Posts Tagged ‘Beacon Hill’


This is the summer, as I said recently, of antiracist reading (along with sunflowers and bike rides and strawberries). On a recent Monday afternoon, a friend and I decided to explore with both our feet and our brains: we met up in Beacon Hill to walk the Boston Black Heritage Trail.

I’ve lived in Boston for a decade now, and I used to wander Beacon Hill frequently when I worked at Emerson College. But I didn’t know this trail existed until recently, and the more sites we found and the more snippets I read aloud from the National Park Service website, I wondered: why not?


Like many American schoolchildren, I learned certain parts of Boston history: Paul Revere’s famous ride, the Boston Tea Party. I walked most of the Freedom Trail as a newcomer to Boston, ten years ago. I knew Boston was a center for the abolitionist movement (though it is also persistently racist). But I didn’t know about so many of the folks we learned about on the Black Heritage Trail: their names or their occupations or their contributions to the ongoing fight for Black freedom.

The trail comprises about a dozen sites, starting at the memorial to the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, a volunteer infantry regiment made up of Black soldiers (made famous in the movie Glory). The memorial itself is closed for restoration right now, but there’s a great temporary exhibition wrapped around the fencing, so you can still learn about the soldiers of the 54th.

Most of the trail’s other sites are former homes of Black people who fought for the abolition of slavery, helped house people escaping enslavement, helped integrate schools and churches in Boston, and played other important roles in Black community life. There are two former schools along the trail: the Abiel Smith School, the first Black public school in Boston, and the Phillips School, which became one of Boston’s first integrated schools.

The trail ends at the Smith Court Residences and the African Meeting House (now the Museum of African American History), which seem to have been the epicenter of Black life in Boston in the late 19th century. But even as we walked, we saw plaques on other buildings noting people who had lived and worked for abolition and Black rights in the neighborhood.


I might never have seen these plaques, or any of these houses, if I hadn’t been looking for them – and I kept wondering: why not? Why aren’t we taught these stories, alongside those of Paul Revere and Samuel Adams and John Hancock? Why had I never heard of Lewis and Harriet Hayden or George Middleton or Elizabeth Smith? I want to find out more about them now – but their stories should not be tucked down a side street. They should be highlighted, celebrated.

So much of the work of adulthood, for me, is paying attention: noticing the details of each day, really listening to my loved ones when we’re talking, not simply scrolling or sleepwalking through this life. The work of anti-racism also involves paying attention: seeking out the stories we don’t know, the ones that have been ignored or erased or shunted aside. This walk, this trail, is a small beginning. I’m glad we went, and I’m committed to finding out more.

Read Full Post »

tulips swan boats public garden

This used to be my neighborhood, this tangle of crowded, car-filled streets packed with tourists and commuters and buildings belonging to several colleges. I used to work at one of them, in a second-floor office that opened off a squarish conference room, the view from its plate-glass window offering a tiny, narrow sliver of the Common.

Every morning, I got off the subway at Park Street, hurrying across the Common through biting winter winds and walking more slowly in spring and fall, when the trees bloomed white and pink or put on their lipstick shades of crimson and orange. If I timed it just right, the bells of the Park Street Church followed me down the sidewalk, ringing out familiar hymns, a benediction floating on the air.

After heating up leftovers in the office microwave or grabbing a quick bite someplace nearby, I spent my lunch breaks walking: browsing the outdoor lot (the sale carts) or the first floor (fiction and mysteries) at Brattle Book Shop, riffling through racks of clothes at Second Time Around, following the winding paths of the Public Garden. If it was cold or I needed a treat, I’d pop into Thinking Cup or sometimes Starbucks for a cup of hot chocolate or chai.

I ride the subway a bit farther now, four more stops across the river into the heart of Harvard Square, where I work amid another tangle of streets, in another building belonging to a different university. I don’t get to Beacon Hill or Downtown Crossing much any more; I either have to exit the subway early on my way home from work or make a dedicated journey on the weekend.

When I walk through my old neighborhood, I automatically notice what has changed. The cupcake shop on Charles St. and L’Aroma Cafe down on Newbury have both closed; the little Italian market, shuttered for two years by a fire, is finally open again. The 7-Eleven with its whimsical gold sign is gutted, empty, slated to become a Peet’s Coffee before long. My former office has moved to a different building, farther from the Common and closer to Chinatown. The storefronts change regularly, the scaffolding rises and collapses, in this city where history builds and shifts, layer on layer.

Some things, though, remain the same, appearing reliably as the seasons turn or remaining steady through all of them. The tulips bloom in the Public Garden in May, right as the Swan Boats (and the two live swans) return from their winter hibernation. The rare print shop on Charles St. fills its window with vintage maps and watercolors. The duckling statues still follow their mother dutifully, as dozens of children perch on them and parents snap photos. And the book carts at the Brattle, as always, bulge with discarded books and hidden treasures.

This isn’t quite my neighborhood any more. I am surprised by changes after they happen, rather than taking them as they come. I snatch an occasional hour here, rather than living among these streets day after day. I am a visitor, a former resident, albeit one who still carries the map of these streets in her head, the knowledge of them in her feet.

I don’t miss it as much as I thought I might. Harvard Square, too, offers endless diversion and delight, and I’ve loved tracing out the perimeter of a new area, finding my regular haunts and occasionally making new discoveries. But every once in a while, I get a hankering for a stroll through my old neighborhood. And, to quote the bar that sits just off the north edge of the Public Garden, I’m always glad I came.

Read Full Post »

scenes from Beacon Hill

I’m growing to love this part of the city – old and historic, quiet and full of memories, architecture speaking of years gone by. I recently had some shoes repaired at a shop near the State House, and instead of walking back up wide, busy Beacon Street to visit my favorite thrift store on Charles Street, I decided to wend my way among the quiet brick buildings, accented here and there with copper long since weathered to a minty green. (And among them – though I didn’t get a good photo – is a street named Joy. How delightful is that?)

Read Full Post »