Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Thinking back on 8 years in Boston

Tomorrow I will be packing up and moving from Boston to Seattle with my family. I thought now would be a good time to reflect on living in Boston as a city and recall some of my best memories here.

I've never lived in Seattle, though have been there many times -- it seems like a wonderful city, full of funky crazy people and absolutely beautiful geography. I'm not terribly excited about the rainy weather, though something tells me it can't be any worse than the Boston winters, when I always feel cooped up. I really miss getting out to go hiking with the dog or mountain biking during the winter months in New England -- and now that I have a kid it's especially hard to get out when it's well below freezing outside (he has a lot lower tolerance for the winter weather than I do). Rain I can deal with; negative 20 wind chills and a foot and a half of snow are something different altogether.

On finishing grad school at Berkeley in 2002, I had a few faculty job offers, and my wife was looking for residency programs in psychiatry. Our decision came down to two cities: Boston, where I had an offer at Harvard, and Pittsburgh, where I had an offer at CMU. I had lived in Boston for a while during college, so I knew I liked the city. But CMU was a very tempting offer, being a much more highly-ranked CS program than Harvard. My wife and I visited Pittsburgh a couple of times and actually liked it a lot: it was a very friendly place, and the CMU folks went all out to show us a good time. At one point we actually made the decision to move to Pittsburgh but decided to sleep on it. The next day we had to ourselves, without anyone showing us around. The only Mexican place that served "fish tacos" appeared to be Van De Kamp's fish sticks on a tortilla. I could not find a music store that allowed you to browse the CDs without an attendant unlocking a glass case to let you inside. We tried to find a decent shopping mall, hoping they would have a good record store, but found ourselves in the mall where the movie Dawn of the Dead was filmed -- I did not make it more than three paces beyond the door before we realized it was a terrible mistake. I'm sorry, Pittsburgh might be a wonderful city for some people, but it was not for us.

Monroeville Mall on a typical Sunday afternoon.
So we moved to Boston in 2003. We drove across the country in my little beat-up two-door Ford, stopped at places like Moab and St. Louis and Nashville, a little like On the Road in reverse. We arrived on a hot, sticky summer day in a thunderstorm and moved into an apartment on Dana Street in Cambridge, not far from Harvard Square. Almost immediately we felt like outsiders. Boston is a very old city, and it shows -- the old brick buildings around Harvard, the beat-up sidewalks, everything dripping with history and significance. Paul Revere. George Washington. Boston Common. Old Granary Burial Ground. The feeling was so different than the newness that is so pervasive in California. It took some getting used to.

These gravestones have been here for a while. (From
That first summer was one of the most exciting in Red Sox history. I had never paid attention to baseball before, but it soon became clear that if I wasn't conversant in Curt Schilling or Manny Ramirez I was going to be left out of a lot of conversations. Like a lot of people in Boston, I got caught up in the excitement of the 2003 postseason when the Sox were narrowly beat by the Yankees for the ALCS title. The next year was even more exciting, in that the Sox went on to win the World Series for the first time in 86 years. The whole city went totally apeshit. For so many people living here, it was like a moment of rapture that they never believed would actually happen, the culmination of a lifetime of inferiority to cities like New York. I feel sad for some long-time Bostonians who now have no excuse to be cynical about their station in life.

People were just a little excited. (From
Not long after we moved to Boston they finally banned smoking in bars and restaurants (which we'd been used to in California) and actually allowed alcohol sales on Sundays. It was as if the city were modernizing before our eyes. It would take another six years for Cambridge to allow outdoor dining at restaurants, which is still encumbered with backwards vestiges of the Puritans (you can only have a drink while sitting outside if you also order food).

Going out in Boston was a bit more a dressy, formal affair than we were used to in Berkeley. At all but the very highest end restaurants in San Francisco, jeans and a t-shirt were acceptable attire; not so in Boston. On the positive side, Boston has a great foodie scene. At first we were totally lost trying to find good places to eat; Zagat's is useless and Yelp simply reflects the lowest common denominator. At first we were convinced that people in Boston had no idea what real, good Mexican food was -- those greasy platters of "enchiladas" covered in melted cheese that are so popular at hellholes like Casa Romero are not it. Then we discovered Chowhound, and got turned on to a whole world of hole-in-the-wall places serving authentic Mexican and Salvadorean and Sichuan and Cambodian. Unlike Berkeley, where you can swing a dead cat and hit three burrito joints and a place with out-of-this-world sushi, in Boston it takes a bit more digging, but there is great food here.

Some of my best memories of living in Boston...

Walking my dog, Juneau, to work at Harvard every day, stopping at the coffee shop on the way, and taking her to the dog park on the way home for an hour or so of play time with the other dogs.

Juneau would occasionally help me reviewing papers, too.

Sitting outside on a warm summer evening, firing up the grill, having friends over for dinner and drinks until late.

Every single fall, feeling the first day of cold air and getting excited for the leaves to start changing.

This image has not been enhanced.

Riding my bike along the banks of the Charles River, whizzing by rollerbladers and clueless tourists walking four abreast in the middle of a bike path.

The morning after a big snowstorm, seeing the world transformed and noticing how quiet everything was with the snow on the ground.

Shoveling is always fun too.

Late nights out in Boston Chinatown with Gu, drinking beer and eating Korean food.

Watching the sun rise out of the window of Mount Auburn hospital on a hot July day a couple of hours before my son was born.

I was a dad not long after this picture was taken.


  1. love it matt! agree with the fall, the snow, and the charles. and some/most of the negs too. :) good luck in seattle!!!

  2. One place I would recommend trying in Seattle is the Pan African Market down by Pike Place. I found it when I was visiting a few years ago, and it was fantastic.

  3. Amazing, Great Read. I only spent summer 2009 in Boston, loved it so much. And highlight was early Fall visit to Acadia in Maine before moving to NY state :)
    What would be your reflections of life at Berkeley? Best luck for your move and life in Seattle.

  4. Welcome to Seattle, Matt! I've lived here a long time. If you have any questions about the neighborhoods or anything else, please feel free to get in touch!

  5. After graduating from Harvard and attending Cornell for a PhD, I'm moving back to Kirkland, WA this summer to work in tech again. Based on this post, I'll be curious to see what your food reports look like.

  6. Oh ... and I grew up in the mall from Dawn of the Dead.

  7. Maulik - I could go on and on about Berkeley. To be quite blunt, the San Francisco Bay Area is the best place in the world, hands down. (We'll see if Seattle can even come close - it is a very tall order.) I moved to Berkeley after spending 5 years at Cornell in frozen Ithaca, NY and a year-plus traveling through Europe and living in Cambridge UK, Glasgow, and Amsterdam. Being in Berkeley in the late 1990s was living an amazing dream. The dot com era was in full force, the excitement and energy throughout the whole area were palpable. I always felt that those living in the Bay Area were blessed - it is a magical place.


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