Make Boston hip, but keep its spirit

Smoking in city-run parks is now banned. But there’s a push to make it easier to get liquor licenses and keep bars open longer.

Booze good; second-hand smoke bad. Is that how Boston really wants to measure quality of life in the 21st century?

Modern Boston is trying hard to break with the old Puritan ethic, all in the name of making the city more hip, progressive, and attractive to young professionals. But at least the Puritans stuck to consistent, easy-to-grasp principles. For a time, they outlawed “celebration” because it distracted from the all-important pursuit of work and religion. Games of chance were prohibited. Education was valued, because it enabled all citizens to read the Bible.

Centuries later, the effort to create a new liberated, but politically correct, city on a hill is underway. It’s a little more random and a lot less focused.


There’s no smoking and no Chick-fil-A.

But the new Bostonians want to keep the alcohol flowing and retire the “dancing police.” Cyclists rule. A casino would be swell; if East Boston doesn’t want one, Revere will do.

Meanwhile, it’s illegal to smoke cigarettes, marijuana, or other “lighted or vaporized” substances in 251 parks, squares, cemeteries, and other spaces run by the Parks and Recreation Department. This includes the Boston Common, the Public Garden, and Franklin Park. But medical marijuana is cool, especially since the siting of dispensaries provides an exciting new source of income for a crew of ex-politicians turned Beacon Hill lobbyists.

No city can afford to remain frozen in time, or else it turns into Pompeii after the volcano erupted. Boston must change, and it already has. Dowagers no longer come into town on Friday to get scrod — and fewer residents get that old, bad joke. Jordan Marsh is a memory. The local accent is fainter, but restaurant fare is tastier. The days of reveling in the inefficiencies of a transit system starring a man named Charlie who is lost forever ’neath the streets of Boston are over. Reliable, late-night public transportation isn’t a want. It’s a need for all ages and income brackets.


The genius of Boston has always been its ability to redefine “innovation economy,” from clipper ships to textile and leather manufacturing, from financial services to biotech. What keeps Boston relevant is its status as an intellectual hub, known internationally for its institutions of higher learning and medical research. A commitment to thinking — not partying — is a remnant from the Puritan past that has served this city well.

Attracting young people is important, and so is keeping them. But while it is not popular to point this out — believe it or not — everyone grows older. As they do, their needs change. Those who settle here for the long run will eventually care less about dancing all night in bars, and more about quality schools, safe neighborhoods, and, of course, good jobs and affordable housing.

Those are the boring but basic ingredients that go into creating a diverse city that is liveable for people of all ages. The right mix makes for a competitive city, and finding it should be the priority of the new, incoming administration of Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh.

Walsh campaigned on that platform and is promising to deliver on it. Once he takes office, however, the greater challenge may be to stick to a serious agenda and resist the pressure to meet the modern, homogenized definition of what it takes to be a “fun city.”


Walsh has the old accent. Maybe he can stick to the old sensibilities. No one wants to turn back the clock to the “banned in Boston” days. But it’s worth noting that the old Boston knew who it was and never felt compelled to be like everyone else. And that was not only part of its charm, it was key to its success.

In the past, young people took the city on its own quirky terms, because with the quirks came jobs and opportunity. Today, young people may be leaving because they can’t find a place to live, not because they can’t find a place to drink.

It’s just something to think about as you ramble through those smoke-free parks.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.