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THE STREETS OF BOSTON
VEN Boston, in spite of its being an intellectual city – and one need never prove that Boston is intellectual, for Bostonians stand pleasantly ready to admit it sufficiently succumbed to mid-Victorian standards of building as to put up a goodly number of architectural ineptitudes, one of the sad examples being the Post-Office, which was so highly thought of at the time of its construction as to draw such encomiums as the following from an intelligent observer of about 1880: "Its style of architecture is grand in the extreme. It is a building of elegant finish. Its roof is an elaboration of Louvre and Mansard styles." Really, beyond this nothing need be said. Yet this building points out the irony of fate, for in its granite prodigiousness it did a vastly better thing for Boston than many a more beautiful building would have done, for it stood as an absolute barrier in the great fire of 1872, completely stopping the frightful rush of flames in its direction; without this unbeautiful building the terrible record of 767 buildings burned, 67 acres swept over, and a money loss of seventy-five millions, would have been vastly worse.
That fire destroyed many a picturesque landmark, but the city still retains the old-time interest that comes from narrow and crooked streets. "The street called Straight" was certainly not a Boston street. In its whimsical complexity, the city is still as notable as when the Marquis de Chastellux wrote that he thought this feature exemplified "la liberté."
In the old section of the city there are still to be found not only crooked streets and unexpected angles but great numbers of narrow passages and blind ways, and there are little court-yards and streets that end in stone steps – all giving a highly satisfying sense of the olden days, for it is mainly on account of the olden days that one likes to come to Boston. One long slit of a passage, nearly six feet wide, running close between business blocks, is an "avenue," and I know it is an avenue because there is a sign on it to that effect, although otherwise I should never have suspected it of bearing such a large title. One can burrow across much of the old city through narrow passages, and here and there it is not only the metaphorical burrowing of narrow ways, but the literal burrowing of some public passage through and under some pile of buildings. One may even find extraordinarily narrow passages in such a comparatively new section as between West and Temple Streets and Temple and Winter; and one may follow narrow ways, one after another, from the Granary to Faneuil Hall, and in many another place. Of no other American city could one say, as Holmes said of Boston, that he used to "bore" through it, knowing it as the old inhabitant of a Cheshire knows his cheese; and "bore" is precisely the right word. Some of the passages are so narrow that, standing in the middle, one may put an elbow against each wall. And these network passages are not back-ways for refuse and ashes, but are steadily and freely used by men and women as public pathways and shortcuts.
After all, as to Boston streets in general, one remembers that it has finely been said that, although the city is full of crooked little streets, it has opened and kept open more turnpikes that lead straight to free thought, free speech and free deeds than has any other city.
The street pavements, one regrets to notice, are likely to be rough and the sidewalks narrow, and in muddy weather the result is what would naturally be expected from such a combination, for in no other city have I noticed such splashing of house fronts and store windows with mud as in some parts of Boston. In the medieval streets in old European cities conditions are the same except that there is little traffic to speak of. Had Macaulay ever been in America one would have taken it for granted that the inspiration of his lines, telling that to the highest turret tops was dashed the yellow foam, came right from Boston. And the motorist must know his Boston exceptionally well to be able to make his way about on streets whose pavement is even measurably smooth. The cobbles at the sides of the Beacon Hill streets are obviously excellent as checks to sliding in slippery weather, but the cobbles in other parts of the city are not so understandable, and the holes and roughnesses that have nothing to do with cobbles are understandable even less. By "cobbles," it may be added, is meant not merely the rough Belgian blocks which are to be found here and there in Boston as in other cities, but roundtop beach stones, little boulders, extremely uneven in surface and polished by the hoofs of many generations of horses. But there are splendid parkway roads in Boston, and some splendidly smooth roads leading out to some of the suburbs; altogether, Boston has some of the very best and some of the very worst roads that I have ever seen in a city. And frequently, on account of inefficient street-cleaning, there is achieved an incredible dustiness.
The hand-organ is still a common survival in Boston streets, and there are also survivals of street cries, in at least the older and still American parts of the city, of a kind that have nearly vanished from most other large cities; and these cries quite fulfill the requisite of being practically unintelligible except to the ear of custom. Some one wishing to rival the familiar prints of "Old London Cries" might still get out a series of "Boston Cries" and date it in the twentieth century. The humble soapgrease man still goes about with greasy cart and gives his humble soapgrease cry; the strident call of the eager fishman is a familiar possession of the city, though within my own memory the conch-shell of the mackerel man has vanished; the varied cries of the men with fruit still rend the air, and these men have usually carts, with horses, which they drive by at a perpetual quickened walk, and the insistent and urgent voices seem to declare that the fruit must be bought instantly; perhaps the iceman is the best of all, for he wails and trails his words with a wonderful, lengthening "ee-ice," with a poignant accenting of the final note; and, as I write, one seems even more interesting than the iceman, for I hear a cry that is not only a veritable survival of the past, but one which has quite disappeared, so far as I know, from other cities – the cry of the ragman, going along with his bag over his shoulder and his scale in his hand, with his quietly murmuring cry of "Rags, an' ol' clothes"!
And in line with the street cries of Boston is a street sound that is curiously remarkable – the sound of bells that are strung on horses drawing the more primitive kinds of delivery wagon, or tied directly on the wagon thills. I do not remember any other American city where horses or wagons are belled. Nor do I refer to sleighbells, which are a different matter altogether. I mean bells that go ringing or jangling as the four-wheeled vehicles move through the streets; and it gives a most odd effect. The custom probably began as a measure of safety in approaching the frequent intersections of the narrow streets; for the same reason that the gondola men of Venice utter their long-drawn-out warning cry as they approach the intersections of the narrow canals.
Sleighbells in winter are common; indeed, Boston is very much of a winter city, as is shown by the swift appearance of sleighs and bob-sleds after a snow, the swift handling of the snow-shoveling problem, the myriad little avalanches from the sloping roofs when a thaw comes, the skating on the Charles and on the lake in the Public Garden and on the pond in the Common, and the free and untrammeled coasting of boys and girls down the paths and the hill-slopes of the Common. And conservative ladies who still avoid limousines and pin their social faith to carriages – the "kerridges" of Holmes, with a "pole and a pair" have the coupe top detached from the wheels and slung on an iron frame, with graceful runners, and, thus vehicularly equipped, sleigh forth in undisturbed exclusiveness to make their afternoon calls.
It so happens that I have rarely noticed a policeman upon the Common, though on inquiry I have learned that always there is supposedly a detail of two policemen there; perhaps it is only a fancy, that the general sense of freedom as to the Common keeps it unwatched ground. It seems quite unwatched, even when there is skating on the big pond before it has frozen strongly, and when, after freezing and melting, there are holes in the ice and gaps of black water along the edges. I one day asked a policeman on Tremont Street about this, for I was accustomed to see in other cities the red ball and supervision, for skating, but instead of saying that the water was not deep enough to be dangerous except for a cold wetting, he said thoughtfully: "Why, no – there ain't no rule about it – the boys go on when they want to." Then a slow smile crept over his face. "I suppose it ain't likely they will go near the holes," he said. It really seems as if this freedom on the Common has come down without question since that pre-Revolutionary time when the boys of Boston went to the British General in command and complained of the spoiling of their slides and had their claim acknowledged.
The street signs of Boston are explanatory, expository, admonitory, advisory. I have even seen, but rarely, the blunt "Keep off," but there is more likelihood of finding such a courteously suggestive sign as "Newly seeded ground." And as Boston takes it for granted that the people within its gates wish everything to be reasonably done, you will see "Uncheck your horses on going up the hill," or "Rest your horses"; and you will notice such advice as "Do not walk more than two abreast," and "Do not stop in the middle of the sidewalk," and "Do not block the crossings."
A kind of sign, rather exceptionally rhadamanthine, is seen at some of the street intersections and bluntly commands "Do not enter here"; and several visitors have told me that they have actually gone clear around such blocks so as to enter at the other end, to see why it was that admittance was forbidden, and that not until then did they realize that Bostonians merely meant to say that it was a one-way street for vehicles, with no intended reference to pedestrians. And a smile is admissible when you see a stairway, leading down from a sidewalk, marked "To the Elevated"! In any other city Bostonians would see humor in calling a subway an elevated, even though it may chance after a while to lead to an elevated. Also, I have been directed in the suburbs to the "Subway," where there was only a stair to the elevated. And when you read, in a street car, that you are "forbidden to stand" on the front platform, and in the same car that you are "not allowed to stand" on the rear platform, you wonder just what fine distinction is implied.
The custom in Boston at some corners is to give not only the street names, but the number of the ward as well, and a visitor to the city told me that, arriving at night and starting out to explore the city the next morning, he at once noticed Ward II, Ward III, and so on, near his hotel and thought he must be in the vicinity of a great Boston hospital with out-lying hospital buildings. And an old Bostonian assures me that it was not a joke, but a fact, that a Boston library had a sign reading "Only low talk permitted in this room" – till the newspapers learned of it!
"Prepayment" cars are a feature of Boston, and you find yourself vaguely wondering about them until you see that they are but the "Pay as you enter" cars of other cities.
And all this in a city whose very street railway men will calmly refer you to "the next articulated car, sir," and which preens itself on such things as saying that gloves are always "cleansed" and never "cleaned"! which is remindful that the men of Boston do not wear gloves as freely as do the men of other large cities in the East; gloves are evidently looked upon, by them, as meant for cold weather, and not until cold weather are they donned generally.
I have noticed that the police are a courteously helpful set of men, never too busy to answer questions. I have even smiled to see the traffic men at the busiest crossings stop to answer carefully and distinctly the questions of fluttered folk even while thronging motor cars come bearing down in threatening masses.
In the best retail shopping district, which corresponds with what used to be the "ladies' mile" in New York, there are many delightful specialty shops on streets just off the principal thoroughfares: little shops which make one think of London. There are lace-shops, linen-shops, hat-shops, tea-shops – the list might be extended indefinitely. The heavy percentage of candy-shops, with their attractive windows, is noticeable, and one finds himself thinking that this must be due to the influence of women – until he discovers that there is also a striking number of candyshops down in the heart of the business district!
Boston must, also, be an intensely flower-loving city, judging from the frequency of gorgeous window displays of flowers and the great number of shops that sell not only cut flowers but bulbs, seeds and houseplants.
Ask a Philadelphian or a New Yorker to show you the nearest doctor and he looks at the nearest house! For doctors' signs are so common in those cities that you think it likely to see one at any window. But in Boston the doctors' signs are few and far between, and when found they are so small as to be not only inconspicuous but almost unreadable. It would seem as if the bigger a doctor's reputation the smaller his sign. And to a great extent doctors throng to office buildings.
The pharmacists, in distinction from the candy and soda people who also sell drugs, are even rarer in proportion than in other American cities.
Old-fashioned terms or phrases are preserved. The sign of "Lobsters and Musty Ale" is not infrequent, and it is still far from impossible to find a "Tap"; and if one is so old-fashioned as to drive into town with a horse he may still have it "baited," as old-fashioned announcements still have it, at old-fashioned places.
And there are still, in Boston, book-shops that look like book-shops, delightful book-shops that attract book-buyers and book-lovers; a type of shop that is passing, in some American cities, on account of the taking over of the book trade by department stores.
So sensitive is the Boston mind, in some respects, that no employee of any shop, or, in fact, any employee of any kind, is ever treated so harshly as to be "discharged"; and to be "fired" would be shudderingly impossible; here in Boston a dismissed employee has simply "got through." That is all. He has "got through." And with that delicate euphemism the incident and the conversation are delicately but finally closed. If, on the other hand, a man has resigned of his own free will, or has moved into a higher sphere of influence, that is another matter, and Bostonian pains are taken to make that fact clear. But in general, he has just "got through."
It is impossible to think of any street scene in Boston without thinking of the most Bostonian feature of all, the Boston bag. A plain leather bag it is, not much over a foot long and about one foot in height; it has something of the quality of a valise and something of the quality of a portfolio; it has a flat bottom and two leather handles and never closes with a lock but with a strap. It is used by all the men and women and girls and boys, it is used by youth and age, it is used in walking the streets, in shopping, in going to school, in going to business offices, it is carried in street cars and automobiles, it is used for business and for pleasure, it holds books, purchases of all sorts, skates, lunches and anything; it may even at times be empty, but it is none the less carried. No visitor who becomes fully impregnated with the Boston feeling ever leaves the city without carrying one away with him. It has long been said that the requisite possessions of every true Bostonian are a Boston bag, a subscription to the Transcript and a high moral purpose.
There is so much of the pleasant in the weather in Boston that I do not quite see why it is so abused by the citizens themselves. It is not altogether so good as in some American cities, but it is quite as good as in some others, even of such as have a better name for their weather. Yet one must admit, however reluctantly, that there is an east wind, which at times is highly disagreeable. It can have such fierce, ugly, persistent, tearing qualities that you feel as if on the bridge of a liner with all the Atlantic pulling at you.
And it can blow like a proof of perpetual motion. It can be as raw and chill and wet, too, as a wind blowing straight off the Banks; and one begins to see that it is not necessarily blue blood that gives blue noses.
Although James Russell Lowell, Bostonian and Cambridgean that he was, gave Boston, with a subtlety that the city has never yet realized, its cruelest weather tap by his declaration that it is in June that "if ever" come perfect days, the perfect days are many in the course of a year and the really excellent days are many more. It seems as if Bostonians love to find fault with their weather just as the people of Edinburgh like to find fault with theirs, as a sort of relief to wind-strained nerves, but without meaning to be taken too literally. And yet, I remember a recent September in which, for several days, some of the Boston public schools were closed on account of the oppressive heat, only to be closed for excessive cold the very week after.
There are more drunken men to be met on Boston streets than one sees in other cities, and many of them are well dressed; and perhaps the frequency of the sight indicates that the police do not think it necessary to be too severe with men who are uncomfortably tacking and taking their way home. But at least it is clear that the law which takes away the screens from bars, and thus puts them in public view, so that the passing public, friends or relatives or employers, may see any man who takes a drink, does not act as a deterrent; indeed, the crowded condition of the bars in general throughout the city shows that the enforced publicity has not had any prohibitive effect.
The parkways of Boston, and especially what may be called the incidental parkways, are thoroughly admirable; and by incidental parkways I mean the narrow strips, boulevarded and parked for long distances, as along the Back Bay and out for miles through the Fenway and beyond, where the bordering land is used freely for homes, and just as much for the charming homes of people of moderate means as for those of the wealthy.
There are superb roadways, running through beautiful park-land, far out into the country outside of Boston, such roads being the result of the combined and coordinated plans of State and city and townships. I well remember such a road, leading out through Commonwealth Avenue and Brookline, and thence on to the westward toward Weston, through a lovely natural landscape, admirably beautified by art. There were groups of white birches beside the road, and there were glimpses of little lakes, and the trees were rich in the splendor of their autumn foliage, the yellow maples, the scarlet sumac, the oaks with their leaves of splendid bronze. Country clubs seemed to hover, here and there, along the border, and, almost hidden by trees, I noticed many a home. Other roads now and then led off enticingly, and there were open glades, tree foliaged, and splendid groups of massed oaks, and veritable old warriors of pines. It is a rolling country, part hills and part levels, and now and then there were special bits of beauty where a stream was crossed and where one would catch glimpses of canoes and of pretty girls paddling in blazers of yellow or purple or green.
And this road is only one of a number of perfectly oiled roads, tar-bound and hard, radiating away from the city's center. One such road leads to the admirably conceived Arnold Arboretum, established nearly half a century ago, through the bequest of one hundred thousand dollars, by James Arnold of New Bedford, for the growth and exhibition of every kind of tree that can be grown in the New England climate. The Arboretum occupies over two hundred acres, and is a beautiful and most interesting park, finely roaded and footpathed, and planted with a vast variety of trees and shrubs, all plainly marked.
One of the finest excursions, by motor or train or trolley, is to Wellesley; for the Elizabethan college buildings, newly erected since a fire, are positively beautiful in their setting of water and rolling land and ancient pines; and the atmosphere is one of sweet and scholarly serenity.
The parks of Boston, and the parkway boulevards, have not as yet been merged, as in Chicago, in a comprehensively connected system, yet the results thus far are highly satisfactory. I remember, among other roads, the Revere Beach Parkway, a superb boulevard that leads off towards Lynn and Salem; curving out from Charlestown, and running beside the broad blue bay and the wide white beach that are held within the protecting arm of Nahant. Revere Beach, so thronged with myriad pleasure seekers in summer, I recently saw in the loneliness of October, with its long line of coastwise buildings closed, and only two human figures in sight in the entire length and breadth of the beach, two girls, one redcoated and the other redcapped, moving prettily about.
And I went on through Lynn and Swampscott, along a rock-made road just a little higher than the sweeping sandy curve beside it, and there I saw myriad boats floating in the water, or lying on the sloping sand, and the water was all alive and glittering under a cloudless sky; and a man in yellow oilskins was leading a white horse that was drawing a green boat, mounted on low gray wheels, toward the blue water.