“Love that Dirty Water”: My Year Living in Boston

“Love that Dirty Water”: My Year Living in Boston

“Full of crooked little streets; but I tell you Boston has opened and kept open more turnpikes that lead straight to free thought and free speech and free deeds than any other city.”

– Oliver Wendell Holmes

I have always dreamed of living in a major city. While my hometown wasn’t small, it wasn’t a city. The closest city to where I grew up, New Bedford, was more prominent, but it wasn’t anything like Providence or Boston. In my life, I would go on to have the pleasure of visiting several major cities in the U.S. and the world and residing in a few. Three years in Honolulu, one month in Shanghai, but Boston will always be the first. In 2008, I, along with Corinne, set sights on the city of Boston as our living location. Corinne and I had recently started living together, but we did so in her suburban apartment. So, we moved to Boston. For the next 12 months, we learned to be partners, adopted our shelter pup, Mr. Tuttles, and enjoyed city living, both its beauties and drawbacks. Today, let’s explore Boston as Corinne and I did.

A Simple Idea, Carried Out Moderately Well

Most ideas are simple enough, at least until you explore the logistics of implanting said ideas. That’s how it was when Corinne and I decided to move to Boston in September of 2008. When I first met Corinne, she expressed her desire to live in Boston at least once in her life. So, it made sense that with Corinne working on the North Shore of Massachusetts and me on the South Shore, we chose a location directly in the middle of those two points. No time was better than the present. While living in Boston and working outside the city included challenges, we knew that a dwelling someplace in Boston offered us an experience unlike any other for our first apartment together. Boston is a large city. Sure, it’s not Paris, New York City, or Shanghai, it doesn’t claim to be, but it does have several distinct neighborhoods to call home. Where would we reside? Corinne and I visited the city, eagerly seeking a connection.

On a beautifully Saturday morning in July of 2008, we had an emotional moment as we walked along Charles Street in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, mere blocks away from the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Street. Of course, Beacon Hill is not a hard sell; the architecture, shopping, eating, and hospitality are second to none. It is one of the city’s luxurious areas, with high-priced residential brownstones and row houses. Louisburg Square, located centrally in the neighborhood, between Mt. Vernon Street and Pinckney Street, is stunning and home to cultural and political celebrities. Of course, Acorn Street, not too far away from Louisburg Square, or the hustle and bustle of Beacon Street and the 50-acre Boston Common, is one of the “most photographed streets in the city,” offering visitors a colonial Boston feel. This small section of Beacon Hill is where Corinne and I felt that “spark.”

We fell hard for Beacon Hill and were in awe of the quiet opportunity to live in a major city. Still, Corinne and I were not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. We were two twenty-something-year-old Adjunct Professors stringing together several classes and multiple colleges. Living in an affluent area was not what we wanted, but we liked the neighborhood, favoring the location and its proximity to the I-93 Highway, which could bring Corinne north three days per week and me south twice weekly. Corinne and I had one car, so we could leave and return to the city relatively quickly, which was never easy. Beacon Hill was in a central location for urban enjoyments, living, and frequent trips to Cambridge on the Red Line Subway Station at Charles/MGH. While Boston is a large city, it’s relatively easy to navigate, although it has a wonky municipal design. Four lefts will not bring you back to where you started.

For these reasons and others, Corinne and I wanted to reside here. It helped that during our first trip to the city to walk around, visiting East Boston, South Boston, and Back Bay, I was convinced of Beacon Hill’s desirability after walking along Beacon Street and coming upon the Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial, directly in front of Massachusetts State House. As a historian, who focused my research on the Civil War, living close to a monument recognizing and honoring black soldiers, was inspiring. But one can’t live someplace solely for its history or monuments, although maybe that’s not entirely true. After a full day of sightseeing, neighborhood hunting, and exploring amenities, Corinne and I reached out to a local real estate broker who helped us search for the perfect apartment. We selected the neighborhood with ease and excitement, but we needed a place to call home. With our modest budget, that wasn’t easy.

The Perfect Apartment & Rooftop Deck

Corinne and I contacted a local broker whose agency was on Charles Street, and we arranged to meet with him the next day to start the process. We wanted to secure an apartment for September 1. Doing so early gave us every opportunity to obtain the best apartment available. Corinne and I took the train into Boston the following day, met our agent, Kenny, and got private showings of nearly a dozen apartments – all within our budget, some stellar, others downright terrible. One was on the seventh floor of an eight-story walk-up, another was directly adjacent to the Red Line tracks, and yet another was garden level. One, however, was like Ahab’s white whale, the perfect combination – second floor, street view, two bedrooms, large kitchen and bathroom, tons of space. Sadly, a young couple who saw it before us quickly snagged it. The Beacon Hill market was, indeed, competitive.

Most of the apartments we looked at were average at best. Rarely did they come with a washer/dryer. Some were on streets with no possibility of parking within a two-block perimeter, and others were tiny, boringly laid out, or too high, making us wince at the thought of climbing so many stairs daily. For the most part, the apartments we saw were one-bedroom, although that place with a window view of the Red Line speeding by as it came into Charles/MGH was a two-bedroom, but barely and it was a mess, so we said no on principle alone. Several apartments offered rooftop decks with excellent State House, Prudential Center, or John Hancock building views. The last was wonderfully fitting since Beacon Hill was once the sprawling property of an American Founding Father, merchant, and American Revolutionary Patriot, John Hancock. Rooftop decks shouldn’t matter, but sadly I am easily swayed by such swanky possibilities.

It was a lot to take in, but Corinne and I felt that one of the places was it. We went for dinner in Beacon Hill after Kenny told us to ponder our options and to let him know our decision. We ate at Harvard Gardens, an American fare eatery with high-end comfort food, draft beer, and cocktails. Like others in the neighborhood, we had a delicious meal and regularly came here for dinner, never having a bad meal. The “Heart of the Hill,” Harvard Gardens is where Corinne and I chose our Boston apartment. We rarely make emotional or quick decisions, for that matter, but we make our best choices when enjoying a meal. After eating, Corinne and I walked along Charles Street and visited Starbucks, located on the corner of Charles and Beacon. After getting coffee, we walked around Boston Common, calling Kenny with our decision.

We received keys to our apartment at the end of August and moved in over a weekend. Moving in was exciting, if even slightly irritating, since parking was a nightmare, the hills of Beacon Hill hauntingly steep. Like most new city dwellers, we got a parking ticket immediately. Our move was relatively easy, and we set up our new apartment. It wasn’t hard, the apartment wasn’t big, barely 500 square feet, but it was unique. The place Corinne and I settled on had many things that the other residences didn’t. It was a bi-level, meaning the bedroom was on be garden level, but the living room/kitchen/dining room was on the first level with a narrow staircase connecting both floors. Our apartment was on Revere Street, a perfect Boston address, and towards the top of the neighborhood. Far enough away from busy Charles and Beacon Streets, we relished the city without hearing the noise, which was oddly fascinating.

The apartment layout, being a one-bedroom but not simply a square box, included utilities and a usable washer/dryer. We had storage in the basement, at least until a sewer pipe burst, soiling everything in it. We did get access to a rooftop deck with amazing views of Boston’s skyline, including lounge chairs. The condo association strung lights, perfect for celebrating New Year’s Eve or the Charles River Esplanade’s July 4th fireworks. The apartment had everything we needed and was bright, with large windows. We decorated it with a cute style illustrating our character. However, our decorating style was juvenile by current standards and lacked the personality we pride ourselves on today. Time, place, and space change a person’s taste. Our home today has a Nashville vibe, inspired by our travels and forty years of lived experiences. Still, our Beacon Hill home was charming, but time in Boston was calculated by our connection to and enjoyment of the city, more so than the apartment.

Beacon Hill isn’t Simply a Neighborhood

One of the significant advantages of city living was the ability to walk or use public transport to get everything and anything. Beacon Hill had everything we needed to make life livable and lovable. Stunning architecture, tree-lined streets with gaslights, cobblestone, Federal-style row houses, and a chic vibe injected with historical significance await passing tourists and new residents to Beacon Hill. It is the hub of political power in Massachusetts, with the State House and famous golden dome, on the neighborhood’s eastern border. Beacon Hill has “beautiful doors, decorative iron work, brick sidewalks, narrow streets,” and restaurants and “antique shops” located on Charles Street, making it “one of the more desirable” areas in Boston. It is home to the Shaw Memorial and Black Heritage Trail, which houses the Boston African American National Historic Site and Museum of African American History.

Bordering the Charles River and Storrow Drive to the west, Leonard Nimoy’s West End to the north, Government Center and City Hall Plaza to the east, and Boston Common to the south, Beacon Hill is somewhat rectangular shaped, with over 9,000 residents. The Red Line is accessible at the Charles/MGH station across from the prestigious hospital and beautiful The Liberty, a Luxury Collection Hotel, where Corinne and I did a staycation and resided like royalty. The Blue Line is at Government Center or Bowdoin, the Green Line at Park Street Station, and the Orange Line at State along with the Old State House or Haymarket, which is further towards the famous North End of Boston. Access to every part of the city or neighboring towns through the MBTA Commuter Rail at North Station and South Station, where one can utilize Amtrak to the adjacent US States. My ability to navigate world cities easily is in part from having lived in Boston.

Beacon Hill offered access to major grocery stores like Whole Foods, located off Cambridge Street, or Savenor’s Butcher Shop & Market, our constant go-to on Charles Street. Still, only a block from our apartment was Beacon Hill Market, a small grocer with anything we needed at a moment’s notice. This place was perfect during those snowstorms or house parties when we needed something quick and were willing to pay a higher or marked-up price. On days when we didn’t prepare dinner or wished to go to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s on Boylston Street, we often were found eating at a restaurant on Charles Street. Yes, we ate a ton of places in Back Bay and Chinatown, and we loved several Italian eateries in the North End and restaurants, large and small, in the South End and the Waterfront. Still, on a Tuesday or Sunday morning, Corinne and I were on the “Hill,” usually at a favorite haunt.

For breakfast, Corinne and I often ate at Paramount, Capitol Coffee House, and Cafe Vanille, now Tatte Bakery & Cafe. Paramount was our preferred choice, with its inspired dishes, and whenever family or friends visited, we quickly directed them there. Often, even nearly fifteen years later, I dream of the eggs and omelets. Otherwise, for lunch and dinner, we enjoyed unique and delicious pizza at The Upper Crust Pizzeria and Figs, both outstanding and mere steps from one another. We celebrated any good news with a meal at Toscano, ordered sandwiches for a quick day trip from Panificio Bistro & Bakery, and enjoyed the classic, no-fuss Thai cuisine at King & I. Yes, as I said, we enjoyed hundreds of meals all over the city, at local staples and desirable chains. Still, those few walkable places, like Harvard Gardens, were the establishments awarding Corinne and me some lovely memories.

On one occasion, Halloween 2008, Beacon Hill shut down its central streets, including around Louisburg Square, like it does each Halloween. The neighborhood’s packed with trick or treaters, young and old, with adults dressed to impress and celebrate. On this night, we ordered pizza from The Upper Crust Pizzeria and, on our way back, walked around meeting people, including former Presidential nominee, Senator, and Secretary of State John Kerry, and taking in the electric atmosphere. Of course, it’s Boston. You can’t walk one block without coming face to face with a stellar eatery offering cultural cuisines and food options, whether breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Food is one of Beacon Hill’s apparent draws. While calling the neighborhood home, I also sought out lifestyle amenities, outlets for recreation and nearby entertainment, and opportunities to expand my knowledge of my surroundings and myself.

Urban Amusements & Fun at My Fingertips

Fun, urban amusements – call it what you want; Boston has a ton to offer. Take in a sporting event, go bowling, kayak, enjoy craft beer at a brewery, and see an up-and-coming musician at a local bar – that and more await you. Beacon Hill, while limited, still exudes urban entertainment. With its access to the Charles River Esplanade, I wish I enjoyed running that year since the jogging/biking path offers miles of beautiful scenery, including views of Boston and Cambridge and often rowing teams on the Charles River. I wish I had played softball at the time, but I wouldn’t start until moving out of Boston since BSSC often organized games within city limits. Years later, I played two games on the Boston Common Baseball Field. The backdrop was the Boston skyline, stunning. In Beacon Hill, I used a local fitness center, something I rarely did. Walking to a fitness club was appealing, so I joined the Beacon Hill Athletic Club.

Expensive, small, but never overly crowded; Beacon Hill Athletic Club on the corner of Hanover Street and Cambridge Street, with views of Otis House Museum and historic Old West Church, was tremendous. It was my first real gym experience, and I often went, enjoying the short stroll from my apartment. Before joining this club, I had never enjoyed “working out” or “fitness clubs,” but this experience started an exercise trend; I have never given up, even if I transitioned to regularly running and a home gym. After leaving Boston, I never attended another fitness club equal to or greater than Beacon Hill Athletic Club until I visited a 24 Hour Fitness on Waikiki and had a one-month membership at Z&B Fitness in Shanghai. City gyms are cute, offering options, but they are not cheap. They did, however, inspire my fitness journey.

As far as amusements go, Boston, albeit outside of Beacon Hill, has plenty. I could state the obvious, and will, Bruins and Celtics games at TD Garden, the Red Sox at Fenway Park, and concerts at Leader Bank Pavilion or Hatch Memorial Shell. While living in the city, I witnessed multiple events at these stadiums/arenas. Unlike when living outside the city, I could go to these events either by walking, to TD Garden, or a short subway ride, to Fenway. On one occasion, Corinne and I had tickets to a Red Sox vs. Yankees game. An hour before the game, a storm delayed the first pitch, which might have deterred someone living outside the city from attending. Corinne and I chose to wait out the rain, staying in our comfy apartment. Fifteen minutes before the first pitch, we took a Green Line train to Kenmore. Upon arriving at Fenway Park, we found the stadium nearly empty after a several-hour delay. Our seats were terrific, and the Yankees hit several home runs, winning easily.

While I am not a hockey or basketball fan, I enjoy them in person, and trips to see the Bruins and Celtics helped broaden my Boston sports education. Sports, while enjoyable, pales compared to my fascination with Boston history and culture. Often, when Corinne’s parents visited, my brother, or even Corinne’s friend Anthony from Texas, we made our way to some of the more popular and touristy locations. Coming from Beacon Hill always made getting to any of those areas easy. Whether we were walking around Boston Common or the Public Garden, shopping on Newbury Street, walking through the many historic cemeteries, and observing the active hub in Copley Square was desirable. Of course, taking the activity and history at Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Columbus Waterfront Park, Paul Revere House, and the Old North Church, not to mention the monuments that line the streets, parks, and gardens, was enjoyable.

I could go on about key historical locations we visited, but to do so would be redundant and trite. Suffice to say, for Corinne and me, two nerdy historians; we explored as much of Boston’s history as one could want. When family visited, we had multiple reasons to retread previous trodden grounds. Corinne and I visited museums like the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Museum of Science, and New England Aquarium, when eager to fill our time and explore the city. Limited events like a concert at clubs such as the Roxie and Paradise, a pumpkin festival in Government Center, a book signing by Dennis Leary at the Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Center, a Neil Diamond July 4 show on the Charles River Esplanade, or celebrating my brother’s bachelor party in the Fenway District – all helped make Boston memorable. We encountered challenges as a result but discovered how to navigate urban life.

The Negatives of City Living

There were bound to be some issues and drawbacks to residing in a metropolitan area. None were terrible enough to sour our experience. On the contrary, any challenge helped Corinne and I grow as individuals and as a couple. Most conflicts deal with things outside of our control. Traffic, weather, isolation, space, and, of course, parking – all contributed to moments, or periods, of stress and anxiety. One could call these negatives, but they were more like an annoyance. Corinne and I both worked outside the city, which meant while traveling “to” our jobs were simple, competing with no traffic, coming home, to the contrary, required an extra hour or more of heavy traffic. These pains might not affect someone who lives and works within city limits or borders, but it was a small price to pay for the Boston experience.

I felt these pains extra hard if, instead of coming home at a usual hour, I joined my brother Jeff and his brother-in-law Brian for a weekly Thursday golf league. Evening golf, and pizza afterward, usually took place in the spring, but whenever I returned home, golf bag in tow, I found it impossible to find parking. On several occasions, I remember driving around for an hour, maybe a little longer, unable to find a spot. Then, on the off chance, I found one; it was usually a tight spot on a notable sloop of one of Beacon Hill’s steep streets, requiring me to parallel park. Before Boston, I was not too fond of parallel parking. I probably hadn’t needed to accomplish such a maneuver since I got my driving license, but while living in Boston, it was a requirement, and I became a pro. I wouldn’t say I liked it, but I could perform such a task with ease and with my eyes closed, but I didn’t try that; 😉.

Another drawback Corinne and I faced was a city winter. I posted months ago about my dislike of snow. My experiences with winter/snow in Boston fueled our antagonistic relationship. On a few occasions, we encountered a snowstorm. While not blizzards, these storms were bad enough that we were required to relocate our car to the Boston Common garage or a neighboring street where parking was allowed during a snowstorm. It was always preferable to move the car since, if it got buried by the storm and plow, it was a nightmare to dig it out. If located on a steep street like Anderson, where losing one’s footing and sliding down the road was a real possibility and humorous, albeit dangerous, we chose to garage the car. Winters are brutal, but a snowstorm in the city is breathtaking, even as the aftermath and cleanup are painful.

Another complication involving winter in a city; is old buildings. Corinne and I lived on the garden level and first floor of a building that probably dated back one hundred years. No central air conditioning and the age of the boilers probably went back decades. The heat cut out if it got too cold and the boiler couldn’t handle it, which happened several times. Nothing is worse than spending nearly two thousand dollars a month on rent, getting heat and hot water included, but on the coldest days losing the ability to warm the less than 500 square foot apartment. Sure, it usually got fixed within a day or two, but knowing that as the temperature dropped, we might have an issue, was anxiety-producing. Corinne and I found far more joy during our time in Beacon Hill than not. Complications and challenges were not shocking, but those things I listed, and the sticker shock of city life, still come back to me now and then.

None of this accounts for everything, simply my experience, even if a fraction of one year in Boston. Even those negatives of city living helped train me for other adventures in cities like Honolulu and Shanghai, where I thrived and succeeded, despite apprehensions and misgivings. Living in Boston changed my perspective on what “home” is and what type of living I seek. Corinne and I have spent years living in a city environment and the suburbs surrounded by trees and unused acreage. I see positives and negatives in both surroundings, but not culturally or socially. The social and cultural component and diversity of cities and elsewhere in America can and must be celebrated and championed. Instead, drawbacks and benefits come from a logistical perspective. While I was unsure, living in Boston showed me what I was capable of and what I liked and didn’t about city living.

Looking Back, While Rushing Ahead

We are, first and foremost, city people, using any opportunity to travel to and remain in a metropolitan area, enjoying it for its vibrancy, excitement, diversity, and life. Living in Boston gave us the tools to maintain our love of the city, to go to other locations and explore them, like we did Beacon Hill, even for a weekend or a week. We avoid things we don’t like, parking, tourist traps, and shopping areas that seek to erase local opportunities and voices. Boston was an early moment in our lives when Corinne and I fulfilled our initial dream of urban living, which we maintained in other places for years. We eagerly walked to the AMC cinema across from Boston Common. We often went to sports and music venues, eateries, and events like the Special Olympics Summer Games at Boston University, which we volunteered for and remembered fondly.

Most importantly, living in Boston was when Corinne and I adopted our little dog, Mr. Tuttles, from Boston Animal Rescue League. He is still with us and has lived an urban lifestyle alongside us. He experienced his first snow in Beacon Hill, learned that he didn’t need grass to go to the bathroom, and taught Corinne and me that if we are all together and hold tight to our memories of Boston and the “Hill,” what we do now, and later is a bonus. Despite those drawbacks or advantages, I have fond memories of Tuttles on the rooftop patio for July 4th, joining Corinne and me as we threw a house party, or even leading us on walks up and down the steep streets of Beacon Hill. He was with us nearly the entire year and has been with us ever since, even in Honolulu. He enjoys the lush and spacious yard he has now, but he’s a city dog, and like Corinne and I, no one can take that experience away, and we have no regrets.

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