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Happy Birthday, Boston

Originally printed in The Boston Globe

September 1, 2001
Charles Euchner (Executive Director, Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston) and William Fowler (Director, Massachusetts Historical Society)

Today is the 371st anniversary of the creation of Boston as a formal political entity. On this day in 1630, the town of Trimountaine was renamed Boston and declared the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Possessing a land grant and a charter from King Charles I, John Winthrop was named the first governor of the colony. Winthrop selected Boston as the capital at the urging of William Blackstone, who built a home for him. (If you build it, they will come.)

Boston's selection as colonial capital came only after the towns of Salem and Charlestown proved unsatisfactory. The new town's spring water proved irresistible to colonists who had lost many compatriots to illness. Good water was the first requirement of good health for the new settlers.

Boston was named after the British town of the same name, which evolved from its original St. Boat Helper to St. Botolph to Boston. The city's very name expresses a civic ethic, the need to help the strangers who arrive at a port broken and in need of a friend. The date of the founding was Sept. 7, according to the old-style calendar; adjusted for the new calendar, we know the founding to have occurred on Sept. 17. But who cares? Let's go with the date the settlers used.

Boston is, of course, a vastly different place than it was in the days of Winthrop and Blackstone. Besides the sheer size of the city - it has grown from 750 acres to 49 square miles since the founding - Boston has expanded from a small church-based sailing port to the hub of a sprawling region with a diverse array of industries and cultural institutions. It has also become a rich mix of ethnic and racial groups.

But much about the character of Boston remains the same. At its best, it is still a walking city. It has a conservative cultural climate. Although it does not rely on fishing and shipping commerce anymore, it is today rediscovering the awesome power and beauty of its waterfront. The city is also discovering anew that the environment can determine whether the place has a good quality of life.

It makes sense for us to commemorate Boston's founding. We now celebrate Patriots Day and Evacuation Day, making important military victories over the British in the years before the Declaration of Independence. And, of course, we celebrate July 4, a national holiday saturated with the importance of Boston and Massachusetts.

But moments of founding are important in themselves.

By its very nature, a founding creates the framework within which all subsequent generations act. Founding moments help people to construct their identity and to understand their continuing challenges as a people. The founding of a political community creates the possibility for individual and collective action. It creates a secure space where people can realize their power and become something larger than themselves.

Boston has a strange relationship with its past. We rightly embrace the revolutionary era and all of its stirring places like Old North Church and the Old South Meeting House. We have also begun to explore the complexity of our ethnic history; just last year, a new Museum of Immigration opened on the site of Benjamin Franklin's boyhood home. Sometimes we also celebrate our maritime and literary heritages as well.

But we never seem to go back to the very beginning. We do hear about John Winthrop's stirring charge to fellow passengers aboard the Arbella to create a city upon a hill. But the meaning of Winthrop's words - and how that meaning was built into the new settlement - are rarely explored.

We need to understand better how old Boston gave rise to new Boston - how the density of development in the old city forced us to expand and build out from the center. What created today's East Boston? Where did the South Boston Waterfront come from? How was the South Bay area or the Fenway created? How did Beacon Hill come to have its current shape?

Besides the faded outlines of the old wharf lines near Faneuil Hall, we have few markers that show the shape of old Boston. But the old city's shape has done much to determine the contours of today's Boston. So much of the city's current shape owes itself to the jumbled pattern of streets that were established in the city's earliest days to accommodate the three hills, and to the helter-skelter way that the city fills waterways and annexed nearby communities.

The original Shawmut Peninsula, a mere bulb of land connected to the rest of Boston by a skinny isthmus, shaped the city's eventual contours. Today's Washington Street traversed that skinny connector and became the first of many other radial streets that extended from the old peninsula. It is those radial streets that pose some of our greatest challenges as a city and as a set of neighborhoods.

The fact that Boston is the state capital, and not Salem, has had a dramatic impact on the city and the state. Most other capitals are outside the state's big cities, from Albany, N.Y., to Salem, Ore., Boston's twin status as the state's economic and political capital makes it a much more cosmopolitan and detached home for government than, say, Springfield, Ill.

A more important question is how we got along, quite prosperously and happily as subjects of the British crown for more than a century. So much happened in Boston before we got angry with King George. And so much of that founding moment is with us today. It's time we acknowledged that defining moment in our history.

We don't need another day off. After all, Labor Day occurs around the same time as Boston Charter Day. But somehow, we should find a way to go back to our earliest days to understand our present challenges.

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