Off the grid in Boston


If you live in the Boston area and you’re not from around here, you receive frequent reminders of your non-belonging. You can only grow into this place so far, and then you hit the limit. I’m fine with that. Being an interesting place to live as an outsider of long residence is part of what makes Boston not like other places. I’m already from somewhere else — Chicago, a bigger and rougher city, but much more welcoming to people from elsewhere — and it feels to me as if the brisk stiff-arm of Boston localism sets me up at just the right distance. You’re close enough to appreciate the city’s idiosyncracies, yet far enough to sustain a little healthy observational detachment.

But if you live anywhere long enough, the way of life there, the lay of the land itself, will sink into you. In matters of place-and-selfhood, as in so many other things, who you are creeps up on you. For a long time, you vaguely assume that there’s a you who you’re going to be when you grow up, and then you realize that you have been grown up for a while and this is it; this is you, pretty much for keeps.

I started out as a person of the grid, the rectilinear layout imposed on the cities and countryside of the Midwest. I navigated by familiar right angles even when far afield from my home turf, and as a native of Chicago my experience of city life was arranged on the grid like morning glories growing on a trellis. At the corner of 72nd and Oglesby a dog in a yard lay in wait to hurl itself against the chain-link fence and scare the daylights out of me; at 43rd and Vincennes was the Checkerboard Lounge, where I learned to love my hometown music; I once made a serious mistake at 59th and Stony Island, and only undeserved dumb luck brought me out of it in one piece. Leaving the grid, whether to ramble in the rundown reaches of Jackson Park or in the medieval cities of Europe, felt like an adventure — exciting but disorienting.


But I am a person of the grid no longer. Life in New England and especially in Boston, where straight lines are in short supply, has reversed my polarities. My new normal is the dense tangle of short, curving streets converging raggedly on a “square” with no 90-degree angles, a layout often likened to cowpaths but perhaps more reminiscent of rabbit warrens. The trains of my home line, the D Line, weave through greenery that yields irregular strobe-glimpses of wooden back porches and brick facades, bent snatches of streetscape, scenes out of Miyazaki’s dreamlike anime fantasies.

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What feels strange to me now is to find myself on a long straightaway, like the tedium of Route 9 as it carries you away from the city toward Route 128. Even the orderly angles of the Back Bay feel a little too regular. The me I’ve become, the me Boston has shaped, wants to scrunch up any such foursquare arrangement, to make it satisfying by throwing in some diagonals and messy nodes that reward the eye even as they tangle the flow of movement.

I recently visited the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site in Brookline, the former house and office of America’s greatest landscape architect. The parks of my childhood and young adulthood — Jackson Park in Chicago, Prospect Park and Central Park in New York — all bear his signature. Olmsted, more than anyone else, created the green breaks in the grid in which I had my non-rectilinear adventures, back when I was a person of the grid. And it was Olmsted, who hated straight lines, who codified the principles that inform my adopted home ground: The beauty of a landscape is rooted in the sense of purpose that shaped it, and in the quality of surprise it offers even to one who knows it well.

“Purpose and surprise’’ describes the seductive rise and fall of the garden and yard around Olmsted’s house, a miniature landscape that feels far larger and calls out for repeated visits in different light and weather. The same goes for Boston’s oddly shaped lots, dead ends, and obtuse angles, and for the ideal landscape without straight lines that’s imprinted so deeply on me that it’s now part of who I am.

Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’