Boston (Both Ways)

There are two versions of every big city: the one people call home, and the one tourists visit. A longtime Bostonian searches for common ground.

The Charles River Esplanade
The Charles River Esplanade (Michael Piazza)

I can't remember the first time I was quacked at, but I remember how I felt: You've got to be kidding.

I'd be walking somewhere in the city, and suddenly a giant amphibious bus full of people would materialize, quack loudly at me and my fellow Bostonians, and vanish.

Soon enough I would learn that these were Duck Tours, shuttling tourists from one Boston landmark to another. And just as quickly, I'd learn to avoid going anywhere they went.

Like a New Yorker who never sets foot in Times Square, I have long made a fetish of keeping clear of the stereotypical Boston—the Revolutionary War monuments, the walking trails, the souvenir-strewn streets around Fenway Park. Let the out-of-towners move through their Boston, I figure, and I'll stick to mine. After 15 years of living here, I still look at the tourists and wonder: What are they seeing—and what am I missing? And what are they missing? I decided there was only one way to find out.

Paul Revere: closet Frenchman?
If I'm going to play tourist in my hometown, I know where to start: The Paul Revere House. If you live in Boston, you would never, ever go there. It's in the middle of the Freedom Trail, the more than two-mile-long path that guides people through the most important Revolutionary War monuments while letting them skip everything else. Somehow it precisely evokes my fifth grade conception of creaky old Boston.

The house today sits incongruously in its neighborhood, its three floors of spooky brown clapboard dwarfed by apartment buildings. Revere's house isn't crowded the day I visit, which is a good thing because it's absolutely tiny. It's also wildly off-square in every way, as though someone squeezed a normal house into a lozenge and set it down on tilted ground.

I push the wooden door open and promptly find myself in a kitchen—a stone hearth with a bewildering array of iron implements for everything from toasting bread to ironing frilled cuffs. Unless you're a history buff, you won't care exactly which turned-wood chairs belonged to the Revere family and which are here just for show. The house is an imperfect museum of Paul Revere himself, whose wartime heroism was exaggerated and whose major role in the city was as an entrepreneur who made a fortune in metals after the revolution. (Also, surprise: He was half French! His father was Apollos Rivoire, who anglicized the name.)

Yet as a little diorama of Boston's colonial history, the house is unparalleled. In the years after Paul Revere, it sheltered the waves of immigrants who transformed the city, and today it sits in the middle of an Italian neighborhood abutted by gleaming new condos—the setting itself a little diorama of Boston.

The North End my way
A block from Paul Revere's house is Hanover Street, the lively main drag running through the North End, a neighborhood full of Italian restaurants and pastry shops. Stop in for a cappuccino at the longtime fixture Caffé Vittoria and admire the collection of vintage espresso machines. Survey the assortment of cheese, artisanal salami and prosciutto, and aged balsamic vinegar at Salumeria Italiana on Richmond Street. If you want to eat where Bostonians eat, make your way to Carmen, a trattoria made cozy by brick walls lined with wine bottles and an embossed-tin ceiling. Alternately, cross Hanover Street, turn left toward Salem Street, and head to Neptune Oyster: Its white tiles and dark wood evoke an old-school seafood bar, and the menu merges the classic (shrimp cocktail) and the creative (shrimp gazpacho with baby fennel moustarda).

America's oldest ballpark
Not all of Boston's tourist attractions have centuries of history behind them. The baseball stadium is a relative newcomer, a wee 97 years old.

What still amazes me every time I approach Fenway Park is how intimately it's tucked into the city: You're strolling through a Boston neighborhood and hey, whaddya know, one of the buildings just happens to be the oldest major-league ballpark in America. As easy as it is to stumble upon Fenway, it's not nearly as simple to gain entry. Every single game since 2003 has sold out. But there is another way to see the park: Fenway runs tours for $12.

I buy a ticket and squeeze into a luxury suite on an off-season Saturday morning. A video tells the history of the stadium in photographs and newspaper headlines. We watch footage of Ted Williams's last at-bat here, in 1960; the ball sails over center field and into the bullpen and fixes him in baseball legend. I am pleased to notice that the video's narrator really is from Boston; beneath his polished voice are the city's lost-and-found r's—"pahk," and "ah-chi-tect."

RETHINKING BOSTON

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