K Paoletter 9: Dirty Old Town


“There has never been anything quite like Boston as a creation of the American imagination.” So wrote the great critic Elizabeth Hardwick in 1959 in her assessment of a city once “felt to have… a pure and special nature, absurd no doubt, but somehow valuable.” Hardwick was hardly impressed with the Boston of her age, however, bemoaning its lack of the “wild, eccentric beauty of New York” and describing it instead as “a specially organized small creature with its small creature’s temperature, balance, and distribution of fat.” It was a place where “the night comes down with an incredibly heavy, small-town finality. The cows come home; the chickens go to roost; the meadow is dark.”

It’s been just over a year since I moved here from New York, so such comparisons between the two cities strike a special chord, perplexing as they are. Perhaps it made sense to hold Boston and New York against each other in the 1760s, back when they had similar populations. Now, of course, even when accounting for each city’s extensive suburban sprawl New York is some four times the size of Boston. By any measure its peers are other global capitals of commerce, culture, and power London, Tokyo, Delhi. Comparing Boston to New York is like comparing Salt Lake City to San Francisco. Naturally the smaller city lacks the buzz, the eccentricity, the volume. Nevertheless, the cities’ rivalry endures, and not just on the baseball diamond. The Bostonian forever looks down his patrician nose at the arrogant New Yorker, while the New Yorker takes every chance he can get to give a lusty Bronx cheer in the face of the self-satisfied Bostonian.

Perhaps the tension does indeed date back two and a half centuries, to the eve of the Revolution. Back then, each city represented a conflicting vision of American possibility: New York was a burgeoning trading center with an already entrenched history of multicultural exchange, while Boston was the puritan metropolis, a place of fanatical faith and dutiful study. The rap on Boston has always been its provincialism, but what outsiders don’t seem to grasp is that that quality isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Even as New York fashioned itself as the nation’s conduit to the world, Boston turned inward. This is the self-proclaimed Athens of America, remember, and the professors of Cambridge are happy to indulge the idea that one must retreat from society in order to understand it. The financiers, artists, and power-brokers of New York, on the other hand, party their way through their four years at Harvard, BU, or Tufts, content to figure out the world by living in it once they leave.

If Boston was satisfied with being the nation’s center of scholarship, there would hardly be a problem. Instead, though, the city has allowed the critical mass of philosophers, physicians, and engineers living here to go to its collective head. Oliver Wendall Holmes proclaimed the city the Hub of the Universe in 1858, a label that was received as well by his contemporaries in New York at the time as it is now. “Smugness is the great vice” of Boston and Cambridge, Hardwick observed. She was particularly irked that though Boston is demonstrably inferior to New York by any metric she could dream up, dyed-in-the-wool brahmins remained frustratingly insistent about their town’s importance. New York may be full of itself, but at least that pretension is earned; Bostonians are simply delusional.

Let me say then, that both ideas can be true: Boston’s smugness is irritating and New York’s insistence on its own eminence is tiring. Each is, notably, a pose borne of insecurity. The Bostonian knows her town is small, parochial, and uncool, while the New Yorker suffers daily anxiety about making a sustainable life for herself in a place where comfort is considered a luxury.

Better to simply appreciate each city for what it is. New York is a global metropolis with 24-hour subway service and a nearly infinite density of human experience; Boston is not. Nor is it a place that does grandeur well: its skyline is squat, its public spaces spare. No, Boston is lovable for its intimacy. Everything worthwhile here is found where you wouldn’t think to look: down a narrow brick alleyway, around a blind corner, in the cellar of some three-hundred-year old public house. It’s a place where history is tangible. You sit in the stands at Fenway Park and glimpse a view of life in 1912, or wander under lamplight in Cambridge or Brookline in quiet contemplation. Ah, there’s the rub: quiet. The quality that distinguishes Boston most from New York. Here it is possible to flee a bustling street and, within a few blocks, hear only the wind, the crunch of autumn leaves, or the slow churning of your own mind.

Not everyone finds such experiences appealing, nor should they. For those energized by noise, stimulus, and excitement, Boston is an assuredly dreary place. But I like it both ways I am glad to have lived in both cities, and feel no animus toward either. Hardwick herself, in the end, seemed to agree. She concludes her contemptuous stemwinder with a final admission that though Boston’s no New York, it does have a “deep, secret appeal” after all. ”Outside, it is winter; dark,” she writes:

The curtains are drawn, the wood is on the fire, the table has been checked, and in the stillness one waits for the guests who come stamping in out of the snow. There are lectures in Cambridge, excellent concerts in Symphony Hall, bad plays being tried out for the hungry sheep of Boston before going to the hungry sheep of New York. Arnold Toynbee or T. S. Eliot or Robert Frost or Robert Oppenheimer or Barbara Ward is in town again. The cars are double-parked so thickly along the narrow streets that a moving vehicle can scarcely maneuver; the pedestrians stumble over the cobbles; in the back alleys, a cat cries and the rats, enormously fat, run in front of the car lights creeping into the parking spots. […] A Swedish journalist is just getting off the train at the Back Bay Station. He has been exhausted by cocktails, reality, life, taxis, telephones, bad connections in New York and Chicago, pulverized by “a good time.” Sighing, he alights, seeking old Boston, a culture that hasn’t been alive for a long time… and rest.

I want to take a moment here to mark the passing of Jonathan Gold last weekend. Gold was far and away the best food writer in America, and quite possibly the most influential critic working in any discipline to have emerged over the past few decades. By focusing on, as the Los Angeles Times  put it, the city’s “hole-in-the-wall joints, street food, mom-and-pop shops and ethnic restaurants” over the hoity-toity retreats of traditional fine dining, Gold sped the transformation of Los Angeles’ restaurant culture (and by extension, America’s) away from the domain of wealthy white people and into something more representative of the lived experience of the city’s diverse, working-class majority.

My first taste of Gold’s work was “The Year I Ate Pico Boulevard,”  his 1998 reminiscence of his attempt, in his early 20s, to eat at every one of the countless restaurants on Pico, a street in Central LA he described as “unremarked,” “left alone like old lawn furniture moldering away in the side yard of a suburban house.” While Gold’s knowledge of a seemingly infinite array of regional cuisines and dishes is legendary, what I really love about this piece is the self-consciousness it displays. After describing the impossibly vast range of things he ate on Pico, he concludes by narrating his return to the boulevard to eat at “a faded Mexican joint once famous for the best carne asada in Los Angeles.” He finds the food there, over the intervening 15 years, has become “rank— sour grilled meat, cardboard-thin, a week older than it should have been; watery beans; commercial tortillas.” The experience leads him to wonder “whether my infatuation with Pico was purely nostalgic, standard-issue post-adolescent infatuation with poverty” after all.

Gold had no illusions about his perch of privilege. He understood that as a white critic primarily covering the restaurants of Latin American and Asian immigrants, his writing had an outsize impact on not just the reader’s knowledge of the cuisines he described, but her respect for the people preparing it. Consequently, his reviews, even when shaded negatively, always treated the places he ate at with dignity.  He never assumed that because he had eaten a dozen versions of galbi jjim he was effectively Korean, and never attempted to speak in place of the peoples whose food culture he covered. By the same token, he never assumed that just because something was strange it was good, or that because an unpretentious pupusa stand looked the part, it was a hidden gem. Instead, he remained forever curious, taking every unfamiliar experience as impetus to learn more. He will be sorely missed.

Thanks for reading and subscribing. You can find me @KPaoletta, or wading off the beach of a harbor island, wishing the Atlantic were warmer.

Your pal,