Boston: A place steeped in a history of political insurrection that now has terror thrust upon it


For conservatives these days, it is the East Coast command centre of an alien socialism. For liberals by contrast – or "progressives" as they now prefer to call themselves – the city is a lodestar. Unarguably however, Boston in its many manifestations has shaped the country's history, as much or perhaps more than any other US city, even New York or Washington. The city, it should be said, has not let others forget the fact.

The self-regard began back in 1630 when John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, talked of its role as "the shining city on a hill", a phrase that Ronald Reagan, three and a half centuries later, used to define his vision of America. In the 19th century, the writer Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., jokingly referred to his native city as the "Hub" (as in "of the universe"), and for headline writers the epithet endures to this day.

Almost from its foundation, Boston and its surrounds were a hotbed of ideas (Harvard University was founded in 1636), of insurrection (the Tea Party of 1773 set a match under the American revolution), and then of the revolutionary war itself whose first engagements were two years later, in the villages of Lexington and Concord a few miles west of Boston proper.

This was the crowning glory of the old Boston and its orginal ruling caste whose members, many of them descended from the first settlers, Holmes dubbed the "Boston Brahmin". They were a white, protestant elite that ran not only Boston and Massachusetts, but much of the country as well – WASPs in their purest, most venerable form.

But gradually Boston changed, above all with the arrival of the Irish. The newcomers also had insurrection in their blood, and also against an English oppressor. But unlike the Brahmin, they were poor, Catholic and Democratic. Theirs was the Boston of the Fitzgeralds and later the upstart Kennedys. It was also the Boston of the Fenian Movement, a 19th-century version of the IRA, and an ancestor of Noraid, the Boston-based organisation that would serve as Irish Republicanism's US arm during the 20th-century "Troubles".

Closer to home, Boston became the epicentre of the abolitionist movement that helped set the American civil war ablaze. As the Irish dug in, the Italians began to arrive. In 1993, Thomas Menino was elected Boston's first Italian-American Mayor, the first non-Irishman to hold the job in 60 years.

Later new immigrant waves from new countries arrived – including, very fleetingly in early September 2001, the 10 Arab hijackers who commandeered the two planes that took off from Boston's Logan Airport and crashed them into the Twin Towers. The terrorist or terrorists who perpetrated Monday's bombings not only struck at one of America's oldest and most multi-layered cities. They also raised very recent ghosts.

As with New York 12 years before, the carnage at Boston marathon has summoned an outpouring of national sympathy for a city about which the country normally has distinctly mixed feelings. For Americans, Boston may be a cradle of their history, the home of people glamorous and beloved, from JFK to Rocky Marciano. But for many of them, it is also arrogant, elitist and over-intellectual, with, seemingly, a university for every citizen and an exaggerated sense of its own importance, not least where its over-achieving sports teams are concerned.

The truth, as with most great cities, is that Boston is many things at once. It is home of high-tech whizzes and hot-shot fund managers. But it is also a cauldron of tribal local politics, a tapestry of utterly distinct neighbourhoods, of wonderful green spaces and higgledy-piggedly streets. For many Europeans, it feels the most European city in the US.

Its charms are insidious and eternal. Perhaps John Updike caught it best, in his immortal New Yorker essay of 1960 on the last appearance for the Red Sox of the baseball legend Ted Williams, aka the "Kid". Entitled "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu", it is a small jewel of modern American writing – and not just sports writing. In it Updike described Fenway Park, where the Red Sox play, as "a compromise between Man's Euclidean determinations and Nature's beguiling irregularities". He was writing about a baseball stadium. In fact, he was describing a city.

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