I made a speech in Boston yesterday and am in a state of shock. You see, I lived in the Boston area most of my grown up life. I hosted my own TV talk show there, was cultural reporter on the news, lectured at the Museum of Fine Arts, taught at Harvard graduate schools, bore and raised my three sons there, ate and laughed and played there — I really knew and connected with every part of that city.
But yesterday, driving in from the airport I thought “Wait a Minute! Where am I? What are those skyscrapers? What new highway am I on? What’s happened to my town!”
So I’ve been nursing my wounds — my sense of loss, of estrangement from what was basically “my home town” for so long. How could they do this to my distinctive wonderful city with its visible blend of the old and the new world? Those historic twisted streets of downtown laid out on old Indian trails, those still-standing brick symbols of our heritage, reminders of how our forefathers lived and hoped. All of these affected this New York city girl so deeply when I first moved there. I was in love with joining that legendary America I read about but could never really feel a part of as an apartment-dwelling, hard-driving New York City kid. See, I never fit my childhood books’ descriptions of a front door/ back door/attic/cellar/dog named Spot kind of life. That was really America, I thought, not where I was.
But moving to the Boston area meant I finally joined. Here was Beacon Hill, the old and new State House. Faneuil Hall with its speeches still echoing. Paul Revere’s church tower, the Tea Party harbor, Old Ironsides, Bunker Hill — I was finally a true citizen! How I loved driving into town, seeing the Custom House Tower, remembering that, historically, it was once the tallest building in the city. Every corner was so familiar to me.
But then the “building and improving” started. Sure we need to live in our time and what it can do — but that original Boston/history flavor was still so prevalent when I left that it still sang out–“here’s where it started. Here’s where our great human experiment took form.”
When I moved back to New York, my original home, those images stood fast in my mind. I was still connected to that savory taste of America and the roots I found there.
So what was it really that turned me on so- that made me feel such a part of, so connected to this place?
Symbols. Familiar icons. I guess we get all tied up emotionally in what we see in our daily lives, what we can rely on to be there – recognizable, comforting landmarks that stay stable and dependable and mark the visual corners of our lives. That will always show us the way home.
And what made me react so violently to the new Boston?
When I returned I expected all the old bells to chime for me — ah, there’s where we used to… here’s where that… how I loved the old… But wait a minute!!! What happened?
Overtaken. Boston got overtaken, dominated by what we can do now. See how high, how glistening, how round and square and miraculous we can make these gorgeous new towers? See how we can build new streets, highways, tunnels, create sweeping new landscapes? Everything I saw sang hymns of praise to our technical prowess and how Boston’s face now speaks predominantly of the future.
No, they haven’t torn down the major historic remnants. They’ve just overshadowed them, overwhelmed them — and made them seem little and irrelevant. Little hidden treasures you discover tucked away in the cracks between the new stately, dominant behemoths.
And why did I resent the changes so?
Well, first because it requires me to make adjustments. I had to let go of old familiar memories. To engage in thinking about “where is this? Where do I turn? Is this Stuart Street? Nah, can’t be”.
Then there is the sense of loss. Memories are so connected to places. Going to Theatre Row required eating at the Athens Olympia restaurant every time we went because it was the only real restaurant around there. Seeing the new Stuart/ Tremont Street neighborhood, all glitzy and grown up, meant letting go of pictures of my life — the stuff we all carry around in our memory bank. And in the process, taking a hard look at the march of time — the inexorable movement of life that keeps pushing you on to make room for others. Others coming along who will need to discover their neighborhoods, relate to their city, their version of home. And to create their memory banks.
The new icons and landmarks of Boston today will also change for them someday. And they’ll also feel that disarranged sense of loss as they look at what were their familiar icons and say “Hey! What’s going on? Where are my old buildings and hangouts!?
You can’t ever really go home again. No part of the world will stand still and wait for you while you move on in your life. Wait to reassure you about how it was. To help you feel safe and connected to stable earmarks. To let you know that your life was indelible and cast in solid matter.
Nothing told me more starkly about the journey. And what gets erased as you pass by.