This is my favorite street in Boston,” says David Rush, a PhD student in math at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
We are standing on Main Street, one of the two roads that connect the town of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Boston proper. “Massachusetts Avenue is more famous,” he says – it connects the stately boulevards of Boston’s Back Bay to MIT and Harvard University – but he prefers this one.
He shows me where to stand: at a pedestrian crossing that allows us to look toward the Charles River from halfway across the street. “You can see all the way across Boston when you’re standing here.” Of course, Cambridge isn’t really Boston. “Absolutely separate,” he says. “Unless you’re not from Boston, in which case, they’re basically the same thing.”
Such is the ambiguous relationship between Boston’s town and its numerous sets of gowns – Boston and its surrounding suburbs are home to more than 100 colleges and universities, including academic powerhouses such as Harvard, MIT, Boston College, Boston University, and Tufts. To outsiders, Boston is simply an aggregate of college towns: each neighborhood with its own ivy-lined campus of red brick and book-laden students.
But to locals, Boston is all too often two cities: the unpretentious, New-England-stoic city of Irish-descended locals, knocking back beers in the city’s down-home dive bars and the bohemian enclave of students and recent graduates, urbane to the point of excess. “They judge you on what glass of wine you drink,” bemoans Bradley, a Harvard graduate student I meet in a Cambridge pub.
Such tensions have only increased as the city’s universities – bulwarked by their lavish endowments – have taken over more and more real estate near the city center. David points out the new research developments and laboratories that dominate Cambridge’s Main Street. “There’s a saying here in Cambridge,” he laughs. “We couldn’t colonize the moon, so we colonized Kendall Square.”
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