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More than a feeling

By Renee Loth, 6/20/1999

If you're pacing the platform at the Park Street Under, trying to get to Harvard Square before the Coop closes, stop a minute. If you're blading along the Esplanade, with Oasis on your headphones and someone you met during finals at your side, pull over. If you're striding through Downtown Crossing, squawking about the Next Big Deal into your cell phone, pause there, right in the middle of the pushcart vendors, the shopping-bag matrons, and the guy singing the Stevie Wonder songs across from Filene's, and consider that one in five of the people swarming around you comes from somewhere else. Possibly you do, too.

I came to Boston from suburban New York at 17, the starch not yet washed out of my jeans, and I fell in love hard. My dormitory high-rise faced out toward downtown and the river, where during the first frozen winter, someone outlined a giant peace sign with footprints in the snow.

I would stay up all night "studying" or talking to my roommates or listening to music by the light of a scented candle from George's Folly, and then watch the sun rise over Kenmore Square, which is a lot more romantic than you might think when you are away from home for the first time.

The only tall building on the horizon was the Prudential, and the next tallest was the old Hancock building behind it - the squat one with the flashing weather light. I can still amaze my friends by reciting the weather rhyme:

Steady blue, clear view
Flashing blue, change due
Steady red, rain ahead
Flashing red, snow instead.

Not exactly Wallace Stevens, but sweet. During the energy crises in the early 1970s, the weather light went out, along with the Citgo sign, the White Fuel sign, and other electricity gluttons.

Those were dark days for Boston figuratively, too. Unemployment was high and confidence was low. The only places to get a meal after midnight were Ken's in Copley Square, a few iffy joints in Chinatown, and Mondo's. Boston was more insular than it is today, given to clannish distrust of outsiders. Signs sometimes identified the cross streets but almost never the avenue you were driving up and down, hopelessly lost. The message was clear: "If you have to ask, you don't belong."

Now Boston is the hottest city since Seattle. The population is actually increasing, as immigrants, empty-nesters, and other newcomers are drawn to improvements in safety, transportation, culture - everything but the schools.

The construction crane is so ubiquitous, it might as well replace the chickadee as the official state bird. Hidebound traditions are giving way to innovation. Entering a new millennium, even the MBTA the oldest and crankiest transit system in the country - may start running after 1 a.m. on the weekend. Can Sunday liquor sales be far behind?

After almost 30 years here, I can play Lost Boston with the best of them. Progress has its costs: Wood Island Park; the Abbey Cinema; the Tom Thumb Diner; the Jazz Workshop; maybe even Friendly Fenway. Certainly lost are the $70-a-month cold-water flats that let a generation of young idealists survive on what we used to call movement wages in social work or political agitation - and pay off our college loans at the same time.

Still, a living city is preferable to a dying one. So if you're sculling along that not-so-dirty water, the sun winking back from the Charles like a gift of jewels, drift for a second and consider the pols and poets, the dreamers and draft dodgers, the believers in Beantown who kept faith with urban America. Then turn to face the eastern sky and welcome what is rising.

Oh, Boston! You're my home.

This story ran in The Boston Globe Magazine on 6/20/1999.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.