I am not Boston-born. I didn’t come for college and stay here, like many people I know. I chose this New England life 48 years ago and never budged.
Staying put is a big change from my family’s history going back at least three generations. My great-grandparents on both sides were born in Poland; their children, my grandparents, moved to France on my mother’s side, to Germany on my father’s.
My paternal grandfather moved his family from Germany to Italy before the Nazis could stop him, but then Italian fascism chased them to Switzerland, where my father met my mother. She had escaped the Nazi roundup of Jews in Paris — unlike her brother, who died in Auschwitz.
My parents moved to Italy after the war, but there were no jobs, so they came to the United States, landing in Brooklyn. From there, they moved to Newark for a job and a house, then to Denver for health and work, then Greenville, South Carolina for an opportunity that fizzled. After my father died, my mother moved to the Boston area to be closer to me; when asked where she was from, she would say, “It’s a long story.”
They found friends, but they never put down roots.The author’s parents, Helene and Maurice Diamant, on the boat that took them from Italy to the United States circa 1948.
I came to Boston after college because I wanted to live in a big East Coast city full of culture and interesting people. New York was too big and anonymous for me, but I had friends in Boston, so I came to check it out. I walked around the city one chilly, windy autumn afternoon, post-foliage — not its best look. But I was enchanted by the architecture, the history, and all the bookstores. I think the Charles River clinched it. A ribbon of light in the middle of everything, with parks on either side.
My friends had an extra bedroom in a sprawling Allston apartment, and I got a job writing grant proposals for a small nonprofit based on Beacon Hill. Within a few months, I understood that I’d landed in a very Irish, very Catholic, rather parochial place where I might never be fully accepted, much less embraced. But that wasn’t a deal-breaker because it was easy enough to find my people — readers, movie-goers, poets, political activists.
It took a few years before I stopped feeling like a total parvenu. I learned the vocabulary: tonic is soda; a “spa” was a corner store that sold lottery tickets and milk — not a retreat with massages and facials. Wicked-good is one word, likewise Yankees-suck. “The Garden” does not refer to the lovely downtown park where swan boats float and willows weep, but to the arena where the Bruins (that’s Broonz) play hockey. “I went to school in Cambridge,” is code for, “I attended Harvard University.”
I memorized the initialisms — BC, BU, BPL, MFA, MGH, MIT, also The BI, The ICA and The T. Soon, I was correcting newcomers about the pronunciation of “Peabody” (Pee-bud-ee) and “Worcester” (Wuhstuh). But I drew the line at “challah,” which local Jews pronounced “holly,” as “in deck the halls.”
Working for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe gave me extraordinary license to explore the city. I interviewed nuns from behind a screen at a cloistered convent, and doctors on the front line of the AIDS epidemic at Boston City Hospital — now Boston Medical Center. I reported and wrote about local restaurants, public education and the Charles River.
Early on, I joined Community Boating to learn how to sail the river. One afternoon, the boat I was on capsized and despite dire warnings and the snarky song about its “dirty water,” I did not require a tetanus shot, though I never got the smell out of those sneakers.
A few decades later, I put on a bathing suit and jumped into the river as part of a one-day public swim sponsored by the Charles River Conservancy. Swimming is much safer now thanks to the Charles River Watershed Association, which has played a key role in making the Charles one of the cleanest in the country — safe enough for kayaks and paddle boards.
Boston has changed a lot since I got here in 1975, when the Boston City Council was all white and all male, except for Louise Day Hicks, a notorious racist and the past president of Roar (Restore our Alienated Rights), an anti-busing organization that fomented violence against schoolchildren. The mayor back then was Kevin White.
This year, eight of the 13 Boston City Councilors are women, six are people of color.
The mayor is Michelle Wu.
The restaurants and art museums have gone from stodgy to world-class. A beautiful 17-acre linear park — the Rose Kennedy Greenway — stands where a noisome elevated highway used to cut the city off from its harbor, which is no longer the cesspool it was when I arrived.
I am an unabashed Boston booster, but I’m not blind.
Up to 500 million gallons of sewage and stormwater runoff still find their way into the harbor every year. Boston — which is a majority minority city — is still considered one of the least welcoming cities by Black Americans. The city — and suburbs — remain racially balkanized to an astonishing degree.
Extravagantly expensive skyscraper apartments are under construction while affordable housing — by any measure — becomes more of a pipe dream every year.
And then there’s the Seaport District — an architectural blight and abrogation of all environmental, aesthetic and city-planning standards. Mother Nature will eventually remedy this insult to everything that makes Boston distinctive with the rising tides of the planet’s warming seas. But what a colossal failure.
I know: Boston winters are miserable, the traffic is awful, public transportation is a mess, public education is nowhere near what it should be, and the “best” pizza in town still has a long way to go.
But Boston is where I got divorced and then remarried, where I became a parent, a professional writer, a dues-paying member of the Jewish community, a win-or-lose Red Sox fan, and where I buried the ashes of three beloved dogs. My own burial plot will be located in a nearby suburb off of 128 — but given traffic, I wouldn’t even try during rush hour.
Boston is not just the place I live; it’s where I’ve come to belong.
Published October 4, 2022 on Cognoscenti