The other 'city upon a hill'

Boston is like Jerusalem - with a lot more snow.

By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER
March 16, 2006 08:39
state house 88 298

state house 88 298. (photo credit: HILARY LEILA KRIEGER)

As John Winthrop was leading his pilgrims to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, he envisioned Boston as the second "city upon a hill," a reference to the new Jerusalem the group was trying to create. But the comparison doesn't always seem apt. For one thing, they forgot about the snow. The Massachusetts capital, which does perch upon a steep slope, receives an average of more than 100 cm. of snowfall each year. Jerusalem sees a fraction of that amount - if any at all. In Jerusalem, a mere dusting of snow shuts down the city for lack of plows, snow tires, even shovels. Hapless residents are left trying to clear the sidewalks with squeegees. Boston, however, is a lean, mean, snowflake-busting machine. It is the rare day that businesses close due to an onslaught of snow - though school gets called off more frequently - but when they do, it can be one of the nicest moments to visit the historic city. Sure, Mediterranean visitors need to stock up on snow boots and down jackets or risk a miserable time. But adequately frocked, tourists can experience the true spirit of New England - and understand why those pilgrims were so grateful that the Indians knew how to find food and cook well. If it weren't for them and that first Thanksgiving dinner, modern-day travelers wouldn't have any historic architecture or storied sites to take in while in town. The hill (now known as Beacon Hill) still retains its old-world charm. The neighborhood was built up over the 18th and 19th centuries and today is best observed when icicles hang from the slate roofs and frost coats the pane-glass windows. Old-fashioned lamps and wrought-iron outdoor banisters surround the tall brick townhouses lining the narrow streets to help pedestrians navigate the slippery hill. Horse-drawn carriages used to ply these streets regularly, though now they have been replaced by luxury cars and SUVs, some of which belong to John Kerry. The US senator and Democratic presidential nominee owns a home at Boston's most exclusive address, Louisburg Square, located in the heart of Beacon Hill. Louisa May Alcott and William Dean Howells also once called the cobblestone street home. But it is still possible to hail the occasional horse-drawn vehicle in the environs, which will take you down Charles Street, the main Beacon Hill drag (which ends just feet from the bar where the TV show Cheers got its opening shot), by the Statehouse with its golden gilt top straight out of the Dome of the Rock, and through the Boston Common. The common's pentagonal shape and chaotic criss-crossing of paths pay tribute to its origins as a place for grazing meandering cows rather than a space for human recreation. One of the country's oldest public parks, the green has developed a reputation as the birthplace of American democracy and now regularly hosts political rallies, free cultural events and an annual marijuana rally. It's also not far from the scene of the "Boston Massacre," where the British first shed colonial blood five years before the Revolutionary War officially began. Crispus Attucks, believed to be a runaway slave, was the first to fall and was buried in the nearby Granary Burying Ground despite laws against burying blacks and whites together. (The state outlawed slavery after Independence and later played a key role in the abolition movement.) The common strikes its most charming pose, however, when cloaked by a snug snowy wrap that keeps away the masses. Aside from the festive First Night celebrations marking New Year's Eve, the largest congregations during the winter months are generally on the frog pond, a wading pool converted into a skating rink on cold days. Across Charles Street, there are no plebian excuses like outdoor recreation for the Public Garden, which is actually maintained largely thanks to private funds. Its 24 acres make it half the size of the Boston Common, but its graceful weeping willows, romantic lagoon and shaded benches make it twice as beautiful. Unfortunately its lethargic swan boats, which figured prominently in E.B. White's Trumpet of the Swan, can only be ridden in warmer seasons. But Mrs. Mallard and her ducklings, the stars of children writer Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings, are petrified in permanent bronze. Perfect for snapshots with the kids - and the odd fraternity stunt in which a duckling is temporarily removed and the city is plunged into mourning - they sit outside in any weather. The other side of Boston's hill leads down toward the harbor, site of a mean-spirited party in 1773 in which the guests hurled their tea overboard instead of drinking it. The history there has steeped as long, with architecture that ranges from the 18th-century Faneuil meeting hall to 20th-century sky scrapers and monuments to Revolutionary War generals as well as Holocaust victims. Though the buildings and memorials need to be seen from the outside, the compact area also offers some of the city's best refuge from the cold for those who have had enough of New England weather. Quincy Market, built in the 1820s to meet the metropolis's growing commercial needs, still hasn't kept up with consumer demand. Its arcaded halls are filled with carts selling a panoply of tourist-friendly goods, while surrounding stores cater to a wider audience. (More chic shops reside past the Public Garden, on Newbury and Boyleston Streets.) Irish wool sweaters and professional ski wear are on offer, but the best way to reclaim inner body heat is to grab some sustenance in one of the many eateries. A host of hopping bars and low-key clubs dot the district, as well as restaurants dishing out true New England (though not necessarily kosher) fare: clam chowder, boiled lobster, corn bread and Boston baked beans - they don't call it Beantown for nothing. The best is Durgin Park, which has made a reputation for surly service and enormous portions during its 178-year history. Sometimes the clang of dishes and orders interrupts conversation, but then, so does the juicy prime rib and creamy Indian pudding. A pint of Sam Adams brew might make a tempting nightcap, but a better choice is a steaming cup of hot chocolate or cappuccino at Caff Vittoria in the North End. Though brief, the walk through the wind-tunnel that leads from the Haymarket historic area to the lively Italian North End heightens the need for a warm drink. And the landmark caf doesn't disappoint, with Baroque murals and delicate pastries straight from the Old Country. It probably wasn't the cannoli that drew Paul Revere to the neighborhood when he set up his silver shop at the end of the 1700s, but the area's proximity to the waterfront, then the hub of Boston commercial life (the city nickname "Hub of the Universe" actually derives from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's reference to the state's political industry). Revere's wooden house, built in 1680, is one of the oldest - if not the oldest - surviving Boston structure and one of several area indoor attractions open year-round. Nearby, the Fleet Center hosts the Boston Bruins, the Boston Celtics and an onslaught of concerts, circuses and the like throughout the year. Sitting at the edge of the recently revamped Harbor walk, the New England Aquarium is worth every penny of its pricy admission fee. The Old North Church, though, is a steal (it's free) and deserves its name (it was built in 1723). It was there that a sexton hung two lanterns to signal Paul Revere that the British were coming, setting him off on his famous midnight ride to warn the colonists at the outset of the Revolutionary War. While several other churches cluster in the environs, it is only recently that a historic synagogue has joined the mix. The Vilna Shul, originally established in 1919 by Jews from - you guessed it - Vilna, is the last of dozens of temples that once flourished in an area which hosted most of Boston's early Jewish residents. As Jews moved first to other parts of the city and then later to the suburbs (where the majority of Boston-area Jews live today), the Vilna shul and others stopped operating. As it became trendy once again to live in the city, Jews - especially young ones - started to move back. It's only one of several recent examples of renewal and growth in the Boston Jewish community - a trend so noticeable that The Boston Globe even ran a lengthy magazine piece on the phenomenon this past year. Now some 225,000 or so Jews live in the Greater Boston area. Few, however, live downtown in the vicinity of the Vilna Shul, or even in Boston proper. The city's first Jews, however, called the downtown environs home, with one of the early Jewish businessman living near to Paul Revere. It wasn't until the second half of the 19th century, however, that a Jewish community began in earnest, with German Jews establishing congregations and communal institutions. They had begun to expand towards the edges of Boston and the suburbs by the turn of the century, when Polish and Russian Jews began arriving en masse. By the early 1900s, some 40,000 Jews lived in Boston. The numbers were large enough to support several synagogues of various streams, as well as a host of social, political and cultural organizations. As the number of Jews increased, so did their contributions not only to the local scene but to the country as a whole. The US Supreme Court's first Jewish justice, Louis Brandeis, started his law career in Boston. Leonard Bernstein attended America's oldest public school, Boston Latin, before becoming a world-renowned composer whose works include West Side Story and the Chichester Psalms. Nowadays Jews, who have faced a certain amount of discrimination and ostracism from both the Boston Brahmins and the dominant Irish-Catholic body politic, can be found in just about every one of Boston's corridors of power. All this, despite what seem to be early attempts by the Puritans to keep Jews out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The General Court declared that the commonwealth's first recorded Jew be sent on his way: "allow Solomon Franco, Ye Jew, six shillings per week out of the treasury for 10 weeks for his subsistence til he could get his passage into Holland." The Puritans seem to have overlooked another difference between their "city on a hill" and that of the Promised Land: its Jewish residents. In the end, at least that component of the elevated city was realized, even if the snow continues to blanket Boston without sparing so much as a sheet for Jerusalem.


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