City of paradoxes: crowded yet livable, rough but erudite

Anyone trying to get close to Boston ought to first spend a little time gazing at the John Hancock Tower. It sits at Boston's architectural and metaphorical pivot point, symbolizing the city's self-reflecting vanity, gentleness, and grace. The monolith changes character from various angles, becoming either an archetype of modernity or a simple mirror showing off some of the treasured past. Sometimes a streak of sunfire runs down its flank. More often, it disappears into its surroundings.

Boston is a bit like that: hidden and paradoxical, something to puzzle over while wandering among the town's architectural relics and living artifacts.

As scanned from the Hancock's 60th floor, the haphazard geometry of the city -- neat rows of town houses laid out in crazy-quilt circles -- lends confusion to the search for Boston's heart. But it is a charming confusion. There's something so serious and ungaudy about this town, with its strange mixture of sturdy New England virtues and airy intellectual pride; its blend of snobbery and egalitarian crowd ethic.

Among the museum-piece monuments, you glimpse signs of the vagrancy, filth, prostitution, crime, racism that plague every large city. The things that drive the town -- political muscle, ethnocentricity, academic competition, cultural commerce, sports frenzy -- give off an almost palpable aura of city energy and pride. But Boston's opera house occupies a near slum. Its performing arts center is an aging movie palace next door to a region of pornography houses. Life is hard here for the working poor, who battle one of the highest costs of living in the country. It is even worse for the unemployed.

Generally, however, the hardscrabble world of Boston poverty is hidden from the casual visitor. Suburban commuters as well tend to encounter only the island of walkable, livable city life between the Back Bay and the North End.

There's the carnival atmosphere of Downtown Crossing, and that voracious gobbler of crowds, Filene's Department Store; the warren of streets in the North End, surely the most middle-class Little Italy in the country; the also narrow, but far more exclusive streets of Beacon Hill; Newbury Street, where it's hard to tell fashion shops from art galleries, and its new would-be competitor, Copley Place; the Christian Science Center, with neatly poised old-and-new architecture; the Fens, much of which looks like an overgrown southern swamp; the cool stillness of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Inside nearby Fenway Park, on a recent afternoon when the Red Sox were away, the cries of excited fans had become faint whispers, and one could reflect on the ritualistic losing that goes on here each season. The city accepts these cycles with remarkable grace and remains touchingly loyal to the team.

Similarly, Bostonians are not, by and large, hard on the city's monuments and other physical structures -- the way New Yorkers are, for instance. Native Boston residents do, however, systematically torture the spoken English language, particularly vowels, which get twisted into various uncomfortable shapes. This contrasts with the town's reputation as a center of higher learning.

For people who live here, there is no way to reconcile such paradoxical aspects of Boston. It is at once erudite, muscular, driving, gracious, cultured, generous, and hard-bitten. -- 30 --

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