Boston: Two Cities Within One

Image from Google Maps

So many cities around the world are defined by the rivers whose banks they hug, or the bridges that straddle them, and Boston is no different. In fact, I’ve been throwing the term “Boston” around pretty loosely, but of course Boston is often used as shorthand for the two brotherly cities on either side of the Charles River — Boston and its companion, Cambridge. They have their own mayors, their own city councils, their own competing farmer’s markets and museums; but residents of either tend to jump back and forth very freely, and will say they’re from Boston to outsiders when they really live in Cambridge. I’m one of those folks.

Locals know that there’s a slightly different tone and personality to be found on either side of the river. While Boston is the sleek cultural hub, home of Copley Square, the massive historic Boston Public Library, and most of the Revolutionary War monuments, Cambridge is Boston’s liberal hippie cousin. Here, the city of Cambridge compensated same-sex married couples who weren’t receiving federal benefits, pledging to make up the difference until the law was changed (and thankfully, it has). Here, helpful guides will tell you what part of your garbage is compostable and each new building is competing to be even more sustainable. But Cambridge is also home to rough parts, rundown neighborhoods; it’s holding hands with its roughneck cousin Somerville, which is only just starting to hipsterize.

There are several bridges that span the Charles River. There’s the Longfellow Bridge, and the Charlestown Bridge; the Harvard Bridge, across which MIT students famously measured a fraternity member lying down all the way across. And there are more, like the BU bridge and others. The bridge that dominates our skyline is the towering, alabaster-white Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, which always looked like the prow of a viking ship to me, with its fanned steel cables. You can picture the army of sailors toiling below decks to move that massive structure serenely across the skyline.

My favorite bridge without a doubt is the branch of the Longfellow Bridge that only accommodates the red line. On many dark nights I’ve ridden across that bridge in one direction or the other, and looked back for a sudden lightup of the city skyline. Moving toward either Boston or Cambridge, you’re greeted with that glowing wonderful sight, the view of the city as if it were a carnival or a Christmas tree lit up just for you. In those moments you truly feel part of the city that so willingly swallows you up on the other side of the dark glassy river.

One comment

  1. As a former Cambridge resident myself, I would add that the two cities are indeed quite distinct, and some people in Cambridge have a lot to apologize for. During the busing crisis of the 1970s, some Cambridge residents were quite openly disdainful of the working-class whites of South Boston who were suffering the most from the arrogant social engineering imposed on their city.

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