A Preservationist in Pursuit of the American Dream: #4 Boston

We left New York feeling satisfied and excited to explore a lesser-known city to us: Boston.

We would be staying at our cousin’s apartment in swanky Beacon Hill. She was unable to be at the house when we arrived so she left her key with the man at the corner store.  This served as another reminder of a seemingly bygone era and something that truly only exists in an urban environment. Gas stations have replaced corner markets. Just think about it, would you leave the key to your home with your local gas station attendant? I think not.

Obviously, my cousin trusted this man with the key because she knew him well and had known him for a long time. Her neighbors must also because when I told him who I was and what key I needed he searched through a pile until he came across the one with her last name. Once we received the key and got settled we were ready to explore.

Beacon Hill is quintessential Boston. On the same block there may be townhouses chopped up into three or four apartments and a stately multi-million dollar home. The streets are unforgivingly narrow, the sidewalks wide, and the setbacks don’t exist. If ever there was an outdoor room, it’s in Beacon Hill. My cousin’s apartment is small and modest and she says the only reason she can afford to be in Beacon Hill is because she’s been there forever and her landlord doesn’t raise her rent. She makes small repairs herself in order to not call attention to the fact that he could, possibly, charge her double the amount she’s paying.

Jon, Alsto-Brighton, Boston, MA

The author’s college friend from Charleston speaks to the American Dream from his place in Boston. Photo by Lizzie Boyle.

We interviewed a few people in Boston, the first being a friend from college, Jon. Jon was living in the Alston-Brighton area, comprised mostly of college students due to the proximity to Boston College and Boston University. He described it as somewhat dirty and loud, but affordable. Most of the businesses in the area cater to the college budget and taste.

Jon said that the college community has effectively gentrified the area and that there is little homeownership in the neighborhood. It is almost categorically 100% Caucasian, and the food and beverage industry thrives off of the college students. His one major qualm with the area is that the public transportation, or “T”, does not run 24/7 and stops at 12:30am. He also said that there is little greenspace. Rather humorously, he referred to the Alston-Brighton area as the “minor leagues”. Meaning, it’s a place to start out and get your foot in the door. He described it as a definite transition area because of the relative safety and the cheap rents, something 18-25 year olds are looking for in their first place away from home.

When we moved onto the American Dream question Jon first described a world in which people are free from judgment and that any form of self-expression is acceptable. He definitely saw homeownership as part of the American Dream but had some problems with that notion because he had seen it used as a tool to push certain people out. Jon shared with us his deep concern for the marginalized and under-privileged people in cities. While in college he saw his classmate’s wealthy, white parents buying up property in downtown Charleston and effectively pushing out the lower-income African American residents. What was once deemed unsafe is now a virtual frat party 24/7. Homes are being preserved and restored but a certain cultural heritage oftentimes gets lost along the way.

Shelby, Inman Square, Cambridge, Boston, MA

Beacon Hill. Photo by Lizzie Boyle.

Another person we interviewed was a graduate student studying at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in Architecture. Shelby lives in the Inman Square area of Cambridge because of cheaper rents and the close proximity to both Harvard and M.I.T, where her roommate was a student. She said the demographic is mostly a mix of families and graduate students aged 20-40. She also said that there was not much homeownership in the area, likely due to the somewhat transient community of students. Shelby said that everything she needed was within a 10-minute walk, a distance most people feel comfortable walking and something planners and designers should strive to build communities around.

Shelby had lived in New York City prior to starting her graduate work and said that Boston was funny in that people give directions using landmarks rather than cross streets. She agreed that it was because of the layout of the city and that Manhattan’s unrelenting grid was conducive to a relative ease of navigability. Boston’s streets have less right angles and more winding turns, it was a city that had, in it’s early years, less planning and more organic growth.

When we asked Shelby about her version of the American Dream she said that she definitely thought that owning a home and having a yard is something that’s ingrained in us from a young age but it’s not something she’d choose for herself. She would rather have the convenience of being close to everything she needs and would sacrifice space for that convenience. Shelby said that her dream was categorically more urban than suburban. She wants density and diversity, something our present suburbs do not offer.

Going into this project I didn’t seek to totally discredit the American Dream. I just believed it needed some tweaking. Our suburban notion of the Dream is no longer sustainable and people like Shelby reminded me that it’s still alive, it’s just slowly but surely taking on another form. Sure, it’s easy for a twenty-something to say that they’re okay with renting for the rest of their lives but the fact of the matter is, once you get into your thirty’s and forty’s a certain stigma is attached to being a renter rather than an owner. This might not be true for our generation though.

We’re entering careers later and not building up as much wealth early on as our parents may have done. We’re not returning to the suburbs in which we grew up, opting for that diversity and density that Shelby cited. We are a way more culturally and globally informed generation. We want our Banh Mi sandwiches and our Tikka Masala–cuisine that without the diversity of cities, suburban kids (and their parents) would know nothing about.

The next leg of our trip would take us to totally unfamiliar territory: The Midwest. The East Coast had offered us a certain security and surety but now we would really be adventuring into the unknown. Next stop: Chicago!

Start the road trip at the beginning:
A Preservationist in Pursuit of the American Dream – Part #1
A Preservationist in Pursuit of the American Dream – Part #2 DC + BKLYN
A Preservationist in Pursuit of the American Dream – Part #3 The Brooklyn Interviews

© HISTPRES, LLC + Lizzie Boyle, 2012

About the author: Lizzie Boyle

Lizzie Boyle is originally from Connecticut and after a twelve year stint in the South is back up north living in Brooklyn. She studied Historic Preservation at the College of Charleston and Urban Planning at Auburn University’s School of Architecture where she worked on architectural and urban history. Lizzie has lived in Italy and plans to one day eat her weight in pasta. She enjoys writing about preservation, planning, urbanism, and history and how travel relates to all four. Lizzie’s favorite animal is the giraffe.


  1. orion says:

    this is a pretty good read. i was in pittari’s class with you a couple years ago and was glad to stumble across this.

Comment on this