Saturday, December 20, 2014

How Boston isn't like Philadelphia

I've always thought of Boston and Philadelphia as fraternal twins that just happened to have inherited different sets of religious and sporting genes (Puritan v. Quaker, AL v. NL). But since I arrived at Harvard University, I've been spending every minute toting up how Boston is the same/different and better/ worse than Philadelphia.

How Boston isn't like Philadelphia

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Typical student housing in Cambridge

I’ve been in the Boston area just a few weeks, but I already see it’s a very different place than Philadelphia. I’ve always thought of the two cities as fraternal twins that just happened to have inherited different sets of religious and sporting genes (Puritan v. Quaker, AL v. NL). Sure Philadelphia might be almost three times the size of Boston – 618,000 inhabitants – but it’s really a statistical anomaly caused by the fact that close-in neighborhoods like Cambridge, Brookline and Somerville are independent cities.

So, even though I’m mostly in Cambridge, where I am a Loeb Fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, I spend just about every minute toting up how Boston (ok, Boston area) is the same/different and better/ worse than Philadelphia. One immediately visible difference is the city’s layout. I’m in a constant state of disorientation because streets in Boston and Cambridge meander in a random, medieval pattern that is so much harder to grasp than Philadelphia’s logical grid. Those curving streets produce a lot of charming moments. I was delighted to find myself at the intersection of Bow and Arrow Streets in Cambridge the other day, even though I was blocks from where I thought I was supposed to be. The erratic layout is one of the ways Boston distinguishes itself from virtually every other big American city. Now that I’ve had my first class with media expert Nicco Mele (Media, Politics, Power), I realize that a street layout is a lot like a computer operating system, in the way it interfaces between a city’s hardware (the built stuff) and software (its culture and history).

Cosmopolitan as Cambridge is, it’s hard for me to think of it an independent city. In my mind, it occupies the same geographical niche as West Philadelphia - because it’s on the Charles River across from Boston’s downtown and because it’s where the two powerhouse universities are located. But Cambridge is far more affluent and precious than West Philly, in ways that are good and bad. In the area where I’m living, plenty of gracious, early 20th Century houses are divided into apartments for students, just as they are around the Penn and Drexel campuses. But I haven’t seen any of those heartbreaking historical wrecks you find in West Philly, the ones with listing front porches and trash cans for yard ornament. I’m amazed at how many student apartment buildings have well-tended flower gardens out front, not to mention reasonably fresh paint jobs.

It’s also striking how much better kept the streets are, too. Having dipped into Digby Baltzell’s famous book, “Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia,” I can’t help but wonder if Boston’s tidiness is the product of a more hierarchical culture, with a more committed, more responsible leadership class? The tidiness is evident in Boston proper. Walking through the immaculate Public Garden, where not a blade of grass was out of place, I thought sadly of the graffiti I saw a few weeks ago on the limestone balustrade in Rittenhouse Square.

The awful plaza around Boston City Hall is another story, though. Ten years after 9/11, it’s still ringed with bike racks. And the design makes Dilworth Plaza look like a masterpiece. (I’ll save the still-controversial architecture of Boston’s city hall for a future post.) Another thing: For all Cambridge’s affluent shine, I’ve been shocked at the number of down-and-out people napping and living on the street. Cambridge seems to have more panhandlers per block than Center City.

Speaking of bike racks – as well as bike lanes - I’d say Philadelphia is miles ahead on that score. We biked over to Newbury Street in Boston this weekend on the path that follows the Charles River, and found it much inferior to the Schuylkill Banks and Kelly Drive experience. Because the Charles’ bike path is interrupted by city streets, you have to stop at every corner to wait for the light to change. The path itself is even narrower than the one on the Schuylkill, and has almost no buffer from the speeding traffic. But in one unfortunate regard, Philadelphia, Boston and Cambridge are equal: All have too many bicyclists who ride on the sidewalks.

Inga Saffron Inquirer Architecture Critic
About this blog

Inga Saffron believes there is architecture and there are places, and you can’t write about one without writing about the other.

Since becoming the Inquirer’s architecture critic in 1999, she has been just as likely to turn her eye toward Philadelphia’s waterfronts and sidewalks as to the latest glittering skyscraper. She is drawn to projects of all sizes and shapes, but especially those that form the backdrop of our daily lives.

Inga Saffron came to architecture criticism after five years as a foreign correspondent in Russia and Yugoslavia, where she covered two wars and was a witness to the destruction of two great cities, Sarajevo and Grozny. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism in 2004, 2008 and 2009.

Reach Inga at isaffron@phillynews.com.

Inga Saffron Inquirer Architecture Critic
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