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Downtown Journal: Living History

Downtown Journal
An occasional column about city life

We live in strange times when political leaders – the president, the Congress – seem to have forgotten our noble past of sacrifice and wars waged for freedoms once envied around the world. Every day, more of our collective dignity and purpose seem to erode under the weight of partisan politics, porn stars, fake news, #MeToo charges, smears and snark from all sides. Some days, the best we can do is turn off the TV, the radio, the podcasts, ignore all news outlets and step outside for a breath of fresh air. Whoops. There’s the USS Constitution sailing by. No, really.

Living in this neck of the woods, we are constantly reminded of our glorious heritage every time we turn around – Old North Church, the Old State House, Paul Revere’s house, Freedom Trail, USS Constitution, relentless tour buses and, of course, all those sightseers seeking a tour of the good ole days as they flock to downtown Boston. They visit our cradle of liberty and maybe grab a cannoli along the way.

A couple of weeks ago, I was standing on Washington Street in Downtown Crossing waiting for the “walk” signal when I did a double-take while glancing at the woman standing next to me. An African American, she wore full colonial dress — the gown, the petticoat, the white cotton muffin cap. On her feet, of course, she wore very sensible shoes because she was obviously a tour guide in period regalia. I had a moment of reverie about the cognitive dissonance of history retold. The slaves were not free during colonial days. Yet, a woman of color in full 18th century costume now leads tours in 21st century Boston.

The modern army of tourists tromping through the neighborhood can bother me, particularly during the leaf-peeping autumn months when a battalion of tour buses line the streets. Lately, however, in these tense political times, I adopted a new attitude. I am heartened by the influx. I am encouraged by the interest. I am prideful of my neighborhood and of Boston’s place in the American Revolution – and the American League, for that matter.

I tell myself not to take it for granted, living in a famous district. Nonetheless, I grow weary of hearing the fragments of the Paul Revere schtick blaring out of the open windows of tour trolleys all summer long. I get sick of the Mike’s Pastry boxes toppling out of public trash cans. I think it’s amusing to see men in tricorn hats, jodhpurs and big buckled shoes walking around as if they own the town.

For all the discomforts, there are the assurances. The out-of-towners paid good money to travel to a notoriously “blue” city from wherever in the world they’ve come from. They seek to learn about Boston. They want to remember history so they are not condemned to repeat it. Only good can prosper in all that adventurism and spirit. If, during these times when current events grind me down, I see a bunch of strangers encircling Old North Church, the sight conveys hope for the future. People still care enough to want to see this shining city on a hill.

Monica Collins is a writer who lives on the Waterfront with her husband, Ben Alper, and dog, Dexter.