January 18, 2004
Writing in Boston and New York: A Tale of Two Cities

When I moved here from New York in 1990, I couldn't believe my good fortune. What a gem of a city! Okay, I noticed a few quirks, primarily traffic-related. "Merge" and "don't block the box" are unknown concepts here, along with any notion that pedestrians might take some responsibility for their own safety. But the most baffling thing about this wonderful city is how eager it is to feel inferior. Even to Providence, for heavens sake. But mostly to New York.

From dueling sports teams to the summer's upcoming dueling political conventions, Boston's gaze seems to leap from navel to Empire State Building in a single bound. Maybe it's understandable in a city where we live so intimately with an unrivaled past: it used to be all about us.

"Boston has probably never gotten over the southward shift in the country's center of gravity," says George Packer, a writer who moved to New York after 16 years in Cambridge. Packer is now a staff writer for The New Yorker, a fact which, as he notes, probably says it all.

Being a writing New Yorker, he finds, has a very different pace. Here he wrote four books, including the novel Central Square. In New York, by contrast, he has written countless magazine articles, including a recent exhaustive and thought-provoking piece on the American troops in Iraq. But no books. Boston, he notes, is a city for reflection; New York, for immediacy.

When I spoke with Packer, he reminded me that the author William Dean Howells wrote about just that in his 1890 novel, A Hazard of New Fortunes. In words that sound right today, two of Howells' characters have this exchange:

"There's only one city that belongs to the whole country and that's New York."

"Yes I know, and Boston belongs to the Bostonians."

Packer, whose nonfiction books are solidly grounded in history, points to the turning point. The end of the 19th century was a symbolic moment when Boston's position began to ebb and New York's economic growth and openness to immigration began to move it into predominance.

"It's been a long century," Packer says. It was a century that saw Boston settling ever more comfortably into its armchair of academic preeminence, old neighborhood loyalties, and storied past. Sometimes it seems the city turns outward, wistfully, only when it notices what fun New York is having.

"Boston never expects to replace New York," says Packer, "but it wants to be a contender."

Contenders, though, need to be lean and fast. Boston, for better or worse, moves a little more slowly. While New York razes its history to make room for the newest new thing, Boston is paced for long-haul contemplation, rehabbing its Victorian buildings to house Lucky Brand and Starbucks with wireless Internet access. But Boston also tends to prize doing things the way they've always been done, if for that reason alone.

As Packer puts it, "There are ways in which Boston is good for the soul, and ways in which it stifles the soul."

Boston has been a balm for this writer's soul, offering me gifts New York never would have given. I am profoundly grateful. As a writer, I've found Boston simultaneously large and intimate, its palpable literary tradition both intimidating and encouraging. There is much to be said for the smaller pond. Oh Boston, you're my home.

City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at citytype@globe.com.

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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

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