Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Confusion and clarity: a mental portrait of Boston

Maine, where they speak of Boston with either a wince or a patronizing condescension. In the different rhythm of rural New England, I've stood back from my eight-month immersion in the fascinating, farcical town -- gone back through the notebooks, remembered the conversations, readjusted the focus.

And I've come to what may be a very predictable conclusion: Most of us who write about Boston miss the mark. We write as though wat mattered were only its architecture and its personalities. We spend our efforts on Copley Place, the Charlestown Navy Yard, and the $1 billion redevelopment boom. Or we chase the latest quirk of the mayor, the newest threat from the city councilors, or the brightest turn of phrase from bankers and professors.

About these ads

To be sure, these things matter. To follow them in detail is to assemble, over the months, a sense of place and scale and human dimension. They are clues to underlying causes.

But they are not the causes themselves. There is a deeper meaning we ought to be seeking. We should be composing a portrait of the city not as a collection of buildings, nor even as an aggregation of individuals, but as a mental construct. We ought to be sketching out, however faintly, those particular habits of mind that dictate Boston's physical and personal appearances.

It is that mental portrait that I want to try to outline. I do not pretend to have achieved any masterful oversight, nor even to have found anything not yet discovered elsewhere. I will simply try to bring things together, with what I hope is still the freshness of a newcomer.

It seems to me that the mental portrait of Boston must depict three preeminent characteristics. The first is a sense of anguished intellectualism. If in New York one feels an almost palpable atmosphere of sensualism, and in Washington a gnawing concern that the nation is ungovernable, in Boston one senses an intellectual delving -- earnest, well-meaning, and high-minded, but often tangled, frustrated, and confused.

The intellectualism itself is not a surprising feature. The greater Boston area boasts some 62 institutions of higher learning. It has the oldest public school system in the country. It houses the nation's first free public library. As early as 1819 it was dubbed "the Athens of America."

Yet the anguish is apparent, for these very institutions are troubled. Even as students pay close to $12,000 for a year at college and the population of students from secondary schools dwindles, the quality of higher education (measured by such basic things as literacy) slides. The public schools continue to descend in public respect and funding. The Boston Public Library, fighting massive inflation in energy, personnel, and publications costs, is shrinking. Athens is tottering.

This anguished intellectualism shows up in public life in many ways. It scents the air with a mighty idealism, matching the native liberalism of this solidly Democratic city. The younger governmental planners and agency bureaucrats are astute and thoughtful. They are happy to be in Boston, even with salaries lower than elsewhere, for the mental climate charges them with enthusiasm. They long to be helpful.

About these ads

But the longing has its dangers. Former school superintendent Robert Wood, in a lecture last spring at the Massachusetts Institute of Techology, quoted theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's discussion of "the foolish children of light." Niebuhr warned that society's peril lay less in the ugliness of recognized evil than in "the various schools and classes of idealists, who profess different ideals but exhibit a common conviction that their own ideals are perfect." Mr. Wood, in his five years with the Boston school system, had stumbled over anguished intellectualism many times.

Another danger is pedantry -- which is nothing more than telling peopel more than they want or need to know on any given occasion. The penchant for subjecting every issue to exhaustive discussion, analysis, dissection, and multivolume report -- a characteristic of all Western democracies, it seems -- is heightened here by local academicism. As Andrew Hickey of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board quipped, "Everything we do in this city is a debate." The problem with such debate, as with pedantry in academic circles, is that it is easily ignored. This is a city of shelved reports.

The second feature of Boston is its pride. This is, after all, one of America's premier cities, often praised for its "livability" in the same breath with San Francisco. It draws tourists by the millions, many of whom go away longing to come back permanently. For it couples two much-sought-after things: a respect for tradition and a sense of the modern. Sen. Paul Tsongas found the right word for it in a conversation last winter. "Boston," he said, "is a very alluring community."

but that allure has its poisonous side, showing up most frequently in the unique political mix that bubbles through the electoral process. "Don't get mad , get even" seems to be the motto of many a local politician. The revenge of wounded pride, in fact, is a significant motivating force here. On one hand, it provokes egregious personal attacks by members of the City Council on one another and on the mayor -- tirades so mindless in their bombast, and so naked in their attempt to assassinate character, that visitors are rightly astonished. On the other hand, it promotes blind loyalties and produces a brisk traffic in patronage positions. The surprise, perhaps, is not that such things happen. It is that they happen so blatantly that allegations of corruption are typically shrugged aside with the words, "That's Boston."

This sort of pride, which assumes that political office insulates the holder from common morality, antagonizes more than it heals. It also engenders a fuzzy-minded belief that if you alter the players you change the entire game. The result: politics here is an affair of personalities, not platforms. In fact , what frequently needs to shift is the underlying conception, not the individuals who happen to be embodying the conception.

Such shifts in thought happen all too infrequently. Mayor Kevin H. White -- who is more symptom than cause -- candidly admits that politics, rather than issues, is what really interests him. Asked at an august press conference whether Boston really had to go through last spring's turmoil over its finances, he said "No." Then, in a typical flight of public introspection, he noted that "every once in a while the issues should be allowed to get in and get resolved," adding, "Sometimes we play politics so often that the issues don't get in." Again, nothing unique to Boston -- just astonishing that the mayor should admit it so brazenly.

The third aspect of this portrait is stubbornness. One hesitates to subscribe to America's regional cliches: but the distinction between Eastern reserve and Western openness is evident here. At its best, Boston's reserve betokens a firm reliance on established values and a refusal to flap about with every wind of fashion.Nor does it show up as unfriendliness; Bostonians are not generally cold. But it does manifest itself as a kind of agedness of thought, a slightly crancky dependence on set traditions.

Part of the stubbornness, the unwillingness to reform, stems from recent history. For many years Boston had little to brag about. "We've dealt so long with failure, stress, and decline that the problem for the 1980s is how to deal with success," said Robert Ryan, head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. His agency builds buildings, always an easier thing to do than to rebuild mental foundations. Looking at the bricks, he sees success. The "failure, stress, and decline," however, remain in the interrelations among the city's various groups.

For Boston is still a place of neighborhoods, where small ways of thinking sometimes fail to embrace the larger problems of racial intolerance, ethnic territorialism, and economic imbalance. The result is a polarization of thinking, where issues are seen as stark us-against-them standoffs between tenant and landlord, policeman and teen-ager, little guy and city machine. Nothing surprising there, either, except that Boston has a kind of inflexibility that makes it harder to bring the sparring parties around the negotiating table -- or to achieve any permanent changes in attitude once thay are there.

At bottom, these three characteristics are less distinct than they seem to be. Intellectual anguish breeds frustration, compounded by pride into the very stubbornness that will not seek a solution.

The result is confusion: and Boston, these days, is confused. On the surface , it exudes self-confidence. Underneath, however, the city is not sure where it is is headed, or why it ought to move, or who ought to lead it. It is becoming increasingly convinced, in fact, that it is not being led at all.The tendency is to blame the current leaders -- or to assert that voters get the leadership they deserve. Again, the problem is deeper: the elected officials are the result, not the cause, of the mental climate.

What's to be done? If the problem is confusion, the answer must be clarity -- a sharp-eyed willingness to think precisely, broadly, and at length about the city. Bostonians must demand clarity. This city, with its traditions, deserves lucid and articulate public speeches. It deserves thoughtful public seminars. It deserves straightforward analysis by the media. Above all, it deserves leaders who can think clearly, who respect logic, and who can fend off the vacillating arguments of those who believe Boston is doomed to be an eternally shimmering enigma.

There is an important municipal election coming up (more on that next week), in which voters will have a chance to register their views. Merely shifting officials will not have much effect. But if the voters actively seek out clear-thinking candidates, they will both support the best sorts of officials and begin to shift the mental armosphere.

As a result, those they elect will find it easier to fulfill the end of government -- which is nothing more complex than the happiness of the governed.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.