15 things to love and 11 things to loathe about Boston
There’s a lot to like here in the (cough) Hub of the Universe. But we wouldn’t be Bostonians if we didn’t have complaints.
Bostonians know they hate us ’cause they ain’t us. It’s nothing new — the rest of the country has been looking up at the City on a Hill since, oh, the Puritans. The founders’ descendants are still here, jostling those who arrived later, probably because they were caught in one of our world-famous traffic jams. For every sports triumph, there’s a slacktastic fashion faux pas; for every budget-friendly trip to Market Basket, there’s an apartment broker ready to devour your nest egg. Read on for more tales of our faves and fails.
Love: That Boston Way With Words
I love the way people with Boston accents pronounce popcorn: pupcawn. Despite growing up just outside the city, I never developed the accent — but always appreciated and somewhat envied people with a real Boston twang, especially when they’d say pupcawn. What makes pupcawn so special is its two syllables, giving it double the accent excitement. Syllable one is pup — so quick, so cute, like a baby hiccup. Then syllable two, cawn, which packs a punch similar to other aggressive Boston accented words like cah and pahk. When you combine the adorable pup and the rugged cawn together, you’ve got a wicked friggin’ awesome audible experience. And if you use pupcawn in a sentence with another Boston accent word you’ve truly just made me the happiest person on earth. I once overheard a woman in Somerville say, “I spilled pupcawn all over my shawts,” and I fell to my knees with joy. — Giulia Rozzi / Writer and performer
Just listen for yourself in the audio clip below:
Loathe: Apartment Brokers
Question: What do you call it when a stranger takes 2,000 of your hard-earned dollars, providing you no viable service and giving you absolutely nothing in return?
Anywhere else in America, you’d call it felony larceny. Here in Boston, they call it a broker’s fee. A phenomenon almost uniquely local, the broker’s fee has become an essentially inescapable part of the city’s rental market. If you haven’t had the displeasure of renting an apartment in the city in recent years, it works like this: You find a promising unit on Zillow or Craigslist, and schedule an appointment to view it. When you arrive, a broker — hired by the landlord — unlocks the door and gives you a five-minute tour. In exchange for this grueling work, said broker requires you pay a nonrefundable fee typically equal to one month’s rent.
Not since Pablo Sandoval has someone been paid so much to do so little.
Give me anybody but brokers. Give me liars and cheats. Give me the fake monks of Faneuil Hall. Hell, give me pickpockets — at least I can respect the craft.
To the brokers out there, I gotta ask: Is this what you aspired to as children? Of course, after watching you drain my savings account of thousands of dollars, another question occurs to me:
You guys hiring? — Dugan Arnett / Globe staff
Love: Commuter Trainspotting
It’s Friday evening rush hour. Most passengers have plugged in their earbuds. The balding conductor is making his rounds; he asks a blonde in an aisle seat for her ticket. The fiftyish woman giggles and slurs her words. She doesn’t have one. As he tallies her fare, she wags an arm toward the stairs in the double-decker car and chortles, “If I get up there, can I dance it off?” Somehow, he remains straight-faced as he informs her it’s cash, credit, or pay by app.
Welcome to the commuter rail. It’s comic. It’s dramatic. It’s straight out of the theater of the absurd.
An excitable dog named Virgil once jumped in my lap. Another time I spent an entire trip trying to determine whose ringtone was the theme from The Exorcist. I’ve heard a conductor ask a disembarking young man, “Did you hold up my train to hug some chick?” I’ve smirked as another conductor announced, “Passengers should watch their step getting off the choo-choo.” And I’ve watched a man peeved by a speaker-phone chat sit down next to the stunned offender and say, “I just thought I’d come over and join the conversation, since the whole train is listening to it anyway.”
If you’re stuck on the commuter rail, you might as well enjoy the show. — Stacey Myers / Globe staff
Love: Our Mighty Squad of Female Politicians
From John Hancock to John Adams, Barbara Lee likes to call Massachusetts the “original old boys’ club.” As progressive as our politics are, female candidates have had a tough time breaking the glass ceiling in the Commonwealth. But today, the state’s brightest political stars are women: Senator Elizabeth Warren, Representatives Katherine Clark and Ayanna Pressley, Attorney General Maura Healey, Boston City Council president Andrea Campbell, and Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu. Their futures are so bright that out of this list could emerge the first female president of the United States, the first elected female governor of Massachusetts, and the first female mayor of Boston. The not-so-secret ingredient has been Lee, a Cambridge activist, who over the past three decades has been advising and personally donating millions of dollars to female candidates. She has helped elect 170 women in 33 states, including every sitting Democratic female governor and female US senator. In Massachusetts alone, she has helped 92 women win office. The old boys’ club probably never saw any of this coming. — Shirley Leung / Globe columnist
Loathe: Being Both Uncool and Expensive
According to a 2018 analysis from Bloomberg, Boston is the seventh most expensive place to live. In the world. For many others on the list — including New York City and London — the egregious cost of living is mitigated by the fact that one lives in a cool city. Residents can routinely eat well after midnight, dance until locals are headed to work, and meet interestingly dressed people who create memorable things (art, theater, fashion, culture).
For all its charms, Boston doesn’t ooze cool. Budding cool people come here to go to school but then usually leave, because Boston’s relative proximity to great places — Cape Cod, NYC, Europe — may not be reason enough to suffer through monstrous traffic, soul-sucking winters, disappointing meals at overpriced Back Bay restaurants, and Howie Carr.
Don’t get me wrong: Boston is a smart, beautiful, literary, sports-rich place where one can meander through pretty parks and get plenty of sleep. After nearly two decades of living here, Boston has become my overpriced, uncool city, and I’ll defend it against any jerk with a hyphenated French name who grew up in once-cool San Francisco. Although it’s getting harder not to fantasize about moving to our cheaper, cooler neighbor to the south: Providence. — Benoit Denizet-Lewis / A writer in Boston
Love: Market Basket
Shopping at Market Basket really is a microcosm of life in Boston. Parking is horrible. Once inside, it can be confusing — there are endless aisles, with plenty of cart-jams along the way, instigated by assertive operators (me included). It’s filled with unusual local products proudly beloved by natives, such as Howard’s relish (hot, not sweet) and Cains mayonnaise. Oh, and the bargains. We’re a thrifty bunch, and Market Basket plays right into our tendencies. Every so often, someone will announce a promotion over the speakers, reminding shoppers that here you get “more for your dollar,” in an accent that only a true Bostonian can decipher. And despite the no-frills atmosphere, the employees are some of the kindest, most hardworking people in the business — every male employee sports a tie, a nod to the dignified shopping experiences of yore.
Most of all, Market Basket’s patrons are fiercely loyal and wouldn’t think of spending money anywhere else. I’m one of them: I spent my childhood beneath these fluorescent lights, back when Market Basket was still called DeMoulas. I grew up prowling for store-brand sarsaparilla and family packs of sugary cereals for vacations in Maine and wanting to hide behind the hot dog rolls while my nana bargained over the price of honey-baked ham at the deli with a guy whose mother she knew from the Lowell High School Girl Officers brigade. Shop anywhere else, and I feel like a fancy traitor. Are the fruits glossier elsewhere? Perhaps. Are the aisles wider? No doubt. But DeMoulas was good enough for my nana, and it’s good enough for me. — Kara Baskin / Globe contributor
Love: Our Ice Cream Crush
Living below the Mason-Dixon line in my 20s, people looked at me like I was crazy when I craved a hot fudge sundae in mid-January. How happy I was to return home to New England, where we eat more ice cream per capita than any other region and where I grew up eating Hoodsies with a wooden spoon no matter the weather (chocolate half first, naturally). This fact really captures our hardy nature: Even snow and windchills can’t keep us from brain freezes if the payoff is sweet bliss. Best of all, we have plenty of delightfully oddball places to indulge: Cabot’s, the old-timey Newton parlor that just turned 50. Early weird-flavor innovators like Christina’s, Rancatore’s, and Toscanini’s. Home-grown staples like Emack & Bolio’s (founded by Aerosmith’s music lawyer — can’t get more Boston than that) and J.P. Licks. And these are just the year-round shops. Every true Bostonian knows that summer doesn’t start without a Kimball’s special, a twist at Dairy Joy (coffee with sprinkles for me), or a soft serve at Sullivan’s. When it comes to cones, we’re the cream of the crop, no waffling about it. — Kara Baskin
Some view them as dizzying hellscapes filled with honking, bird-flipping, and rear-ending. But the problem isn’t rotaries. The problem is drivers. Rotaries themselves are satisfyingly efficient and logical, and the Boston area is lucky to have a lot of them. There is something soothing about the rhythmic, circular flow of traffic, the ballet of cars exiting. The most hazardous, crowded, hydra-headed rotaries present a challenge the seasoned driver ought to embrace: part marksmanship, part speed, a small moment of adrenaline in the middle of the humdrum day. Would you rather wait long minutes for the traffic light to tell you it’s OK to go — there’s not even anyone else on the road! — or seize control of your own destiny? Rotaries are self-determination; rotaries are empowerment. Carpe circulo! Now get out of my way. — Devra First / Globe’s restaurant critic
Love and Loathe: College Students
The more than 136,000 undergraduate students around Boston are the city’s fountain of eternal youth, a renewable fuel for the region’s economic engine. They keep Boston lively and relevant, and ensure the survival of cheap eateries and grubby bars in one of the nation’s poshest cities. Many students remain long after graduation to raise families here or work on the world’s most pressing problems, enriching our communities and bolstering our global reputation.
And yet . . . when tens of thousands of 18- to 22-year-olds leave for the summer en masse, it’s bound to feel like something of a deep, relaxing exhalation. Sure, throngs of bothersome tourists descend on Boston to fill the student void, but it’s suddenly easier to find a parking spot, and you’re less likely to overhear a casually tossed F-bomb on the B Line. By mid-August, the slow-walking gawking of out-of-towners will have taken its toll on your patience, and you almost begin to miss the youthful energy of the students — who at least know how to board a subway car properly. Until you find yourself blocked in by a double-parked U-Haul on September 1. — Jon Gorey / Globe Magazine contributor
Loathe: Memory Lane
New England remembers. And it never lets you forget. Bill Buckner’s 10th-inning error. The Pilgrims. Whitey Bulger. We retry the witches of Salem every Halloween, and we refight the Battle of Lexington at 5:30 a.m. because that’s when it really happened. Deep roots keep us grounded, but also from moving forward.
America has been called the land which has no history. Unless you live in Boston. Las Vegas was founded the year Einstein formulated his theory of special relativity. Boston was founded a few years before the Vatican condemned Galileo for heresy. People here track whether their ancestors came over on the Mayflower the way the British plot royal lineages.
The weight of history provides Boston with gravitas, but it is a burden as well. The restoration of Longfellow Bridge took an extra two years because contractors had to do things like make rivets the way they did in the early 1900s, when the bridge was built. It’s hard to reinvent yourself for a faster future if you’re forever reliving your past. — Jeff Howe and Alysia Abbott / Writers in Cambridge
Love: Driving in the Middle of the Night
Most people, quite sensibly, hate driving in the middle of the night. But as a Boston driver whose nightmares are plagued by visions of rush-hour traffic, I actually adore midnight airport runs and crosstown drives in the wee hours.
There is something transcendent about cruising along a nearly empty Memorial Drive, or sailing through the Fresh Pond rotary without another driver in sight. As absurd and indulgent as this may sound, I feel spiritually restored by such experiences, as if some karmic well is being replenished.
Rather than focusing on my own rage at the snarl of drivers around me, my attention drifts to the lights bouncing off the surface of the Charles, and absurd twists and turns of our roadways, vestiges of a more tranquil time.
I orchestrate my life to bring about such zen moments, happily lingering late at parties, and forgoing hotel overnights on out of town trips. This may sound crazy, but don’t knock it until you’ve crossed the Zakim Bridge at 4 a.m. — just you and four open lanes, those illuminated cable supports soaring overhead and the lights of the city twinkling beyond. Pure magic. — Steve Almond / Boston-area writer
Loathe: Fashion Failure
I remember the first time it happened. I was grocery shopping and there she was: a full-grown woman, wearing plaid flannel pajamas. In public. Next I saw a guy in a onesie at brunch, shamelessly pouring syrup all over his pancakes. Sir, you’re not dressed! Then the floodgates opened. Does anyone even wear yoga pants to do yoga anymore? Does anyone in this city wear actual clothes?
I don’t ask a lot. I don’t need you to buy a suit. I don’t expect you to stop wearing jeans to restaurants where you probably shouldn’t, just saying. I simply need you to wear clothing in public. And the worst thing about this constant coziness, this utter lack of chafing, is that it’s contagious. The other day I needed to run to the store. I noted that I was wearing leggings. And then I left the house. I can’t beat you, so I guess I’m joining you. (I am so comfortable right now.) — Devra First
Love: The Boston Public Library
As the unofficial education capital of America (and one of the earliest to establish a public library, in 1852), it’s only fitting that Boston’s public library be a magnificent monument to knowledge. Completed in 1895, the McKim building is a classic Beaux-Arts beauty that doubles as a free art museum, its walls adorned with majestic murals by John Singer Sargent and other artists. Working amid the hushed, awe-inspiring grandeur of Bates Hall I feel connected to centuries of scholarship, while the lush, tranquil courtyard offers me leafy refuge from the urban cacophony of Copley Square, complete with free performances in summertime.
Across St. James Avenue, the reflection of Trinity Church shimmers in the glass of 200 Clarendon, built a century later — and the BPL now offers a similarly elegant juxtaposition of classic and contemporary. The makeover of the Johnson addition, completed in 2016, brought the Brutalist building back to life, and made inviting a space that was previously so intimidating I rarely stepped foot inside. With a ground-floor cafe and satellite studio for WGBH’s live public radio broadcasts (an exciting development for Jim-and-Margery fanboys like me), the award-winning transformation completes what is now a truly beautiful and useful public space devoted to advancing knowledge, a beacon of information in an age when we need it most. — Jon Gorey
Loathe: The Seaport
If I wanted a bland cityscape, a tract of straight lines, hard surfaces, and glass boxes, I’d go to — Calgary? Charlotte? Someplace far from Boston’s aging brick and cow-path roads. But here I am in the soulless Seaport. When the neighborhood first rose on a stretch of industrial waterfront, signs were promising: the Moakley courthouse and the Institute of Contemporary Art looked modern but distinctive, embracing the water with reverence. Then the towers popped up like Monopoly motels. Now, much of the time, you’d never even know you were near the sea.
A movement is underway to correct and humanize: Some upcoming new buildings, including Amazon’s office tower, break up solid blocks with curved or stacked glass. Plans are in place for a bookstore, art centers, and, inevitably, a Trader Joe’s. But it’s hard to undo that moment in time when Boston had a chance to build the future and built it boring. — Joanna Weiss / Editor of Experience magazine
Love: Misery, Win or Lose
The best time to listen to Boston sports radio is the day after a championship series, when our collective sports-loving id is at full intensity. After the Bruins’ crushing Stanley Cup Game 7 loss, the drive-time chatter was predictably apocalyptic, filled with accusations, theories of blame (was it Tom Brady’s fault, for not being in the stands?), and a sense of personal betrayal. Plus a drumbeat of “I told you so”: one caller to 98.5 The Sports Hub boasted that he knew this would happen — all season, he’d been calling Tuukka Rask “Mistah Softee.”
Predictions of doom are part of Boston’s sports DNA; the nation thinks of us as cocky repeat champions, but most people over 15 still haven’t shaken off the decades of unfulfilled dreams, the piled-up almost-wins. That’s why it’s even more fun to listen to sports radio the day after a Boston team actually prevails — because that’s full of misery, too. Bostonians don’t wallow in victory. We’re looking for the next dark cloud, the weak moments that foretell doom next season, the good players bound to leave, the bad ones bound to stay, the coaches who came close to blowing it all. Winning is nice, but it’s complaining that connects us. — Joanna Weiss
Loathe: Radio Ignorante
The chatter around David Ortiz’s tragic shooting again has me lamenting how truly white and dude-ish the city’s sports talk radio scene is. In the eyes of the Boston Sports Radio White Dude, anything that comes out of the Dominican Republic is foreign and Third World. Never mind that the DR doctors who immediately treated Ortiz actually saved his life. We must always say that Boston is better. Same thing happened when the Patriots went to Mexico City to play a game in 2017. Sports radio dudes openly discussed whether cartels would show up and kill visiting fans, even though Mexico City is one of the Western Hemisphere’s most cosmopolitan places. Too complicated for you, sports dudes? And with a Red Sox team that has a Puerto Rican manager and a rising Dominican star (I see you, Rafi Devers), why can’t sports radio feature Latino voices? It’s 2019, but Boston sports radio is still stuck in 1986. — Julio Ricardo Varela / Founder/publisher of LatinoRebels.com
Love: The Mattapan Trolley
The woes of the T are legion, but one part of the system still makes me smile: the fleet of vintage trolleys that travel 2.6 miles between Mattapan Square and Ashmont Station. The Mattapan Trolley passes through backyards, commercial pockets, and cemeteries like an aging friend, rickety but dear. When my son was 3 years old and obsessed with trains, we constantly rode it to nowhere and back.
As a route to work, of course, the trolley falters: The cars are plagued by deferred maintenance and are inhospitable to wheelchairs and strollers. A recent MBTA report outlined replacement options, from modern replicas to space-age “light rail vehicles” to — horrors! — electric buses. And it noted that the public, understandably, prioritizes accessibility over historic charm. It’s hard to argue with that. But it’s equally hard to let go of an underdog transit route with a sweet sense of place. — Joanna Weiss
Loathe: The 66 Bus
The 66 bus once auditioned for a central part in my morning commute, but “heartbreaker” was the role it was born to play. In frigid cold or sheets of sleet, I would watch in dismay as a bus that was already close to a half-hour late barrelled on past my stop, crammed too full of human cargo to take on any more. Riding the 66 to work was like a grim nursery rhyme: “It’s raining, it’s snowing, the bus isn’t showing.” Eventually, I opted for a longer, more predictable path to work.
It’s true that pretty much any bus route in Boston regularly inspires a combination of fury and despair. Without dedicated lanes, buses are at the mercy of choking street congestion, and too often arrive clustered in sporadic, unhelpful bunches instead of steadily passing “every 10 minutes.” All have let us down at some point or another — the 66 just happens to be the commuting nemesis for a large number of people. It’s one of 15 high-ridership “key routes” on the MBTA. Granted, the MBTA has improved its performance since I was riding the 66 — about 75 percent of the line’s buses arrived on time between January and April. But that still means one in every four were late. — Jon Gorey
Loathe: The Battle to Belong
How long’s a kehd gotta live in a place before she’s considered a full citizen? I’ve lived in Boston for 24 years, approximately six years longer than in the place I grew up (New York, sorry not sorry). But if you’re from here, I’m still not a Bostonian — even if you were born after I took up residence in a cheap room in a group house in Allston. Of course, to every single person in every other town, I am one of you: an arrogant hooligan who assumes my city will always win every championship. So why do I stay? Because even though it might take a full decade to be considered anything other than a newcomer, once you make friends here, they are friends for life, through thick and thin. I may never be a real Bostonian, but what can I say, I love you guys a whole lot anyway. —Devra First
Love: Free Stuff
There are ups and downs to living in a city where students make up 20 percent of the population. We’ve learned not to get too attached to wonderful sitters or newfound friends, because someone’s always about to move on after graduation. Navigating graduation traffic every May is a serious pain. But the best part, the absolutely best part, of living here is the stuff! We love the cheap stuff, and the free stuff, that pops up on Craigslist, and shows up at weekend yard sales, or curbside on garbage night throughout Greater Boston every May. And in September, the annual spread is so bountiful that residents in Allston have created an unofficial holiday in the days before and after September 1st, when thousands of apartments change hands and the streets are littered with abandoned furniture, appliances, and housewares. They call it “Allston Christmas.” — Jeff Howe and Alysia Abbott
Love: Independent Cinemas
These days, a trip to the movies is like going to Disney World — gourmet snacks, mega-screens, potent cocktails, bracing sound systems blaring blockbuster hits. Sometimes I long for an indie film billed on an old-fashioned marquee, something more culturally intriguing than the latest Toy Story or Men in Black sequel.
Happily, Boston delivers. In a film-scape overtaken by big-box entertainment, I can head to pop culture palaces like the Kendall Square Cinema, with its deep roster of music programming (look for Beatles, the Cure, and Phish documentaries this summer); the Somerville Theatre, with its black-and-white silent film series set to live music; the Coolidge Corner Theatre, which will screen classics including American Graffiti and Do the Right Thing in the coming weeks; and the Brattle Theatre, a mainstay for foreign and indie cinema since the 1950s — a true feat in rapidly gentrifying Harvard Square. The Brattle’s themed programming reminds me that moviegoing isn’t just about wide-eyed entertainment and air-conditioning, it’s about cultural context too, often with a sense of humor. Where else could I enjoy a series like “Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go on Vacation Again,” featuring nightmarish summertime touchstones like Jaws and The Return of the Living Dead?
These theaters appreciate Bostonians’ enduring taste, intelligence, and embrace of the absurd — complete with staff who can converse knowledgeably about what they’re running. Maybe you won’t get a reclining chair, but you’ll be on the edge of your seat. — Kara Baskin
Love: Naughty Cupcakes
Boston is home to many wonderful places to buy and eat baked goods. But the best cakes and cupcakes in this reputedly puritanical, buttoned-up city are sold at Sweet-N-Nasty, the erotic bakery and chocolate shop on Massachusetts Avenue in the Back Bay.
I learned this more than a decade ago when my roommates and I purchased an erotic birthday cake with a big chocolate phallus on top. It was quite a sight, which we expected. The surprise was the taste. We were shocked by the moist cake, overwhelmed by the perfect buttercream frosting. We consumed it and moaned.
Niki Novak, who has run Sweet-N-Nasty for 39 years, says many customers buy her cakes as a novelty, fall in love, and continue to order them for important life occasions. “We just did a 1-year-old’s safari[-themed] cake and they said, ‘It’s just because we love the cake.’ ” When they get a G-rated order, Novak and her staff joke that they go from Sweet-N-Nasty to “Sweet-N-Tasty.”
The shop is a hidden gem, but those who know it intimately, like me, understand that it’s the best. “I can’t close even one minute early,” Novak says. “People will come in one minute before closing, out of breath, and say, ‘I need my cupcake.’ ” — Meredith Goldstein / Love Letters columnist
Loathe: Limited Late-Night Options
I love living in Boston, but good luck trying to get gas or a decent meal late at night. Both gas stations in my suburban neighborhood in Waltham close at 11 and I mean lights out, so don’t think of getting there at 11:10. Few restaurants around the Boston area cater to the nocturnal; there aren’t even late-night delis, which I usually rely on when I travel to other parts of the country for work. At times I leave my job at TD Garden after midnight – after all the nearby bars and eateries have stopped serving food — and have to race into Waltham to get to the lone Chinese restaurant that’s open until 1 a.m. And thank goodness for that, but what is it with this 11 p.m. cutoff point around much of the Boston area? For those of us who work late, that’s so old-town. — Gary Washburn / Globe’s NBA writer
Loathe: Our So-Called Seasons
We have four seasons here. It’s too bad three of them are winter. Snow on the Pike in mid-May? Seriously? Yes, Boston is occasionally graced with a few days of Indian summer in the fall, or that first deliciously warm burst of March sunshine. These anomalies only anesthetize us to the reality that for eight months of the year it’s either cold, wet, or gray — and usually all three. And climatologists expect it to get worse. According to the National Weather Service, April boasted the most days of rain in Boston — 21 — for any month since record keeping began in 1872. Expect worse weather to come: As temperatures climb in the Northeast, so will the number of gray and rainy days. Increasingly, fall is the flash of vibrant color before darkness descends, and spring is a whispered myth from other lands. — Jeff Howe and Alysia Abbott
We need to round up all these developers who are gutting our triple-deckers and sentence them to a life of pain: raising a family in an open-concept condo.
Sure, triple-deckers ain’t the Ritz, but they weren’t supposed to be. They were a practical way for those boringly practical people, the working class, to affordably and (somewhat) sanely raise a family in tight quarters. There’s a reason they were all over New England; Boston alone had 15,000 of them by 1920.
Those interior walls everyone’s in such a rush to knock down gave needed privacy, and a place to take deep breaths while you waited for the only bathroom.
If someone was being too loud up above or down below, you grabbed a broom and banged out the signal to shut up. You were probably related to them anyway; buying a three-decker and renting out two units to your family was a classic path for middle-class home ownership. It put the tight in tight-knit family. — Billy Baker / Globe staff