Cambridge Observed (with Some Digressions about Boston)

by Sam Buntz

I’ve never been to L.A. but I think I can arrive at a pretty decent picture by taking Cambridge, Massachusetts and imagining the exact opposite—developing that photonegative. Or, rather, L.A. would be the hellish negative and Cambridge the bright reality (probably). At least, in my ignorance, I would tend to think so, because I love Cambridge (and Somerville and parts of Boston). Sit down in any coffee shop or bar and you’ll hear people talking about their PhD programs and gossiping about their academic advisor’s mid-life crises. Is it easy to satirize? Sure—but what isn’t? All the girls are dressed in black and gray—they’re Serious People. There are no canary yellow sports bras exposed to daylight… Ah, this brisk Northern air! This bracing Yankee atmosphere! Unlike my imaginary nightmare Bladerunner vision of L.A., people don’t go clubbing in Cambridge (well, technically, some do)—they hold potlucks, at which unshaven physicists and their small, cryptic fiancés discuss the eventual heat-death of the universe. This is a good thing. I like this (apparently).

Cambridge, Somerville, and the collegiate portions of Boston form what might be the world’s largest economy based on knowledge—or, at least, on data. Mark Twain said that, in Boston, people care about what you know; in New York, they care about how much money you have; in Philadelphia, they care about who your parents are. I can’t speak to whether this is still true of Philly, but the first two claims still hold, strongly. I don’t hate New York or even dislike it—it’s so multi-formed, multi-eyed, multi-armed that you can’t really say what it is (except for “big” and “intimidating”). New York contains worlds nested within worlds—and, hey, most of them might suck. New York is everything, and 90% of everything is awful. But Boston is just a few worlds—and Cambridge is only one, the academic world. And I’m a Boston kind of guy—or, really, a Cambridge kind of guy. (I get that there’s a “big” difference, but whatever).

Boston’s great, but being an aspiring member of various elites, I need to voice my preference for Cambridge—and, even above Cambridge, I prefer Somerville, a dusky gem of rare value, unknown to the wider world. Union Square, a veritable El Dorado of alternative culture, remains hidden from the clueless—gracefully concealed by a lack of subway access—and Davis Square (possibly my favorite spot in the Greater Boston Area) is the vibrant core of Somerville.

Not too long ago, I was watching a game at Fenway (on TV) and my Dad (who’s a Yankee fan) pointed out, not unpleasantly, that Boston crowds always look like Boston crowds—the people sitting behind home aren’t rocking Versace and sipping Moet. They’re just humans, gloriously normal, middle-class, taking their kids to a ballgame. They’re not like Yankee fans at Yankee stadium—jet-setters, obviously camera conscious, as they lounge in overly dignified splendor behind home. It’s another point (or dozen) in favor of the Greater Boston Area.

Most importantly, I think Boston and Cambridge both have a good mixture of New England reserve and non-native, out-of-town friendliness. If you go up to backwoods New Hampshire, it’s all reserve. I imagine the Saudis are less reserved, despite the completely enclosed booths families sit in at Arabian fast food joints. But Boston has a pinch of accommodation—and, damn it, that’s all you need! Boston people aren’t silent and brooding—they’re not Finns. It’s just that the things they say to you might not be the things you want or expect them to say to you. But who the hell are you? Some chemistry student from Omaha? Get used to it. Life’s not a Lutheran Church picnic.


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