Us. vs. America

By Jake Halpern | Boston Magazine |

Last fall — not long after Boston was chosen as the site of the 2004 Democratic National Convention — Dick Armey had breakfast with a roomful of reporters from the Christian Science Monitor. “If I were a Democrat,” mused the then-
House majority leader, “I would feel a heck of a lot more comfortable in Boston than, say, in America.”

Of course, this is something of an old joke. For almost 15 years now, ever since Michael Dukakis went down in a blaze of liberal glory, Massachusetts has been an easy target for right-wingers and swaggering Texans who like to tell us about the “real America.” Most Bostonians appear to dismiss such rhetoric as nonsense. And yet every time I get into my car and drive seven hours west to upstate New York, where my parents still live, I can't help but feel conspicuously out of place. I can't help but notice the Chevy El Camino parked next to me at the gas station with the rifle rack in back and the bumper sticker that reads, Ted Kennedy's car has killed more people than my gun. At moments like this, I must confess, I secretly wonder whether Boston is farther adrift from the mainstream than we'd all like to admit. As much as we in Boston may hail our city as the cradle of the American Revolution — as the home of the Boston Pops and good old Sam Adams — it seems reasonable to wonder whether we're deluding ourselves a bit. Isn't it quite possible, if not likely, that Bostonians are fundamentally different from Americans elsewhere?

Maybe Dick Armey is on to something.

Even if we in Boston wanted to downplay or deny our differences with the rest of the country — and presidential hopeful John Kerry may want to do just this — it may not be a successful or persuasive argument. Not surprisingly, a great many Republicans agree on this matter. Marc Racicot, the Republican national chairman, recently commented that Kerry “is going to have a hard time translating out of New England.” Whether or not this is true, it begs the question: Just how foreign do we seem here in Boston, Massachusetts? After all, George Bush translated out of Texas; Bill Clinton translated out of Arkansas; Harry Truman translated out of Missouri. At what point did Boston and New England become the Timbuktu of American social and political geography?

The fact, whether we like to admit it or not, is that Boston exists both socially and politically as a peculiar enclave — and one that does not fit neatly into the jigsaw puzzle of America. We in Boston are more liberal, more Catholic, and more Jewish than our fellow countrymen, according to polling research conducted in conjunction with this story by Northeastern University. We're also more tolerant of premarital sex, interracial marriage, abortion rights, gay rights, and the freedom to voice controversial points of view — communist, socialist, racist, atheist. Bostonians are also far less likely to own guns or use them to commit violence. On average, we're younger and pay more attention to our health: Fewer of us smoke or allow ourselves to grow fat. The list of differences goes on and on. In short, Bostonians are fundamentally different from Americans elsewhere, and to a pollster's eye this is glaringly obvious.

Apparently, it's glaringly obvious to the rest of America, too. In an attempt to grasp just how different we Bostonians are perceived as being, I conducted a little experiment of my own in which I attempted to call roughly one hundred people across the United States with the name “John Boston.” My aim was to gauge their impressions of our fair city, and I figured that their intimacy with the name “Boston” might have already led them to form some rather distinct opinions.
After three days of working the phones, I reached several dozen of these John Bostons in an astounding range of places, including Stone Mountain (Georgia), Petroleum (West Virginia), Butte (Montana), Valley Springs (California), and Wylie (Texas). Admittedly, there was absolutely nothing sound or scientific about my polling methods. And yet there was something that appealed to me on a comic, and perhaps even a cosmic, level about the notion of talking to all of these men with the exact same name. Naturally, there were some inevitable complications, like when my answering machine was inundated with scores of indistinguishable messages (e.g., Hey. This is John Boston getting back to you. I'll be done with my farm work around seven o'clock tonight — you know my number; call me. Click). Nonetheless, I tried to keep my John Bostons straight.

Many of the older John Bostons I called, particularly those who had spent time in the armed services, remembered bitterly being teased with various nicknames including “Boston, Massachusetts,” “Boston Red Sox,” “Boston Beans,” “Boston Blackie,” “Boston Marathon,” etc. It seems that in some parts of the country these are fighting words. In any case, there was a consensus that Bostonians were, or could be, snobbish — “blue-blooded,” “stuffed shirts,” “unfriendly,” even “parochial.” Not all of these remarks were entirely critical. “There is so much history in Boston,” explained John Boston from Freeport, Florida. “And I figure if a person is from a town like that, then they have a right to be a little stuck-up.” Others were less sympathetic. “People from Boston and the East Coast seem a little uppity, like they're better than we are,” griped Johnny R. Boston, a retired Marine who lives in Aberdeen, Washington. “They just seem different than we are out West. They still think we're all chasing Indians out here. They think that we haven't really caught up with the world yet.”

Perhaps the most interesting comments came from John Boston of Kearney, Nebraska. This particular John Boston is a rancher whose family has lived in Nebraska for generations, and he cannot conceive of living anywhere else. “I couldn't ever live in Boston, Massachusetts,” he told me. “As far as I'm concerned, anything east of the Mississippi River is insane. And if we could just get California to fall off into the ocean, the rest of us would be just fine, too.”
I immediately envisioned the map of blue and red states that we all remember from election night of 2000, with Gore winning the northeast and western coastal states and Bush, the heartland. But when I asked John Boston (the rancher) if this is what he was getting at, he demurred. “It's not about politics,” he said. “Because of the size of our population, national politics don't matter a great deal out here in Nebraska. That's not what I'm talking about. This is a far more basic difference. I saw something in the paper the other day that said for every person in our county there are 20 head of cattle. That means cattle outnumber us 20 to 1. So the crowd really is different out here because the crowd is cattle.”

In the summer, one of the busiest seasons for Nebraska ranchers, the Bostons work from dawn until 10 o'clock in the evening. This amounts to 14 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week. When I asked if he enjoyed his work, John Boston (the rancher) fell silent. “This is kind of what I'm getting at,” he replied finally. “It's not work. It's a way of life.”

Eventually, the conversation returned to the topic of Boston, Massachusetts. “So you see a pretty big difference between us in Boston and you in Nebraska?” I asked again.

“As far as I'm concerned,” replied John Boston (the rancher), “We're like two different breeds.”

If our friend John Boston (the rancher) is correct, and the Boston metropolitan area is indeed inhabited by a different breed of Americans, perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Harvard Square. Even now, as the days grow shorter and colder, the outdoor terrace at Au Bon Pain is packed with a hodgepodge of brooding sidewalk intellectuals, chain-smoking foreigners, pencil-chewing mathematicians, clean-cut Ivy Leaguers, and tattooed, Sartre-reading malcontents. On my most recent visit to the Square, the scene was in full swing. Conversation was everywhere, and it was being spoken in three or four different languages. The cadence of these exchanges was measured out in the steady, rhythmic thumping of the chess players as they slammed their sweaty palms against the buzzers of their speed clocks. On the corner a musician was strumming slow, sad autumnal tunes in the same spot where Tracy Chapman used to play for change. Several feet away, there was a U-Haul idling at the curb. The driver rolled down his window, surveyed the scene, then killed the engine and hopped out of the truck, as if this were to be the exact site of his new home.

Lately, it seems that everywhere I go in Boston there are moving trucks. This prompted me to call U-Haul corporate headquarters, where I learned that last year Boston was among the top 15 major U.S. cities people moved to — and the only city on this list situated in the Northeast. In short, Boston is booming, and this steady influx of people has created a population base that is comprised significantly of newcomers. Nearly 58 percent of Bostonians moved to the city between 1995 and 2000. These newcomers are here for jobs, training, education, inspiration, or simply to be a part of the quirky, frenetic bustle of places like Harvard Square. Places that, for better or for worse, don't exist in Dick Armey's America.

Harvard Square is hardly a microcosm of the entire Boston metropolitan area, but it does offer a sampling of the city's “university crowd” — a crowd that helps define Boston every bit as much as “the cattle crowd” defines some parts of Nebraska. Boston is, by most standards, the ultimate college town. We have the highest per-capita density of university students of any city in America. This reputation also attracts a great many nonstudents who simply enjoy the collegiate atmosphere. Consequently, the population of Boston is not an accurate cross section of the United States as a whole. Far from it. Boston is a city of anomalies, particularly when it comes to education and culture. Consider this: Fifty-one of the nation's 241 Nobel Laureates completed their research in Massachusetts — most of them in Boston or Cambridge. Perhaps even more striking is the fact that 13 percent of Bostonians have Ph.D.s, compared to the national average of one percent. Despite the fact that we comprise only one percent of the national population, we buy roughly 3.5 percent of all books sold domestically. Bostonians simply devour books. (Mark Twain once said: “Tonight I appear for the first time before a Boston audience — 4,000 critics.”) We also gobble up movies. Even though Boston is the 20th most populous city, it has the sixth-largest moviegoing audience in the nation.
All of which is not to suggest that Boston is some kind of utopia, or that we're better than everyone else because we read more books or see more movies. (Of course, that case could be made; see statistics on page 115.) It simply means that we are fundamentally different — and there is really no point in denying it.

Of course, there are those Bostonians who have no interest in denying just how different we are, and more often than not, they are the ones who came here from somewhere else. They are the ones who left places like Kearney (Nebraska) and Petroleum (West Virginia) with the explicit intent of finding some place fundamentally different. They are the clear-eyed outsiders who see Boston for the pariah enclave that it is. Micah Nathan is one such person.
A slim, handsome man of 30, Nathan lives in an apartment in Brookline that is barely big enough to house the outpourings of his imagination. The walls of his apartment are hung with his oil paintings depicting the parched, burnt-orange landscapes of Greek islands; his glass-top coffee table is cluttered with DVD copies of The Big Kill, an amateur zombie movie that he recently directed and produced; and his desk is laden with marked-up manuscripts of Aberdeen, his novel, which is to be published by Simon & Schuster next fall. Nathan's apartment is part artist's garret, part oddball museum.

Perhaps the single most interesting thing about Nathan is that he had the grave misfortune of being born in the wrong Boston; that is to say, not Boston, Massachusetts — where he now lives and feels eminently at home — but Boston, New York, where his parents reared him.

“Boston, New York, is a rural community,” Nathan explains as he pours a round of Monk's Hammer, an ale that he brews himself, of course. “Boston, New York, is a beautiful, quiet, and remote place. The only problem is — and I hate to even say it — the town is kind of culturally depressed.” When I ask Nathan to elaborate, he pauses and then smiles shyly. “We're talking about a place where the local grocery store has a 24-hour bait-vending machine where you put in $1.50 and you get a fresh bag of nightcrawlers. It's farm country, and I don't mean to talk down farm country, but nothing new ever comes to Boston, New York. It's hard being different in a place like that. For example, we were the only Jews in town. But it's not just that. I'd tell someone that I was writing a novel, and there was always this funny look, like, Yeah, whatever, buddy. My novel was dying in Boston, New York.

“One of the beauties of living in Boston, Massachusetts, is that you are surrounded by people who are doing great things,” Nathan continues. “You'll be at the bank, and standing in the line in front of you is a Pulitzer Prize winner. That never happens in Boston, New York. As a writer, I felt very out of the loop there. I felt like I was in a part of the country that was a good 10 to 20 years behind the times. I remember when the first coffeehouse opened up in Boston, New York, in 1999. I thought it was pretty cool, and then my mother — who once lived in Berkeley — told me coffeehouses had been around for 25 years.”

Eventually, Nathan made a decision he credits with changing his life: He switched Bostons. Three years ago, he and his wife, Rachel Kane, piled their
belongings into a truck and made the move to Boston, Massachusetts. “We fell in love with the city immediately,” Kane says. “We were so taken with the parks and museums and the concert halls.” Nathan and his wife are also impressed by the number of people who attend the city's cultural events. And they should be. According to the National Endowment for the Arts' Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, Boston (Massachusetts) has the highest attendance rate in the nation for classical music, ballet, art museums, and historic parks. This enthusiasm for the arts is part of the city's ethos, and like so many others who have moved here from places where this is not the case, Nathan ate it up.

Not long after making the move to Boston, Nathan met his first author — a young man named Arthur Phillips, who had just sold his first novel to Random House. The name of the novel was Prague, and though it would go on to become a celebrated national bestseller, at this point the book was still in production. The two young men met at an Indian restaurant in Cambridge, and their conversation eventually led to books. “When I explained that I was writing a novel, I was a little sheepish,” recalls Nathan. “But Arthur wasn't defensive or self-righteous or threatened. He was genuinely curious and we chatted for a long time, just like two plumbers talking about our trade. It was completely natural. And I was, like, Dammit, that's why I moved to this fucking town!”
Several months later, Arthur Phillips put Nathan in touch with his agent, Marly Rusoff, who went on to sell Nathan's novel to Simon & Schuster. Eventually, when Nathan began meeting with his editors, he took great pleasure in telling them that he was from Boston, Massachusetts. “When I said ‘Massachusetts,' there was always this awkward pause. They couldn't understand why I was such a stickler for specifying my hometown and state. But they didn't understand. I had been saying Boston, New York, my whole life. There was a big difference.”

On some level, the meeting between Micah Nathan and Arthur Phillips was pure chance. If Micah had come down with a cold, or broken his leg, or hated Indian food, these two men might never have met. But the fact remains that encounters of this kind — encounters in which talented individuals meet and share ideas and connections — are far less random in Boston (Massachusetts) than they are elsewhere in the nation. This is true because Boston is a magnet, a hub, a city that draws people from all over the world.

Of course, plenty of very talented people are not drawn to Boston. Edgar Allan Poe, who was actually born here, loathed Bostonians, calling them “the most servile imitators of the English it is possible to conceive.” Oscar Wilde commented: “The Bostonians take their learning too sadly: Culture with them is an accomplishment rather than an atmosphere; their ‘Hub,' as they call it, is the paradise of prigs.” Fair enough: Some Bostonians may indeed be priggish. But our city's interest in culture is not just about achievement or accomplishment. It's also about atmosphere. Just ask Micah Nathan. In fact, just ask virtually anyone who has moved here from somewhere else. I think it's fair to say that many, if not most, of the city's newcomers are drawn by its atmosphere — an atmosphere that is vital, eclectic, and utterly unique.

As different as Boston may be, however, it's unfair and inaccurate to suggest we're somehow less American. After all, what community in America is a perfect template of the nation as a whole? Certainly not Kearney, Nebraska, where John Boston (the rancher) lives. According to the latest census information for Buffalo County, where Kearney is situated, 95.2 percent of its residents are white and 34.6 percent claim German ancestry. Kearney is a disproportionately white German-American enclave surrounded by a great deal of corn. Ultimately, Kearney's demographics are every bit as anomalous as Boston, Massachusetts'. And why should this be surprising? Aren't we, in the final analysis, a nation comprised largely of anomalous enclaves — a nation of Rust Belt cities, high-tech corridors, gritty mining towns, Spanish-speaking border communities, uppity college hamlets, and lackluster suburbs all held together by a handful of democratic ideals and a latticework of McDonald's-laden interstates?

And who is Dick Armey or anyone else to say that one place is more American than the next?

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