Month: October 2013

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.

New York, City of Bridges

New York, surrounded by the Hudson River, the East River and the Atlantic Ocean, is truly a city of bridges. There are approximately 60 bridges within NYC and connecting it to surrounding areas. You’ve probably heard of the most famous ones, like the Brooklyn Bridge, the George Washington Bridge and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, but in a city built on marshland, you are never far from a bridge.
Living in NYC, it is easy to forget about the water. Riding the subway to work, going to dinner in Midtown, zipping from place to place, the water is hidden by towering skyscrapers and crumbling brownstones. It is the bridges that help remind me that I live in a coastal city. Every morning, walking from the subway to work, I cross over the BQE (Brooklyn-Queens Expressway for outsiders) and look up. Soaring skyward, often glinting in the sun or disappearing into low-hanging clouds, the Verrazano Bridge reminds me of the lapping bay it crosses. I can’t see the water, but I know it is there.
Probably the most famous bridge in New York is the Brooklyn Bridge, linking Brooklyn to Manhattan (pictured here). Tourists flock to walk this picturesque bridge and take in views of the Manhattan skyline from its midpoint. Built in 1883, it is the oldest suspension bridge in New York and considered by many to be the best-looking bridge in town. For those in the know, the best views of the Brooklyn Bridge can be obtained by walking on the less crowded Manhattan Bridge. From there, you can see the full span of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and Lower Manhattan. There are also several subway lines that cross the Manhattan Bridge and offer spectacular views.
New York is a city of convergence, of meetings, of captivating skylines and the bridges are a fundamental part of the New York City vibe. For many, they serve simply as a means to span a body of water, but for me, they represent the heart of the city. Next time you walk around New York, I hope you will take in the many bridges with new eyes!

My Favorite Boston Places

It’s my turn to write about what particular places in Boston make me love my city so much. There are too many places to choose from, but I’ll focus on the places that I end up having memories of. For starters, of course, there’s Fenway Park. You have to turn on a surprisingly small side street to reach the entrance, and then it feels like you’re stepping into a place from fifty years ago; the people wandering this strip of small stores, Irish pubs, souvenir shops; the grand old green columned stadium to your side. Fenway is an intimate stadium, and that’s what helps it feel old. You go in, get a hot dog, find your way to a rock-hard seat, and the field is laid out before you, right there, close and friendly. Even in the worst seats in the house (and I’ve had some pretty bad seats), you can feel like the game is being played right before you, right in your own backyard. For all its hype, even the green monster looks small and cozy, like a neighbor’s fence, and you feel the joy and delight of a kid if a ball makes it over. Will that obliging neighbor throw the ball back?

Fenway is a good example of the vibe I like throughout my city. It often puffs itself up as a center of art and commerce, of being an intellectual, a technological hub. All those things are true, but mostly it’s just a small, scrappy city with a big attitude and a larger-than-average stamp on American culture. People around the world know Fenway, and yet when you get here it’s so small, so downright cozy.

Another favorite place of mine is the train station. As you’ll read in a future post, I’m a lifelong commuter. I’ve spent many sleepy gray mornings standing by the tracks of one train or another, waiting to curl up in a seat and be borne away across the city. Here you can see one of the tunnels of Back Bay station, a regular morning spot for me. At times, I hate being here, but at other times I realize this is one of my favorite times of the day. It’s a place just to think, to fuzzily turn over story ideas in my mind, to read, to wonder what the day will be like, to work out problems, make plans. It’s those sorts of waiting places that I love. And with its infrequent train schedules, Boston has those waiting places in abundance!

Sometimes I see another commuter down the platform and there’s a curious intimacy between us, both of us captives of time and place, lost in our own private thoughts. It’s a great place for peoplewatching.

Another favorite spot lately would be my local cafe, the lovely RJ Gourmet. It’s a tiny, sunny, one room coffee house with old honey-colored wood chairs and dark bitter iced tea served in mason jars. How much more artsy, hipster, and delightful can you get? The best thing about cafes is, of course, the freedom of staying awhile unmolested by waiters or pushy patrons. RJ is just small enough for me to linger by the window with my notebook, drink my tea and see small-town Cambridge walk by. Though I talk a lot about Boston, my actual residence is in Cambridge; and Cambridge is really becoming its own little Brooklyn these days, with artisanal coffee shops, poetry readings, and cheap beer. I love walking down Cambridge Street and exploring the new little restaurants, bars, and craft stores that are always opening up. For a writer, I think it’s essential to have a place to work, and that’s one of the advantages of being a city writer; while country folks have the great outdoors to write in, city writers have places of endless variety and stimulation.

Favorite Things – New York Edition

New York is known as the city that never sleeps. There is always something going on, some bustle or commotion to participate in. As a college student here for four years, that was one of the draws – the lights, the plays, the movies, the bars and clubs. As I get older and live in the city longer, however, I am finding myself drawn to the quieter parts of the city, where I can get away from the crowds and almost forget where I am for a while.
A few weekends ago, my husband and I decided to go for a Sunday stroll through the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. It was our first visit to this hidden gem and one that we hope to repeat often now that we have discovered it. The trickling water and swaying maples in the Japanese Garden (pictured here) transported us to a world far away from the honking cars just meters from us. We watched a turtle sun himself by a waterfall and admired the leaves that were just beginning to change color. The Garden quickly became one of my favorite places in the city and I look forward to returning with a book and notebook to spend some literary time among the cherry trees.
Despite being drawn to the quieter parts of the city, another huge benefit to living in New York is the abundance of restaurants, both fine dining and dives, that serve superb food for those who know where to find it. Even the food carts are spectacular, with some of the more famous ones drawing hour-long lines. One of my favorite restaurants when I lived in Manhattan was Cafe Fiorello, where I could take in views of Lincoln Center while rubbing shoulders with famous New Yorkers. Now, living in Brooklyn, I tend to opt for closer restaurants in Fort Greene and Park Slope. My husband jokes that we could eat at a different restaurant every night, within walking distance of our apartment, and not run out for a few months. And the food would be delicious at each place. The abundance of varied and delicious choices is one of the things that makes New York City so special for a foodie like me.

The Two Cities Story

We are Olivia and Blair, and we are writers living in two different cities.

We both grew up near Boston, and moved to New York for grad school. Then we split paths — Olivia stayed in Brooklyn, and I returned to Boston. But we knew we would keep a bridge between these two cities, and some part of both of them would always be our home. There are so many writers and artists out here who are shuttling back and forth along the coast, climbing and descending the hills, riding the Mass Pike, coasting down the George Washington bridge. We thought that nowadays, so many of us are multi – city people. We have grown up in one city, and matured in another; we have played in the parks of one town and frequented the bars of a different one. So many of us are living two lives, or are stretching our creative lives across bridges to different worlds.

We knew there were stories that we were missing in these bridged worlds! Stories we want told.

We started Two Cities as a way of telling those stories about bridging the gaps. So many of the stories of our lives aren’t rooted in one place or in one genre, even; they are balancing acts between cities and worlds. So many of us are on the high wire between stages of life, between old and new relationships, even between fantasy and reality.
That’s why we want your stories. We want to create a literary review with a truly unique vision — a place where boundaries between genre and form are crossed, where the past and the present converge, where we cross bridges into new stages of our lives. Where characters transform and truths are revealed.
So why not tell us your story? We are looking for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that tackles that leaving and the coming, the line that is crossed and the line we draw in the sand, the place of transfiguration. We are free and flexible in our interpretation of this theme; what we want most of all is to read, and to hear your stories. Two Cities will be a new source of stories to knock your socks off — and a place to reflect on the cities in your own life. You’ll see us writing here, as we ruminate on what it’s like to be a writer in the big city (or the little one); you’ll get great writerly resources for Boston and New York; and you’ll discover all the complex love of living in two cities at once.

What Is Your Favorite Part of Your City?

The view in the Boston Public Gardens

Both the filthy New York subways and the screeching rusty T of Boston are places to get some of the best views of the skyline, the town, the bridges, the lights, and the people. But I’m wondering what your favorite part about city living really is. There are those big conveniences and pleasures, of course – the big reasons that we move to the city in the first place. There’s the availability of jobs, of cultural events, and of opportunities. There are the friends that live there, the family, and so on.

But once we actually live in our chosen city for a while, I think it’s the little things that we end up loving the most — the sensory experiences of living there. I love the shout of color in a New England fall; the special clarity of the light; the smell of chestnuts, of coffee, of the ubiquitous Dunkin Donuts (more on this in a future post). I love (and hate) the crowds of red-wearing baseball goers packing the T after a Sox game.

I sometimes wish I were more adventurous and got to know the lesser known parts of my town. It’s one of my goals in the coming year; to wander beyond my usual haunts, and walk past my usual corners. At the end of a long workday I’m often too tired to stray beyond the absolute shortest distance home; I forget even to look up beyond watching for traffic. How many strange sights have I missed?

So what is it about your city that you love? And is it sometimes also the the greatest annoyance? Like a lover or an old friend, a city’s quirks and pecadillos can often grow on us.

How does this all connect to writing? I’m thinking about the many classic novels out there that rely on an intimate knowledge of a city for their rich sense of place. It’s said that you can walk the streets of Raskolnikov’s city pretty much the way he would have in Crime and Punishment; and of course, there’s a national holiday around mapping the course of Leopold Bloom through Dublin in Joyce’s Ulysses. We love the idea of bringing a real city to life in writing. There are untold numbers of New York novels that do exactly that. It leaves me wondering how you writers will use your city to your advantage in your writing.

You might want to start by getting to know the city. Ulysses’ understanding of Dublin comes from Joyce’s many long walks through the city streets. Try wandering your town more; you might be surprised by the experiences you have and the forgotten corners you discover.