marble tables at Bailey’s ice cream shops; Makanna’s, a store on Boylston Street where you could still find lace handkerchiefs and seersucker blanket covers; and, a few doors down, with a gilded swan suspended over its doorway, the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, a venerable social welfare institution that ran a genteel shop where I bought needlepoint wool and a set of six old Portuguese side chairs.

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Then we had children, and again the city opened itself to us in new ways. We got to know the playgrounds and the schools, the aquarium and the Children’s Museum, the plesiosaur skeleton and stuffed mammals at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, the ship-model rooms at the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Mathematica exhibit at the Museum of Science. We got lost going to birthday parties in parts of the city where we’d never been, which always seemed to involve driving on either McGrath Highway or Monsignor O’Brien Highway, two roads we confused so often that we began trying to psych ourselves out by choosing the one that felt intuitively wrong, only to find that that one, too, was incorrect.

Another place where we always got lost was Jamaica Plain, which is adjacent to Boston — part of it, in fact — but which seemed to be in a different place every time we tried to find it. Then our kids grew up and our older son got an apartment there and we started going there a lot, and Jamaica Plain, too, became part of the Boston we knew.

A city on a hill is a city viewed from a distance: a symbol. But once you live there, it’s the city where you get stuck in traffic on Storrow Drive, where you go to the dry cleaner on Brattle Street because the one on Mass. Ave. kept smashing the buttons on your shirts, where you’ve been a patient in a couple of the hospitals and a visitor to patients in pretty much all of them, and where you walk by the building with the Moorish windows on the corner of Newbury and Dartmouth streets and wonder about Anne who used to live there, and Barbara and Ed who used to live there, and you realize you’ve been here long enough to remember the women’s clothing store that used to be on the ground floor of that building and the video store that replaced it and the French interior design store that went in after that, which is gone now, too.

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Once you are in it and of it, Boston stops being a city on a hill, a place you might aspire to and generalize about. It’s not a tough town or a resilient town or a stodgy town or a glittering town or a small town or a big town. You can’t see it anymore. It’s quotidian.

It’s maddening and beloved and you wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. It’s yours.

Joan Wickersham’s most recent book, The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story, was named one of 2012’s best fiction picks by National Public Radio and other outlets. She is also an Op-Ed columnist for the Globe.

Essays adapted from Our Boston: Writers Celebrate the City They Love, edited by Andrew Blauner. Copyright © 2013. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. All rights reserved. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.


Soon after the Boston Marathon bombings, literary agent and book editor Andrew Blauner began searching for a way to honor those affected — the victims, the first responders, the city as a whole — in a work of art. The result is Our Boston, an anthology of 29 original essays on Boston by some of the best writers, including the Globe Magazine’s own Neil Swidey, as well as seven reprints of classics by the likes of John Updike. The collection will be released on October 15, the six-month anniversary of the bombings, and $5 of each sale will go to the One Fund for victims. Blauner says he hopes the book itself, in some small way, will help the healing as well. “It’s a celebration of what makes Boston the special, endearing, and enduring place that it is.”

Event During this year’s Boston Book Festival, Blauner and several contributors, including Madeleine Blais and Leigh Montville, will appear on a panel moderated by WBUR’s Bob Oakes. The free event at Trinity Church begins at 11 a.m. on October 19. bostonbookfest.org