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What Boston Means To America

Faneuil Hall, in downtown Boston, was built in the 1740s.
Elise Amendola
Faneuil Hall, in downtown Boston, was built in the 1740s.

As a city, Boston is at the crux of this country's past, present and future.

This was brought home on April 15 — Tax Day, Patriots Day, Marathon Day — when two deadly bombs exploded on historic Boylston Street near the finish line of the 117th running of the Boston Marathon.

The tragic blasts occurred so close to the Boston Public Library that the building — home to the personal book collection of Founding Father John Adams — is included in the crime scene.

The bombs struck at the very heart of the heart of America.

Perhaps as much as any place in the country, Boston is an anchor thread in the unwieldy web that is the United States. It was critical to the earliest American revolts — against unfair British taxes and practices. For centuries, it has been a harbor for American intelligence and independence. Like a modern-day Atlantis, it has sent out into the world some of its greatest thinkers and doers.

Today Boston is a complex metropolis of high intellect and hard work. It is home to excellent hospitals, innovative high-tech companies, challenging universities. It is a repository of rowdy rah-rahness, resourcefulness and racial realities.

It is a city of renewal, washed over each year by a fresh flood of young and future-shaping students.

From all accounts, it is also a city of resilience. In the immediate aftermath of the bombings, people not only mourned the dead and tended to the wounded, they opened their homes — via social media — to displaced wayfarers. In proper Bostonian fashion, new-school tools were used to extend old-school generosities.

'Capital Of The World'

To long-distance runners, Boston is Oz, with its 26.2-mile road promising stronger hearts, clearer heads, greater courage and home. "For a runner to go to Boston is like the touch football player getting to play in the Super Bowl," Runner's World editor Joe Henderson told the Los Angeles Times in 1971, when some 1,500 people were registered to run in the marathon. This year, nearly 27,000 people signed up to participate.

To a musician, Boston can be a warm audience. "What has always brought me home," says crooner and native Bostonian Brian Evans, "is the sense that when people I knew in showbiz left me hanging ... people in Boston never did. They always had my back, and that's what Boston has that others just don't 'get.' "

To a poet, Boston can be a citadel of farsightedness. "I do not speak with any fondness but the language of coolest history, when I say that Boston commands attention as the town which was appointed in the destiny of nations to lead the civilization of North America," poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson observed in 1893.

More than 100 years later, actor John Krasinski of TV's The Office made a similar observation: "Boston is actually the capital of the world," he told The Improper Bostonian in 2005. "You didn't know that? We breed smart-ass, quippy, funny people. Not that I'm one of them. I just sorta sneaked in under the radar."

Dark Meadow

For a big city, Boston can sometimes feel like a small town.

To the late novelist Elizabeth Hardwick, Boston was parochial compared with New York: "In Boston the night comes down with an incredibly heavy, small-town finality," wrote Hardwick, who took up residence in New York. "The cows come home; the chickens go to roost; the meadow is dark. Nearly every Bostonian is in his house or in someone else's house, dining at the home board, enjoying domestic and social privacy."

To contemporary writer Amy Hempel, who teaches at Harvard University and lives in New York, Boston now reminds her of New York. "I'm still in shock, as is everyone, I'm sure," says Hempel. "For me, there was both the immediate horror of what was happening in Boston, and the evocation of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City."

She says, "It feels as though everything is stripped back to being a person in an emergency, and how they behave. Which, based on what I saw on the news, was heroic."

Bostonians appreciate heroes. "The people in Boston, they give you a lot of support," Red Sox baseball star David "Big Papi" Ortiz told IGN in 2006. "When you have people looking forward to seeing you perform for them, that puts you in the mood, and that's natural in Boston. That's why it's such a special place to play."

Speaking the day after the bombings, Olympic soccer standout Kristine Lilly echoes Ortiz's sentiments about Boston. "The support I have gotten from this city and surrounding communities," she says, "has been so great, and I think you see that with the people of Boston — especially in times like yesterday's events."

To America, Boston has long been a living, moving national monument. Now, because of these horrifying events, Boston will mean something new, something more for a while. Perhaps for a long, long while.

So, what does Boston mean to you?

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Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.
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