Winter in Boston: A primer

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Snow fell on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain in February 2015.

By Globe Columnist 

Winter with its talons bared has leapt upon the land.

And in the face of that arctic attack, Bostonians have been less the gritty Texans of the Alamo, who in 1836 answered Santa Anna’s demand for their surrender with a cannon shot, than the defenders of Eastport, Maine, who laid down their arms almost as soon as a flotilla of British ships sailed into the bay back in 1814.


Save for some fortitudinous First Nighters and some brave (or insane) L Street Brownies, most retreated indoors — some without even attending to their civic obligations. So herewith, a brief primer on winter in the city. It’s a season that arrives every year, and when it does, precipitation often descends from the frigid firmament not as rain but rather as hexagonally arrayed ice crystals, or snow, which then amasses on the sidewalks. Easily identifiable by its white color, snow in significant accumulations can be hard to slog through, and even in lesser amounts often compacts to a slippery matrix underfoot if left unattended. That’s why a snowfall of any significance creates the need for clearing selfsame sidewalks.

But self-evident as all that appears, these truths often seem to come as novel concepts to, say, young people renting a group house as part of their early adult urban experience. Some I’ve encountered have mistakenly thought the city clears all the neighborhood sidewalks. Others apparently just don’t see shoveling as a merit-worthy enterprise. Thus this important point of clarification: It doesn’t matter if you personally are possessed of a Robert Peary-esque ability to trudge sure-footedly across treacherous frozen tundra. Or even if you treasure doing so as part of your urban-lumberjack-trekking-to-the-brewpub adventure.

You or your landlord needs to get the sidewalk outside your residence shoveled. (Landlords, take note: You can be fined if you fail.) And not just a narrow goat path. The cleared section should be wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair or stroller, even though you yourself might not have need of either.

Now, to be fair, older Bostonians have a few misunderstandings of their own when it comes to snow and civic spaces. Some, perhaps off a fresh viewing of “Far and Away,” mistake the serene streetscape that emerges after a storm for the unassigned plains that stretched before hardy homesteaders in the movie’s Oklahoma Land Rush scene. How else to account for the strange belief that if you improve a parking spot by shoveling it and stake your claim with a milk crate or lawn chair, you then hold title to same for all wintry eternity?

Actually, in 21st-century Boston, if you shovel out after a light snow, you have no claim at all on the spot once you vacate it. If the snow is heavy enough for a snow emergency to be declared, you can save the spot for 48 hours, except in the South End, where no space-saving is allowed. After that, the city will haul away your space-saver on trash day, or perhaps sooner, should an annoyed neighbor call 311 to complain.


Although this policy makes great sense, some neighborhoods’ attitude toward it brings to mind the resistance that King Gregor encountered when, in John Gardner’s short story “King Gregor and the Fool,” he suggested a sensible change to his fellow sovereigns, only to have it rejected “because, as someone put it, ‘The old ways are the best ways.’ ”

“ ‘In the old days,’ he sourly pointed out, ‘armies fought with clubs with huge spikes sticking out. Surely our modern swords and lances and catapults are a vast improvement.’ The argument had no effect except that several of the kings went back to equipping their soldiers with huge spiked clubs.”

But as for us, Boston, let’s take our cue from King Gregor: The old ways aren’t the best ways.


Scot Lehigh can be reached at
Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.