Memories of an Older City in the New

Today, I’m thinking about memory as I walk through my city. Twice a week my commuting path takes me through Copley Square, the historic center of Boston, and I walk/jog briskly through traffic past some of the oldest buildings in the area, such as the grand Boston Public Library and the old church that face each other across the plaza. I remember visiting the rare books room of the library and seeing documents from the sixteen hundreds or even earlier, chronicling the journeys of the earliest European settlers here. At the same time, I’m crossing Boylston street, which now has a plethora of other, starker memories demanding their room in my brain, demanding citywide remembrance.

That’s the funny thing about living in a city with any kind of history; there are always so many layers of time and memory super-imposed on each other, constantly layering on top of one another, blurring the lines of past and present. There is the circle memorializing the Boston massacre; and over there, a line of hip new clothing stores that seem to have sprung up just last week. The city keeps changing, but there are always signs of the old wherever you look. There’s the line of hungry cannoli-eating customers in the North End, waiting at Mike’s pastry shop; but the Italian immigrants that made up this neighborhood are largely gone. Where did they go?

I sometimes hear old Bostonians lamenting this change, the way all city-dwellers hate change. A guy I worked with who had grown up in Somerville remembered all those Irish Catholic kids he grew up with, the friendly cops who looked the other way when they were drinking out of paper bags, the saints’ parades down the streets. Now, he complained, there’s a Caribbean cultural parade every year instead, and the neighborhood is “all foreigners.” It’s always unpleasant to hear this kind of talk; after all, go back a generation or two and it was the Irish who were the foreigners. That, of course, is part of the way memory evolves in a city; the people who arrive as outsiders are quick to reject the next generation of newcomers. That’s natural, I suppose. Things even out in the end.

It’s amazing to me how fast cities change, and how the old does endure side-by-side with the new. Buildings get torn down, but the beloved ones become shrines to memory, treasures of common repository. And we say, “That used to be —” and are stunned to see the city growing up around us, and it reminds us that time passes. If anything, the city marks time for us, and reminds us that we grow older. But the memories of what was there before endure. Even on my small street in Cambridge, I see that one shop that seems to change its identity every six months, and already it has gone through three iterations. First it was an abandoned store front; then a trendy cafe with two chairs and only three items on the menu; now it’s a pie shop. I like the pie shop and hope it stays, but I know the odds are small.

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