Back from Boston

Hello again, blog world! My wife and I returned several days ago from a week long trip to Boston (and have spent the subsequent days catching up on life). What a fantastic time we had! At the risk of exposing myself as a rube, it was a dizzying opportunity for me. This was, in all honesty, my first real expedition outside Utah—or at least, outside the Mormon Culture Zone. Oh, I’d gone on my mission to the exotic local of Anaheim California. And when I was considering grad school, my wife and I took a few days to visit Eugene Oregon (which we loved). But my family wasn’t much for vacations or traveling, and I’ve never had much in the way of excess funds since leaving the nest, so I’d never in my life really gone anywhere new. The East Coast, New England, home of all sorts of academic/intellectual/cultural fermentation and important history; that was a place I’d long wanted to see. We finally decided that we could spend some of our meager resources (since my wife is writing a paper on Boston’s urban development for a class in her architecture grad program, we figured we could justify it as research).

It didn’t disappoint one bit. The Freedom Trail, The Minuteman National Park, Quincy (home to the two Presidents of whom I’m perhaps most fond), the various monuments of Plymouth and the Plimouth Plantation, Salem—The history geek in me was in nirvana. We had a blast exploring the varied architecture, both historic and modern (from Paul Revere’s house and the Old North Church to the bizarre MIT Stata Center and the brilliantly “green” Genzyme Center). The density of the city was energetic and dynamic. Most from Utah might find the winding and narrow (compared to Utah’s obscenely gargantuan streets) roads cramped and chaotic, but we felt they created a social energy and dynamicism we don’t see in Utah. And people were actually on those streets and sidewalks! Rather than relying on automotive transport anytime they need to go more than one-hundred yards, Boston is filled with people walking! We in Utah can learn a lot from the area of how effective public transportation and feet can be.

We barely had time to scratch the surface of Boston on our trip, let alone the surrounding communities and the rest of New England (I sure wish we’d been able to see some of New England’s historic lighthouses, and we were apparently just a tad early to see the colors turn in all their autumnal splendor). I could probably have spent a couple of hours at each location on the Freedom Trail alone! While I’ve read a great deal on revolutionary history and New England’s part in that history, nothing can quite compare with actually being there at the locations. For a geek like me, its positively breathtaking.

We’re determined to go back—either on another vacation, or to live. I’d always been intrigued by the idea of living in urban New England; now I’m sure it would be a good fit. We stayed for a few days with a grade-school friend of mine who has been living there not too far short of a decade. It isn’t perfect of course, but he couldn’t think of a single thing he disliked about living there that isn’t an issue anywhere you live. I’m pretty certain I’d feel the same way. Wonder what sort of library and architecture might be available out there in about a year?

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15 Responses to “Back from Boston”

  1. Family Vacations » Blog Archive » Back from Boston Says:

    […] A Liberal Mormon wrote an interesting post today on Back from BostonHere’s a quick excerptBack from Boston October 20th, 2007 by Derek Staffanson Hello again, blog world! … Eugene Oregon (which we loved). But my family wasn’t much for vacations or traveling, so I’d never […]

  2. Thom Says:

    The girls miss you, already; come back any time. (Of course, if you’re coming back to live, we might have to put a cap on how long we let you crash in the guest room.) Glad you could come and that you had such a great time. (I’m assuming that your less-effusive wife also enjoyed the visit.) I must admit, though, that I’m saddened to see no mention of all the honking or the Indian food. 😉

  3. cb Says:

    Derek,

    Sounds like you had a great time. I, would love to get to the Northeast one day–for the history, not the liberalism ;)– but the closet I’ve been is a layover in JFK on my way to my mission.

    I’m also with you on the public transportation and walking. I walk the 3.5 miles to school and back everyday. I would walk everywhere if I had the time. It not only keeps you off the roads and saves gas money, but it also provides a time to think and to look at what’s around you. That time is invaluable to me–one who spends most of his life in a library or in front of my computer. I’m not sure what we can do to convince people to walk more. For me, I saw the ridiculousness of driving everywhere after I came home from my mission (in South Africa). I wanted to go to 7-11 to get a Slurpee one day, and got in my car and drove the 3 blocks to the store. I remembered all the Africans I had seen walking to and from the store carrying bags of food and vowed I would never do that again . . . kids have complicated that a little bit, but I’ve done better.

  4. ncg Says:

    I am so happy you published this. We, from SLC, are going to Boston for a week long trip this week! These comments will be very useful.

  5. Aaron Orgill Says:

    Sounds like a great trip. I think you actually might be a little too liberal for Massachusetts, though. 🙂 And amen to the fat Utahns walking everywhere comment. I grew up in Brigham City, but walked or biked nearly everywhere, and still enjoy taking walks with my brother when I go back for a visit. I find it so ridiculous to see people driving a block and a half to church on a beautiful summer day. I confess, having children complicates things greatly, as you’ll likely find out yourself, but I served my mission in Portugal and agree that the narrow cobblestone streets are not only charming but do add “social energy and dynamicism” as well. Cooking mostly from scratch, taking some extra time for lunch and family, 35-hour workweeks, and walking your fat butt to the market. If only.

  6. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Well, I couldn’t cover everything Thom. But yes, the girls and the Indian food was the highlight of the trip 😉

    Okay, that sounded bad. I meant “the kids.” THis wasn’t a Vegas trip or anything like that;)

    CB, one thing we can do is actually arrange our cities with people in mind, instead of cars. The way we’ve planned our cities over the past half-century has been very auto centric, which naturally makes the city less comfortable for pedestrian travel. This is one of the reasons I’m glad about Becker. He is a practicing urban planner and understands the importance of human scale development.

    NCG, let me know (or Thom, since he is a resident) know if there is anything else we can tell you.

    Aaron, I may not have kids myself, but being the eldest of six, an uncle to well over a dozen, and someone whose teen years were filled with sitting, I have an idea of how kids complicates any travel–car, bike, walking, etc. But seeing as how whole families made it work for centuries before cars existed, I’m confident it could work just fine now–particularly if we do smarter planning of our communities to make them more friendly to community and foot traffic.

    “if only?” Hey, that sort of lifestyle you appreciated in Portugal isn’t a fairy tale. As you saw, it happens in other parts of the world, it happened here once, and it can happen again. We can remake our own communities like that–if we are only willing to make the effort to educate, rally support, and re-envision the way we live. It will be a big task, but I say its worth the effort.

  7. Aaron Orgill Says:

    I didn’t mean to suggest you didn’t know anything about kids. Just that with two really little boys, my wife is scrambling and I don’t condemn her for doing what is convenient on a stressful day.

    The lifestyle IS a fairy tale at this time and place in my life. I live in Davis County (and love it) but have much of my work in SLC. I really don’t think it’s going back to the way it was. But TRAX should be a good start.

  8. Derek Staffanson Says:

    It isn’t going back only because the public is unwilling to make the effort to go back. As long as everyone assumes it won’t, they’re right. If they are willing to make the effort to educate and activate, who knows what might happen.

  9. cb Says:

    As much as I believe in getting out of the car and on your feet or your bike, I’m pretty sure there was a reason that Americans adopted the suburban home model of development–and I’m also pretty sure it goes beyond manipulation by auto companies and urban pollution resulting from industrialization. I think there are things about the “traditional” suburban model that a lot of people like . . . especially yards and privacy. So, I don’t think it’s only a lack of effort preventing us from “going back” to the way things used to be . . . it also has to do with a recognition by many that there is some level of “progress” in the way things are now. While the urban community model of development might be appealing to some, it’s not appealing for everyone. So more than education may be required for change.

    Additionally, let me use this post to point out a big problem with a lot of the pedestrian-friendly community-oriented development going on today–many of these places are so full of restrictive covenants that living there is essentially like living in a glorified apartment complex (one with large porches and greenspace). My wife and I looked at one of these places and restrictive covenants prohibited changing your oil on your own driveway! My car leaks transmission fluid all over the place . . . and I have a feeling that the “community” wouldn’t be too appreciative of that. This is a problem with development today generally–whether urban or suburban . . . people are so concerned about the preservation of property values that they’re willing to live with restrictions like these. Not I . . . I can’t afford to 😉 If that means I have to go out to a traditional suburban neighborhood, so be it. I’ll do my walking there.

  10. Aaron Orgill Says:

    I agree with CB. I really don’t care to live in the city. I love Farmington for many reasons, and although I occasionally have commutes that I’d rather do without, you can’t have it all and sometimes you have to make tradeoffs. I have no idea where you live, but assume it’s not far from downtown. There are all sorts of mitigating factors that keep me from that, starting with the cost and the raising of my family. I agree with you that something could be done. But do I want to lead out on it? No, I’ve got a pretty good life, and I’ll probably never live in the city. Not everything can be just the way I want it. You’d probably say I’m selling out or throwing away my ideals, but selling out is only bad if it’s for the wrong things. I like to pick my battles, and find life is much more enjoyable that way.

  11. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Aaron, I should clarify that I’m not condemning your wife either. While personal choice (convenience, laziness, whatever) is an issue, the real problem here is the way that our communities are developed. To the extent that planning is undertaken in suburbia, it is done virtually solely with an eye toward auto transportation. Alternatives are not made any sort of priority. And, because the planning is done only to facilitate cars, it makes the development of the city distinctly unfriendly (unsafe and impractical) for foot traffic. This biases the decision of residents in favor of auto use. So the condemnation is not for individuals (who still should make the effort to walk for their social and physical health), but for the governments who neglect this important planning, and the developers who pressure the governments to establish plans in the direction of sprawl for their own financial benefit.

    Yes, I do live near downtown. Yes, housing cost is indeed a factor directly in SLC–at least initially. The reduced transportation costs might make it up. But family is not hindrance to living downtown. Many families are raised here just fine.

    CB, you are correct. There are many reasons for the growth of sprawl over the past half-dozen decades, a primary one being the fact that people perceived benefits in that community arrangement. That does not mean that the people were correct in their evaluations, that they foresaw or considered the negative consequences, that the sprawl was inevitable, that their choice was constructive to the environment, physical health, or social well-being of our communities. To call it “progress” is dubious.

    Upon further thought, I will admit that it would be difficult to change the bland suburbia of most of Davis county (speaking from experience as one raised in Kaysville). It would be unreal to expect that we could plow over Davis County and start again. But a citizen movement could prevent the further creeping infestation of sprawl in the parts of Davis County not yet overrun, as well as force governments and developers to ameliorate the poorly planned arrangements of already existing exurbs in the area.

    I agree that there are plenty of blockheaded covenants in particular developments. I am disgusted by how often property values becomes the preeminent guide in creating all sorts of stringent, superficial rules in communities. But that is hardly indigenous to urban development. I seem to recall some old lady in Utah county (aka “Suburbia South”) being threatened with arrest because her lawn wasn’t green enough. On the other hand, I have no problem with community restrictions based on more meaningful concerns. For example, if changing oil in driveways leads to potential contamination of the groundwater (I have no idea if it does, I’m speaking strictly hypothetically), then I am all in favor of those restrictions.

    In any event, if you (both) decide living in suburbia is worth the tradeoffs, or you don’t believe in the deficiencies of sprawl, fine. What I’m questioning is the implication that modern conventional communities are inevitable. You can’t speak wistfully about alternative community styles while acting as if they are chimeras. The only reason they are unrealistic is because people have passively accepted the current convention without critically evaluating the consequences or the alternatives. Don’t just be one of those sheep.

  12. Aaron Orgill Says:

    I need to start over with you. I think the two of us have a certain listening of each other that invites more argument than there needs to be. I actually like you, so I hope you don’t think I’m antagonistic. (Well,maybe once in a while). We don’t really have an argument here, except that you really love the city and I really like my own community of Farmington. Most of my time in Portugal was not in the city, and what I am most wistful for is the more laid-back lifestyle. You don’t sound like you care for your old hometown very much. I know that many choose to raise their families in the city, but to me it’s just too cramped and loud.

  13. cb Says:

    Derek,

    I appreciate the warning against being uncritical, and would return the same to you. 🙂 Here’s the assumption to question: that the committment to the current suburban model is simply the result of miscalculation or lack of education and that a widespread shift to the urban community development would make society better off (questioning of course what is meant by society being better off).

    Perhaps where we agree–and this is more important and substantial than any of the differences we have–is that we should be trying to make things better wherever we are. We just obviously have a different view about how that should be done.

  14. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Good suggestion, CB. The flaw in your challenge is that the proposition in question, “the suburban model is the result of a lack of planning or flawed planning, and a widespread shift to a more walkable, less auto-dependent urban model would increase our communities’ social capital, the environment, and the health of the inhabitants” is not an assumption. An assumption is a proposition which is accepted uncritically–as the sprawl model has been by the vast bulk of suburbanites over the past sixty (circa) years. My proposition is one based on examination and research (again, see my LibraryThing page for some examples of that research).

    Aaron, I haven’t been to Portugal, so I can’t speak to your experience specifically. But I do know that a much higher percentage of European communities are based on this “urban” model–including many of the small, rural communities. I’m sure Boston does not have the “laid-back” feel you mention, but I am pretty confident that the sort of urban model it represents is much more conducive to elements of the lifestyle of which you spoke so wistfully.

  15. Aaron Orgill Says:

    Agreed. Still love the open spaces and quiet of Farmington. Do you dislike your hometown of Kaysville? I find it a problem to get around with the way the addresses were laid out, but find its downtown and west side really charming.

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