I still remember the first time I saw the Boston skyline from the “other” side.
Some friends and I had visited a college buddy who lived south of Boston and, driving home at night, the city I’d known almost my entire life looked bigger, brighter . . . and utterly unfamiliar. Like seeing Orion upside down over Argentina, it was strangely enchanting.
That’s not a sentiment you often hear about the Southeast Expressway. But that sluggish lava flow of taillights has since become my runway to Boston, and even after 10 years, it still feels a little foreign.
I grew up north of Boston, where the city pops into view around Exit 33 in Medford. So when my wife and I bought our first house in Quincy after renting in the city for several years, my parents were dumbfounded; I might as well have told them we were moving to Tokyo, or Saturn.
Boston was neutral ground, as was MetroWest, where my more reasonable brother had settled. But the South Shore? They all but stated we’d be forfeiting any future chance of free baby-sitting. (It turns out the magnetic pull of a grandchild is even stronger than Boston traffic.)
We know a handful of other North Shore exiles here, but around Boston, it seems like people mostly stick to their side of the city — and view the other with something like curious fascination. “I get dizzy if I cross the bridge going north, it all looks like a giant strip mall to me,” jokes John Zuffante, one of my neighbors and a Quincy native.
In fact, residents who moved to the Boston area in the past year are more likely to have arrived from a different state or country than from another county in Massachusetts, according to census data.
Somerville Deputy Fire Chief Bill Hallinan and his wife both grew up in Somerville, and now live in Andover. Moving south of the city would be out of the question for many reasons, he says, but a big one is the roads. “On the South Shore, the traffic is terrible. Just terrible,” Hallinan says.
Dana Bull, a realtor with Sagan Harborside Sotheby’s International in Marblehead, grew up in Acton, where “both the North and South Shore seemed impossibly far,” she says. When Bull arrived in Salem for a job after college, she was stunned by the architecture and quintessential New England downtown. “It was like entering a whole new world that I never knew existed.”
Bull says choosing north or south is a common dilemma for couples with ties to opposite sides of the city. “I’ve seen a lot of couples settle in a neighborhood like Charlestown in order to be close enough to both,” she says.
My wife is from New York, so we were pretty agnostic about where we ended up, as long as it was a walkable community close to Boston and the ocean. I’ve become a big Quincy booster, but I still feel like something of an outsider, because I’m lacking some key South Shore cultural touchstones. I had never heard of Edaville Family Theme Park or Humarock Beach before moving here, for example — we went to Canobie Lake Park and Hampton Beach as kids. And I’ve never known so many people who play hockey.
Jenn Ormond, cofounder of the Quincy-born chain Coffee Break Cafe, has a friend who grew up on the North Shore but moved to Quincy about a decade ago — and still feels new to the area, as well. “She still drives to the North Shore for her errands, because it feels like home to her,” Ormond says.
Ormond doesn’t think it’s limited to a North Shore-South Shore divide, though; people just stay close to home, she says, wherever home is, because life is busy and complicated enough already. “I think we all live in our own happy bubble, and don’t want to venture too far out of our comfort zone,” she says. “But once you try it, you realize how small the world really is.”