“The city used to die in the summer,” says Will.
We’re crossing the street, and Will is walking sideways, his eyes smiling at mine. His face shines in the sun, so white that it looks pink. This is a man that smiles a lot, I think as I look at the wrinkles around his mouth and at the way his eyes shine, too. A man who likes people.
(And really, what other kind of man would approach a lost-looking stranger and offer not only directions, but also a detailed and lengthy explanation about the layout of the land?)
“Did you know that when the all the schools and universities are in session more than 50 percent of Boston’s residents are under 25-years-old? Back then Boston used to really die when they left.”
For a second, the word “die” catches my attention, and the image of a grieving Boston-Demeter, awaiting its students return from Hades (aka their parents’ homes), fills my mind. But Will’s happy eyes and easy smile banish this sinister thought, and I think instead of the words “used to.”
In Boston, there are “used to’s” all around.
Before losing my way and running into Will, I visited Copp Hill, one of the original trio of hills that greeted John Winthrop and his fellow travelers in 1630. Back then, Copp Hill used to be seven feet taller than it is today (some of its soil was moved in the early 1800s).
The gravestones atop Copp Hill used to stand tall, but weighed down by the centuries, they have half-sunk into the ground.
The Puritan Reverends Increase and Cotton Mather used to lead their congregations in the strict and narrow path of their faith, dreaming of a perfect Protestant theocracy that would bring about the End of Days. Their bodies still lie under Copp Hill’s gravestones, but the Shining City of their dreams is no more, replaced by churches that display large rainbow flags and signs like “we support the separation of church and hate.”
Beyond Copp Hill’s burial ground, the merry streets of Boston’s North End crisscross each other, where once, after the “earnest, sober days” of the Mathers, the city’s rich merchants built grand houses and private lanes leading to their docks (read about it in Old Paths and Legends of New England, p. 28). Little Italy evolved where those lanes used to stand, emerging over them in all its red-bricked, potted-flowers-dotted glory.
But Little Italy, too, isn’t what it used to be. The scents of herbs and cheese still waft across its alleys, luring tourists to small cafes and “the largest pizza slice in Boston!” but more and more of the area’s residents are young professionals from elsewhere.
“My grandfather purchased this building at Sheafe 11 Street and moved his family here,” declares a small plaque on a red brick wall. The man who wrote these words is Albert Natale, a legendary local musician and philanthropist. Natale’s family, tells the plaque, immigrated to the Unites States from Italy, built its life here, and shared the burdens and sacrifices of WWII. But the people who live in Sheafe 11 now, in the home where the Natales “enjoyed many years of comfort and happiness,” come from a different background. A young non-Italian Caucasian woman smiled at me as I read the plaque, and walked into her apartment behind it. A black man in a casual suit nodded at me on his way out.
The West End intersection Will and I are crossing isn’t what it used to be, either. “This whole area used to look like the North End — little streets and beautiful brick houses,” Will tells me, and he sounds wistful. Above him, the wide blue sky stretches between sparkling condos. Around him, broad roads fill the space with noise. “But then they did this urban change, no, urban renewal — they took it all out, and built these big buildings on top of where people used to live.”
For a second, I wonder if Will feels bitter about it. All these changes, all these “used to’s” — they must have hurt people. The Puritans of Boston’s first and second generations spared no words in expressing their concern when trade and immigration transformed their Shining City on a Hill (or three) into a bustling, worldly place. Will’s friends and neighbors must have mourned their lost homes, too. They must have felt bereft and lonely, stripped of their community and of their way of life.
But Will is still smiling, and his eyes smile, too. “They built this big house and let many of us move into it. I was very lucky to get into it.” He points ahead, to an elegant structure dotted with red bricks and nostalgia. To its right stands the memorial to West End’s war veterans, a testament to the community that used to exist here at one time. Beyond it, a condominium shoots into the sky.
Will and I part ways, but he stops and looks back at me. “Welcome to the United States,” he says, “we are happy to have you!”
I smile back. Will’s obvious sincerity turns his words into more than a personal statement: I truly feel as though the entire country is happy to have me aboard.
America is where European utopias go to die, wrote a scholar whose name I can’t remember. But it’s also where all those utopias, and all the different people who chased them here, and all the people who came here to seek refuge or food, and all the people who were brought here against their dignity and will, come together to form a society that is forever becoming, a society full of used to’s and opportunities and change.
I, too, will change here. Boston, a city full of used to’s, won’t leave me unaltered. When I return home to Israel, I won’t be who I used to be before I left.
Some people reject change. Some people, like Will, gracefully accept it.
When I think about my own state of changing and becoming, I choose to remember the sentiments Albert Natale expressed at the end of his family story.
“We enjoyed many years of comfort and happiness, living at 11 Sheafe Street, and extend to all the comfort and enjoyment as we did for so many years,” Natale writes.
Natale welcomed the young white woman and the black man into his home and neighborhood. He welcomed them, and the change they represented, just as the United States welcomed his family before.
And just as Will welcomed me.
The United States is a place that is forever becoming. Natale words show that accepting this state of becoming doesn’t require forsaking one’s past, nor one’s pride in it.
May I be as dignified, and as gracious, as I change.