What We Learned On Our Summer Vacation

At around 6 p.m. on the third night of the Democratic National Convention, the shiny, worldly, more tolerant New Boston the event's local organizers were so fervently trying to showcase materialized on the corner of Congress and New Chardon. In this case, it took the form of a brown-haired woman on a bike pausing to wait for the light. Though less heavy-handed than the displays the planners orchestrated — most notably the outer-neighborhood venues chosen for the state-delegation welcoming parties, an inspired stroke that had Beverly Hills doyennes downing curried carrot coconut soup at the Franklin Park Zoo — this unscripted example would prove equally difficult for our visitors to miss. The woman was wearing a helmet, indicating classic Yankee common sense, and her dress was business casual, suggesting she was commuting home from her job (probably in the high-tech sector) or perhaps running errands, but likely not out for a pleasure ride. She was traveling over freshly laid macadam, heading away from land reclaimed by the Big Dig and toward Beacon Hill, which anybody paying attention to the press accounts would know was no longer exclusively Brahmin. It was easy, if one were so inclined, to imagine she had left her car at home, determined to be a gracious host and a good sport about the traffic restrictions the Secret Service and state police had imposed.

The light changed to green, and the woman stepped on her pedals. Whereupon she very nearly ran into a female delegate who was among the conventioneers still filing across the intersection en route to the FleetCenter.

The delegate scolded the cyclist — Watch where you're going! — who, after briefly holding her tongue, yelled back. As she walked away, the delegate seemed startled by the exchange. If she'd spent her week as most of her counterparts had — eating catered meals, buzzing around in chauffeured cars, private buses, or unpublicized MBTA express trains — it might well have been the first unsanitized, authentic Boston experience she'd had during her stay. She had been made to think that in the New Boston, despite a reputation to the contrary, all the natives were relentlessly polite.

Over the course of the convention, other, more glaring gaps between sales pitch and reality emerged. A high-tech city on the cutting edge, for instance, does not botch the grand finale at the FleetCenter, which is reportedly what happened when union workers a vendor was forced to employ missed their cue and proceeded to lackadaisically release the nets they were minding, transforming the balloon drop into a trickle and causing the event's lead producer to hurl a profanity — so unbecoming a well-mannered city — on live television. And certainly, a truly confident, cosmopolitan city does not try so hard. So in the end, despite organizers' dogged efforts, what came across most clearly during those days in late July (other than the fact that we eat a lot of doughnuts, a discovery meriting coverage from the Today show, the AP, and CNN) was less New Boston as it actually exists than a sort of Pluperfect Boston, a place too good to be true.

You could see it in the crowds at the receptions that took over the favored or well-situated restaurants and bars, which, reflecting the demographics of the delegates, were noticeably more diverse than those that would be encountered on a typical night when the locals were in town. It was apparent in the unnatural friendliness of T attendants and the gung-ho spirit of the convention volunteers in their red and white golf shirts, and it blossomed from the newly hung flower baskets on Boylston, which were almost enough to make you forget about the ponderous decision, made just days earlier, to temporarily remove public trash bins from their metal frames — and then the frames themselves — from Charles Street. “We saw just how good our city service can be when they operate at their top function,” says Patricia White, daughter of ex-Mayor Kevin White and a former candidate for city council who now does development work for Boston Partners in Education. “Which I think is great. It just raises the bar.”

What we saw, in other words, wasn't the city we had become. It was the one to which we might aspire.

As it happened, this idealized version of the city had an obvious drawback: It didn't prove particularly welcoming to the people who actually live and work here. Under fire for the flat-lined sales many shops and restaurants were suffering and projections of economic gains that now smelled like a bait and switch, Mayor Tom Menino blamed the media for scaring off would-be spenders. The Herald didn't bother to defend its reporting — how could it? — but the Globe rightly noted that predictions of chaos had originated not with the press, but with the state police and the Turnpike Authority, and convention officials hadn't been interested in defusing them at the time. (To its credit, City Hall did later stage a press conference intended to convey that the impending hassles wouldn't be too bad — a message that might have resonated more convincingly had the two executives it asked to speak refrained from comparing the convention to the Blizzard of '78.) All the finger-pointing, however, has largely obscured the culpability that lies with the public itself, whose guilt stems not from feeding the hysteria, but from its willingness to take the whole spectacle so seriously.

The convention planners' divided residents into two main camps. The first consisted of people inclined to ignore it from the start, who seized on the disarray that marked preparations as an excuse to retrofit their provincialism to include everything inside the hard security perimeter. The noncommissioned boosters, as we'll call them, adopted the opposite approach. These proud Bostonians seemed willing to accept the projections of unprecedented gridlock (not that it would stop them from taking part in the action) because it fit with their overall belief that hosting a national political convention — the city's first — would be a very, very big deal. From that perspective, all the overblown projects made sense. Of course there would be windfalls for businesses. The parties would top any Boston had ever seen; we'd be tripping over stars.

Once the festivities began, those who fell into this second category were easy to pick out: They were the ones whooping it up way past 2 o'clock on Thursday morning at the bar at Clio, where they'd gathered after the overhyped Creative Coalition bash and the afterparty at Bonfire to join the actor Alan Cumming and the members of the Black Eyed Peas in an act of civil disobedience that demonstrated how exponentially hipper the city could be if it would just extend last call by a few hours.

A lot more Bostonians might have gladly joined the revelry the convention brought with it if someone had only bothered to invite them. “There were tons of things to do,” says Mike Dukakis. “Why we wouldn't encourage people to take advantage of that, to come in and mingle with the delegates, get them involved, I don't understand.”

By the time the mayor took steps to address that oversight halfway through the week with his hastily organized thank-you program — free parking in metered spaces, restaurant discounts, half-price theater tickets — word of all the fun the interlopers and adventurous locals were having on Boston's blissfully unclogged streets had spread, ensuring it would receive an enthusiastic response. Motorists who had seen 30 minutes door-to-door drop magically to 10 noticed their commute times creeping back up. On Thursday night, for the first time, the mood on the sidewalks downtown finally approached the jubilation in the convention hall. At last, the next morning, normalcy returned, accelerating, tailgating, and squeezing, without signaling, back onto the roadways, laying on the horn for good measure.

Over the weekend, people exiled by the convention continued to stream back into the city, as if reclaiming territory abandoned by an occupying force. More than 10,000 roamed Fenway Park during a complimentary open house. Shakespeare on the Common's players performed Much Ado about Nothing to an audience swollen to triple its usual size. Diners returned to the North End, though in numbers insufficient to squelch gripes about lost revenue.

In a way, that was a relief. Boston wouldn't be Boston if it couldn't find something to complain about — even, or especially, in the face of broader success or good fortune — and it wouldn't have felt like our convention if half of us hadn't been so thrilled for it to be over. If the grumbling had subsided, that would've provided a sign the Democrats had done real damage, that the forgiving, eagerly evolving, everything's hunky-dory New Boston was still pedaling around town, waving cheerfully as it whizzed around the potholes.