Tuesday, May 29, 2007


(not Charlton related)

Memorial Day is observed in the US on the last Monday of May, and whilst ostensibly it serves to commemorate the country's war dead, for most it signals the unofficial start of the Summer.

Despite knowing my mother-in-law would be arriving in the same city by plane, we took the opportunity to take the train to Boston, and spend some time in one of the country's most enjoyable cities. It was also my three-month old son's first trip outside of Manhattan, and a good chance for him to experience the real world where taxi drivers speak English, and where you can't have Chinese food delivered at 3am.

The Acela Express train service covers the busy northeastern corridor from Washington DC to Boston, with the crowded metropolitan areas of Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York in between. It is the closest thing that the country has to a high-speed rail network, yet at average speeds of just 72mph it exemplifies the degree to which the car is king on this side of the Atlantic, and why petrol prices of just $3 per gallon (60% cheaper than the UK) are causing such consternation.

Boston has historically had a fierce rivalry with New York, a concept which is a little difficult to comprehend given New York's disproportionate size. The rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees for example is considered the deepest in US baseball. However, sports aside, any other perceived urban rivalries are a little pointless given that New York is the preeminent American city, whilst Boston trails behind the likes of Charlotte, Memphis, and Columbus in terms of population.

However thanks to its laid-back European 'feel', it remains a core part of any traveller's itinerary and rightly so, not least thanks to being just a six-hour flight back to London. And if you haven't been, then now is a good time to go not only because of the strong pound, but also the near-completion of the so-called 'Big Dig', a monumental engineering project to sink the I-93 freeway underground. Its disappearance will hopefully remove the noise and negative visual impact of the road, whilst re-engaging the charming but increasingly cut-off Italian-influenced North End section of the city. Unfortunately the 'Big Dig' became synonymous with project mismanagement and cost overruns, but slowly and finally its positive impact is being felt.

The most attractive sections of Boston are undoubtedly the Back Bay and Beacon Hill, two central and largely residential districts which border the beautiful Public Gardens and Boston Common, the city's main green space. Beacon Hill is almost unimaginably quaint (bordering on twee), and is an unusual sight in an American city centre, usually more renowned for blight and so-called 'white flight'.

The Back Bay meanwhile is more commercially-oriented and based upon a classic urban grid, with the delightful Commonwealth Avenue slicing through the centre, designed in the style of the Champs Elysee in Paris. For those who like these types of things (I certainly do), the cross-streets that span the Back Bay are alphabetical, and alternately disyllabic and trisyllabic. They are also archetypally English.....Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, Fairfield, Gloucester, Hereford. With one eye on the future however, the Back Bay also saw the construction of the two tallest buildings in Boston on its fringes, the ugly Prudential Tower and the striking glass John Hancock Center.

If there was one obvious criticism of Boston, it is its somewhat stuffy air of superiority, thanks I guess to its disproportionately impressive academic institutions, and its core place in the founding history of America. As a result, and not merely thanks to its relatively small size, it lacks the buzz of New York.

Boston for example is home to 250,000 or so students, attending the world-class likes of MIT and especially Harvard University (based across the Charles River in pleasant Cambridge, named after the English university town where John Harvard studied for a time). And whilst the presence of a lot of students might give rise to a party town feeling, it's become increasingly clear to me that most students attend American university to study, and in just the same way they attend their workplace to work. This may sound obvious, but when you come from the UK......

Meanwhile the area's elite families meanwhile are described (usually offensively) as 'Boston Brahmins', literally implying direct descendancy from the English Protestants that founded the city. Although he was never strictly one at all, John Kerry's flawed 2004 Presidential campaign was not helped by suggestions that he was an elitist 'Brahmin'.

Nonetheless, Boston is firmly on the short list of those other American cities where I could imagine myself living (happily at least). That list would be headed by San Francisco, but closely followed by Boston and Chicago. Meanwhile, I have never visited Seattle but I am told I would like it there too. Not surprisingly, alongwith New York, these are amongst the oldest large conurbations in the country, and they thus maintain the dense population and cultural richness which characterise most of Europe's most outstanding cities.


At 12:38 AM, Blogger Chicago Addick said...

I've only been to Boston with work but was impressed enough to want to go back, and will.

Not only is the place the nearest you get to Britain in the US, but the people tend to be a bit more like us too.

I agree with you on your 4 places to live (NY, Chicago, Boston & SF) but on a particularly mad day I also chuck LA into the mix as well.

I have also never visited Seattle but have an impression I will like despite the rain.... now that will feel homely.

At 8:27 AM, Blogger Wyn Grant said...

You would like Seattle. A nice day trip from Boston is on the boat to Provincetown on Cape Cod, but probably not with a three month old baby as it can get rough. The islands in the bay offer a gentler alternative. Salem, a short train ride away, is always interesting, not just for the witch trial but because it has a great museum, also the Hawthorn house. We stayed in a great B & B there once.

At 9:36 AM, Blogger charlton north-downs said...

NY I'm not to proud to say, that my dictionary was on hand reading that.
Our kids are nearly at the age where they can be left for a week or so and financialy we are in a postion to start seeing more of the big wide World. The Eastern Seaboard will be one of our first destinations, New York, Boston, New England in the fall, Maine(Stephen King is my favourite author, and Niagria further inland. Your reports certainly reinforce our intention.

At 9:55 PM, Blogger Chicago Addick said...

Sod the East Coast North Downs, get yourself over to the city with Big Shoulders!

At 2:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just been out there for two weeks, Boston, New York, Washington, St. Louis and San Francisco, mostly business a bit of leisure at the end. Each city very different, used the Acela all the way down the east coast, very good. would add Chicago as also lovely city, but not in winter. Throw in 3 Canadian cities of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal and you get a good mix., the latter two also not in winter! Alan

At 2:37 PM, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

A smack-dab in the middle of winter visit to the great Canadian cities of Montreal/Ottawa/Quebec City is highly recommended and a great experience, especially during Winterfest in Ottawa and Carnaval du Quebec in Quebec City. Warm clothing does help!

At 4:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps you should add Aspen, CO to your short list of places to live. While not the urban setting you might be looking for, Charlton Athletic TV is on the local channel every Wednesday night!

At 1:25 AM, Blogger JH said...

They have a decent marathon there too. I know people from my side of the world (Melbourne Australia) who travel across there just to run it.

At 11:26 PM, Anonymous Vancouver Addick said...

Vancouver is the best city in North America to live in - However I am slightly biased.


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