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Boston: Walk All Over

By Jonathan Beecher

There's not much to be done about Boston anymore. But people still try. Louis M. Lyons writes that "Boston has probably had more reform organizations per square foot than any other great city." But few people seem to care. While sky highways are built over much of the North End, and a parking lot will some day burrow underneath the Common, the middle mostly gathers years. When the Museum of Natural History left its ancient quarters by Berkeley Street, the building wasn't destroyed as it should have been; Bonwit-Teller's came, with curtains, and the building looks even older yet. Lacking high buildings, long vistas, and straight or numbered streets, Boston boasts cow tunnels along with as dirty a jail and as complicated a city government as can be found.

How Boston got that way has been writen down in the involved accounts of many long books. The Puritans are blamed, or the Irish, or the Italians, or the weather, or Curley, or Beacon Hill, or the Red Sox, or social forces.

Cotton Mather said: "This town of Boston is become almost a Hell upon Earth, a City full of Lies and Murders and Blasphemies; a dismal Picture and Emblem of Hell. Satan seems to take a strange possession of it." But Bronson Alcott later observed: "There is a city in our world upon which the light of the sun of righteousness has risen. It is the same city from which every pure stream of thought and purpose and performance emanates. It is the city which is set on high. It cannot be hidden. It is Boston."

Actually, Boston's story is simple. Boston was first a part of the Atlantic Ocean. Gradually the ocean gave way to the North End, and cows came to feed on the greener, moister, North End grass. Puritans followed shortly, anxious to turn cows into milk; and, pursued by Puritans, the cows wandered about the North End, laying out Boston's streets.

Hearing of the cows to be found, more Puritans came from Europe, not all sparse of speech and life like the first. In South Boston, Thomas Morton came and shortly gathered up a harem of Indian women and a band of raffish followers. "They also set up a May-pole," says William Bradford, "drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking together (like so many fairies, or furies rather) and worse practices." Morton was finally exported at twelve shillings cost, which was divided among Boston's citizens.

Trustless of their own experience, the Puritans had gotten best at minding other people's business. At the taverns, which followed the cows to Boston, the constable's duty was to see that nobody drank "more than was good for him." In time, however, some did, and the taverns caused various disturbances with England, including a war. In 1747, when a fire turned the General Court into a street, its members met at the Royal Exchange Tavern, where, later, the only duel ever to be fought on Boston Common was started.

Soon after the taverns, Daniel Webster came to Boston, and then the Liberator, the transcendentalists, and God. At the height of Boston's literary renaissance Walt Whitman came, and walked with Emerson, listening for two hours in 1860 to his talk. Of Emerson's involved arguments, Whitman said, "While I can't answer them at all, I feel more settled than ever to adhere to my own theory and exemplify it."

Twenty years later, John L. Sullivan had come to Boston from Roxbury. At the advent of another tavern renaissance, society began its journey westward from Beacon Hill to Brook-line and finally to Wayland, Weston, and Wellesley. Since 1900 the biggest thing that has happened to Boston is Mayor Curley, and he is still happening. The sale of his library at Lauriat's a week ago started a near riot.

Boston hasn't changed much and its past is to be seen. If history is concerned "to say everything is dead," Boston is historical. Besides the monuments and museums, and the frigate Constitution, there are dozens of graveyards all over Boston: the Old Granary, the Old Charlestown, and the Old Dorchester Burial Grounds, and King's Chapel Cemetery. The Burial Ground at Copp's Hill, overlooking Charlestown and the river, is located "in the midst of a section of the city long since abandoned to the humblest and least favored population, but yet rich in historical material." Some of the stones, with the death's heads leaping faintly from them, are still marked by the bullets of the British soldiers who beseiged the city.

Boston is historical in other ways; and it is best seen by walking. If you start at Copley Square and walk north, you will come eventually to the docks, and can cross the Charles, if you like, to Charlestown and to Chelsea. On the way, the Public Gardens come first, and are somewhat bleak now and lack the swan boats, but there is, still, a picture-taking man with his venerable camera. Higher up, on Tremont Street and nearer the State Capitol, an old man used to sell catnip. He kept his stand next to the Old Granary Burial Ground for over forty years until he retired just after the war. During the war, the dome on the State Capitol on Beacon Hill was painted grey, but now it is gold again in the sky.

Beacon Hill is a mixture now. On one side are famous old homes with lofty stairways and small, purple window panes, these on Beacon Street and around Louisburg Square, where carolers come on Christmas Eve. On the other side are cheap tenements, some half empty, and between, the apartments of Beacon Hill's persistent, self-styled artists' colony. Just in back of Beacon Hill is Scollay Square, which is not, anyone will tell you, what it used to be. After the war there weren't as many sailors, and then one Thursday night the Crawford House burned down, and Boston lost its best-known flop-house. Now the Old Howard has shut down, where Jenny Lind once sang and Rose La Rose more recently appeared. Boston still has an all-night movie house, the Rialto, which opens and shuts sporadically on Bowdoin Square.

Walking down Hanover Street past the Casino Theatre, Boston's only remaining burlesque house, you will leave Fanueil Hall on your right and reach Haymarket Square, where fruits, vegetables, chestnuts, and Italian candy are sold in booths, boxes, trays, tables, and off the sidewalk.

From Haymarket Square you can go on down Hanover Street through Little Italy, by the Union Oyster House to the docks in one direction, and the coal yards by North Station in the other. After that, you cross the river, past the Navy Yard and Bunker Hill, and aren't in Boston any more

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