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Exploring Boston’s Past & Present on Independence Day

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Boston, one of the places where the American cradle of liberty was hewn, is a super choice for passing the 4th of July. That’s where the day moved, to Boston, but it began in Manhattan. I left one friend’s upper West Side flat and got on the Bolt Bus, $20 to Boston with on-board wifi internet and a plug for a laptop: sleek, clean and quick. Dropped me at Boston’s South Station and my friend, Nancy, picked me up.

We went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the MFA, and saw an exhibit of Spanish Paintings, from El Greco to Vela’squez. Boston is a town bulging, dripping with art and museums. One of my favorites, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is there, Harvard University has the Fogg Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Arts and on and on. You can even get into the Isabella Gardner Museum for free if your name is Isabella!

The Spanish exhibit is weighty with religious art, pictures of the saints and the Virgin and Jesus on the cross. These are large, dark, brooding paintings. The exhibit reminds the viewer that at the time these paintings were made, Spain possessed the largest empire in the world and took itself very seriously. All Spanish glory went to the Church. The Catholic Church of Spain viewed itself as the only true religion and these paintings were examples of the nation’s devotion to it. At the end of the exhibit there are some beautiful still life works which represent the only truly decorative pieces in the show.

The MFA is a classical building, all pillars and arches and colonnades. Somehow it was correct to start the celebration of the nation’s birthday in a place heavy with European influences its intoxication by itself. The holiday is a day when we celebrate our separation from a major European power. This is America, not the place of limitation and caution that was Europe.

Fleeing these weighty pieces we took a drive around Boston. Were we looking for something of the old days, the scent of the founding fathers. After all it was Samuel Adams who said here, "If ye love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude greater than the animating contest for freedom, go home from us in peace. We seek not your counsel, nor your arms".

Is that spirit still present in this city? Is the spirit of those words visibly present here? Can we see something which helped forge a brilliant destiny for this city and the young nation which surrounded it?

One looks for the past here. It is almost impossible not to do that. The city has a distinctive look. One sees the mansions, town houses and polished flats of Back Bay and Beacon Hill. They remind one that Boston during and after its revolutionary fervor became a wealthy town. There was the enormous wealth of a city on the Atlantic at the entry to the natural riches which became the USA.

Eventually Boston became a swamp of the Gilded Age, a name given to the enormous growth of the USA in the late 19th Century by Mark Twain, who lived in nearby Hartford, Connecticut. Boston became an enormous reservoir of wealth and "old money". This is, after all, where "the Cabots speak to the Lodges and the Lodges speak to God". Nancy, who lives there, says that that’s mostly gone now, but Boston remains a national financial and banking focal point and is a major healthcare center.

Never forget that John Harvard bequeathed his library and half his fortune to the University which is his namesake in Cambridge, just on the other side of the Charles River. One feels the shape of the city reflecting something about another city which grew around a river, London. Boston is one of the most European looking cities in this country.

We continued our tour around the city and saw some of its beauties, the long sweeping avenues with their good, sturdy, red brick buildings dazzlingly preserved amidst hosts of modern "New England Modern" structures.

At the end of our sweep through Boston, we arrived at the Esplanade, which has a band shell on the shore of the Charles River and began lying on the bank of the Charles River awaiting a concert by the Boston Pops. Children were playing, lovers were nuzzling. It was simply a marvelous occasion to enjoy a mild day and to take in a view of who we are as a nation, being part of the national celebration.

Sam Adams came to mind again "Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you; May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen." Here were people playing out these ideals. Do we recall how radical those words sounded over two hundred years ago, when we were inventing democracy, when England, France, Russia, and Spain were all ruled by monarchs? Frankly, these concepts still sound pretty radical today. Do we as a nation recall who lived here and the kinds of people we are celebrating?

I saw people who look good and well, healthy and vibrant. We seem to wear a lot of hats, some people even had sponge tiaras reminiscent of the one worn by the Statue of Liberty. We don’t all look alike. You can’t say, "Well, he looked like an American and be very sure you are correct. An American, after all could be Chinese or from Zambia as easily as Boston.

People played catch and some dogs went swimming in the Charles, a very American afternoon. I heard people loudly proclaiming their comfortable lives, using their cell phones to take pictures.

I actually heard someone say, "I pahked my cahr" in that unmistakable Boston twang and almost laughed uncontrollably. There was the smell of new mown, clover throughout the green esplanade. Even though it was impossible to know whether we appreciate our sweet freedom and liberty there it was, evident in every breath of all these holiday makers, spectators.

The Boston Pops began playing after dark and Rascal Flats, a rock and roll band, performed and the Pops played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, which has become a tradition here. Finally, at 10:30 there was a half hour of fireworks, smoke and the kinds of sky bound "rosette" displays were everywhere it seemed.

Finally we left, drove to Nancy’s house in Newton and fell asleep, knowing that the land we call America was a year older and we had done our small part to be a part of it and celebrate it.

What & Where:
Bolt Bus
(boltbus.com)
Boston Museum of Fine Arts (465 Huntington Ave; 617-267-9300)
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (280 The Fenway; 617 566 1401)
Harvard University Fogg Museum
(32 Quincy Street and Broadway; 617-495-9400
Institute of Contemporary Arts (100 Northern Ave; 617-478-3100)
Boston Pops
(888-266-1492)

Getting to the Esplanade on Foot
From Beacon Street:
Enter the Esplanade by Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth. Fairfield and Massachusetts Avenue.
From Charles Street: Take David G. Mugar Way westbound to Beacon and enter as above.

Click Here for Boston Travel Guides

 

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About the Author

Richard Basch
Richard Basch is a writer, photographer, and TV producer living in Venice, CA. He spent the last year teaching film history at Chapman University's Dodge College while travelling around Mexico and writing stories for a variety of publications. He has written for "The Washington Times", NPR's "The Savvy Traveler", "Modern Maturity", "The Arizona Star"his writing can be seen at www.richardbasch.com.