The metropolitan area of BOSTON has long since expanded to fill the shoreline of Massachusetts Bay, and stretches for miles inland as well, with places to visit. However, the seventeenth-century port at its heart is still discernible. The tangled roads (former cow paths) clustered around Boston Common are a reminder of how the nation started out, and the city is enjoyably walkable in scale.
Boston was, until 1755, the biggest city in America; as the one most directly affected by the whims of the British Crown, it was the natural birthplace for the opposition that culminated in the Revolutionary War. Numerous evocative sites from that era are preserved along the downtown Freedom Trail. As the third busiest port in the British Empire (after London and Bristol), Boston stood on a narrow peninsula. What is now Washington Street provided the only access by land, and when the British set off to Lexington in 1775 they embarked in ships from the Common itself. During the nineteenth century, the Charles River marshlands were filled in to create the posh Back Bay residential area. Central Boston is now slightly set back from the water, and until recently, was divided by the unsightly John Fitzgerald Expressway that carried I-93 across downtown. In 2006 the city successfully routed the traffic underground and disposed of this eyesore – a project more than a decade in the making, known as “the Big Dig”.
Echoes of the “Brahmins” of a century ago can be seen in the stately brick enclaves and purple windowpanes of the city’s posher districts. But this is by no means just a city of WASPs: the Irish who began to arrive in large numbers after the Great Famine had produced their first mayor as early as 1885, and the president of the entire nation within a hundred years. The liberal tradition that spawned the Kennedys remains very much alive, fed in part by the presence in the city of more than one hundred universities and colleges, the most famous of which – Harvard University – is actually in the contiguous city of Cambridge, just across the Charles River.
The slump of the Depression seemed to linger in Boston for years – in the 1950s, the population was actually dwindling – but these days the place has a bright, rejuvenated feel. The aesthetic effects of the Big Dig have completely reshaped the city – most notably with the elegant, skyline-boosting Zakim Bridge, the Rose Kennedy Greenway and the beautification of the HarborWalk. With its busy street life, imaginative museums, eminent architecture and palpable history, Boston is one destination in New England there’s no excuse for missing.
The Black Heritage Trail
The Black Heritage Trail
Massachusetts was the first state to declare slavery illegal, in 1783 – partly as a result of black participation in the Revolutionary War – and a large community of free blacks and escaped slaves swiftly grew in the North End and on Beacon Hill. Very few African Americans live in either place today, but the Black Heritage Trail traces Beacon Hill’s key role in local and national black history – perhaps the most important historical site in America devoted to pre-Civil War African-American history and culture.
Pick up the Trail at 46 Joy St, where the Abiel Smith School contains a Museum of African American History (Mon–Sat 10am–4pm; $5), and rotates a number of well-tailored exhibits centred on abolitionism and African-American history. Built in 1806 as the country’s first African-American church, this became known as “Black Faneuil Hall” during the abolitionist campaign; Frederick Douglass issued his call here for all blacks to take up arms in the Civil War. Among those who responded were the volunteers of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, commemorated by a monument at the edge of Boston Common, opposite the State House, which depicts their farewell march down Beacon Street. Robert Lowell won a Pulitzer Prize for his poem, “For the Union Dead”, about this monument, and the regiment’s tragic end at Fort Wagner was depicted in the movie Glory.
From the monument, the Trail winds around Beacon Hill, and includes a stop at the Lewis and Harriet Hayden House. Once a stop on the famous “Underground Railroad”, the Haydens sheltered hundreds of runaway slaves from bounty-hunters in pursuit.
While it’s easy enough to traverse it on your own, the best way to experience the Trail is by taking a National Park Service walking tour (June–Aug Mon–Sat 10am, noon & 2pm, rest of year Mon–Sat 2pm; free; call to reserve t 617/742-5415 or t 617/720-2991, w http://www.nps.gov/boaf).