The Midnight Ride
What comes to your mind when I mention Boston?
The Red Sox? Maybe the Boston Marathon? The 1980’s TV Series Cheers?
The view I have of Boston is a little different than what the normal person would probably perceive. When I think of Boston, no one factor or identifying quality stands out amongst the rest. Instead, my imagination takes the city as a canvas and paints it with the colors I believe encompass what the city is truly known for. To understand what I think of when I hear the word Boston, let me describe a scene for you. From this scene, you’ll hopefully understand the lens that I viewed Boston through as I walked its city streets on a three-day trip this past winter, even if this scene contains a hint of exaggerated drama and romance:
Rays of moonlight crack through the unwoven patches of clouds that blanket the soft night sky. The perspiration you sweat is masked by the humid fog that twirls the dancing rays of moonlight in front of you as you ride through the countryside. With each beat of the horse’s gallop, the scent of salt in the air diminishes as your journey carries you further and further away from the coast. Mind racing, your unsettled thoughts match the uneven rhythm of your nervous heart. Although you had prepared for this moment, the sight of the two lanterns hung in the window still produced a sense of dread that rattled you to the core. Danger was approaching, and the lives of those you loved rested on how fast you can navigate the uneven farmland in front of you. Soldiers in red mirrored your travel, but instead of navigating the land you tend, they had just made their way off the sea. A revolution is coming, and tonight is the spark. Tonight is the spark that changes everything, and from this, nothing will ever be the same.
Although Paul Revere made his famous midnight ride to Lexington, Massachusetts and not Boston (his journey that night started with him initially leaving the city), it’s hard not to tie his tale and others like it into the lore that surrounds the city of Boston.
Throughout school and life growing up in America, we are told the grand stories of the American Revolution: a time in which the freedom fighting Sons of Liberty acted out against the autocratic British rule and set off the chain reaction that led to the American Independence that we know today.
While our Founding Fathers and militia soldiers did many courageous things over the period known as the Revolutionary era, some of the lore and tales we know from the war contain the same hint of drama and action that my depiction of Paul Revere’s ride contained above. Did you know that Paul Revere didn’t actually shout “the British are coming” as he rode to Lexington and Concord? In reality, Revere is remembered by first hand accounts to have said “the regulars are coming out.” Revere and other riders that night referred to the British troops as “regulars” so as not to reveal the information they knew to the British Loyalists in town.
Even though many of the stories we know from the American Revolution contain a sense of flair, there is one underlying theme that ties many of them together: they happened in Boston. Going into my trip to the city, I was excited to walk the paths of our Founding Fathers and rebellious Sons of Liberty. Although some of my expectations of the city were built off the fictitious editions of history I previously mentioned, I was still pumped to see where our great Revolution started. With a metaphorical powdered wig on and a tea part to be had, I made the trip to Boston in December.
Here’s my story.
Day One: Red Coats and Winter Jackets
The city of Boston was first founded in 1630 by a group of Puritan settlers traveling from England to the New World. Originally know as Tremontaine due to the three notable hills located within the limits of the surrounding region, Boston became one of the hubs for New World exploration and settling. Thanks to the city’s direct access to the Atlantic and the rich ecosystem in the area (specifically to those habitats that produce great seafood), Boston served the early periods of Colonial America as the main attraction on a relatively blank map.
The warmth from my previously described patriotism lasted only a few seconds after leaving the shelter of Logan Airport. As a kid from Florida, a Boston winter was only something that you heard about and never experienced. Sure, it get’s cold in the northeast. Yeah, I’ll have to bring an extra coat or two. All of this was par for the course.
Facing freezing temperatures with wind chills that dipped the numbers into the teens, life in Boston hit me hard. As my friends and I navigated our way to the shuttle which would carry us to our hotel, I realized that my naïve depiction of life in the revolutionary hub of Boston was a little off. Highways snaked through the countryside which was once farmland for minute-men militia. Wooden churches and barns were replaced with skyscrapers that housed banks and law firms, not lanterns and livestock. Horses were rendered obsolete by the 200+ horsepower car that swerved between lanes while passing our shuttle.
Although my hidden goal of recreating the lives of Paul Revere or Samuel Adams was shattered, Boston still offered something to a history buff like myself. The city may have shed some of the relics that marked its landscape back in the 1700’s, but Boston still carried with it the tough-nosed culture that it had developed from its time as the heart of a revolution.
After dropping off our bags at a hotel on the southeastern portion of town, my friends and I went foolishly back out in to the cold, ready to see what the city offered.
Our first stop was the Quincy Market.
Located just west of one of the main city access points to the Boston Harbor, the Quincy Market is a must-stop spot for any tourist visiting the city. Quincy Market is a part of the collection of markets surrounding Faneuil Hall (the first market that was built in the square), and is known for its rich bits of Boston tradition that is contained within its structure. Whether it be getting some of the best clam chowder in the area, purchasing a Harvard sweatshirt, or having dinner at an authentic Boston seafood restaurant, Quincy Market is a great start to a tourist’s weekend.
Originally built in 1742, Faneuil Hall was constructed as a place to grow the emerging economics of the city. Beyond the market it offers, Faneuil Hall serves as a historic landmark. The Hall hosted George Washington as he celebrated the first July 4th and has featured a number of notable speakers since (such as Susan B. Anthony and Bill Clinton).
Faneuil Hall expanded in the late 1800’s to what it is today. Instead of being just one marketplace, Faneuil Hall now has three other auxiliary marketplaces working besides it, which are the Quincy Market, North Market, and South Market.
Quincy Market was our first destination because it has some of the best spots for pictures in the marketplace, but going to one market essentially means going through them all.
Having had enough of the wind funnel created by the open-air marketplace that was Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, my friends and I retreated for shelter in the northeast portion of downtown Boston, or what we would soon learn was known as Boston’s “Little Italy”.
Despite being a relatively diverse city in the 21st century, Boston still contains neighborhoods that are inhabited by a majority concentration of one ethnicity (another example would be my discussion of Chinatown, featured below). Boston’s “Little Italy” is a four-block area of the city where Italian immigrants first settled from their migration to America in the post-colonial days. As a result, the main street of Boston’s “Little Italy” is home to some of the best Italian food in the New England area. Almost every business you’ll pass for a half-mile is an Italian restaurant.
My party of three hungry college students dealing with the last hints of jet lag saw this as a gift from above. With no idea that Boston’s “Little Italy” existed, we were shocked to find the concentration of Italian culture and traditions hidden within this small alcove of northeast Boston. The amount of Italian restaurants to chose from can be almost overwhelming, so instead of giving you a specific restaurant recommendation, I’d advise you pick a restaurant like my friends did: walk along the main street and pick a random spot to go to.
The tortellini alfredo I had that night was exquisite.
On our way back to the hotel, we took one last detour to Boston Common, a park etched out in the heart of the city’s Downtown area. First dedicated in 1634, Boston Common is the oldest city park in America. Like many other historic areas in the city of Boston, the park played a role in the battles and moments that were fought during the Revolutionary War.
In 1768, the Boston Common was seized as an official British encampment and wasn’t returned to the city until eight years later in 1776. As a matter of fact, the entire city of Boston was under the control of British forces until our independence was declared in 1776. Soon after the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775 (the first battle of the Revolutionary War and the battle that followed Paul Revere’s midnight warning), British troops took complete control of Boston and made it their official military headquarters in North America.
Soon after this conquest, militia men from the surrounding farmlands began to organize an assault on the British-occupied city. Known as the Siege of Boston, local militias from the New England region worked together to cut off the British army from advancing outside of the city. Despite their best efforts, the British still had access to the Boston Harbor, allowing them to bring in fresh supplies and reinforcements.
The Siege of Boston continued as a stalemate for almost six months until the Second Continental Congress convened and decided to work to unify the militias in order to fight the British as a combined effort. To do this, the congress appointed a young, proven colonel from the French and Indian War to build these militiamen into one united army: George Washington.
Upon George Washington’s arrival, the disorganized militia effort gained a focused attack. Through tactical assaults and an overall numbers advantage, the newly formed Continental Army forced the British out of Boston on May 17th, 1776. All of this set the stage for the Second Continental Congress’s next great move– signing the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776.
Beyond the historical role that the Boston Common has played within the city’s history, the park also offers a great amount of sites to see in the relatively small space it occupies. On the east side of the Common, you’ll find the Boston Common Frog Pond. This man-made pond looks like the empty end of a shallow pool for most of the year, but when winter comes around and the weather starts freezing, the Frog Pond serves as the main ice skating rink in Boston. Completely outdoors, tourists and locals from around the city gather to spend time in the blustery Massachusetts winter skating on the frozen pond.
Snaking through the east portion of the Common (and leading past the Frog Pond) is a small strip of bricks laid into the sidewalk. If you follow this small brick line, you’ll end up passing some of the most historic landmarks in Boston. Known as the Freedom Trail, this small strip of bricks creates a 2.5-mile-long path that leads the traveler by the landmarks that make Boston unique. Following the Freedom Trail through the Common leads you to the next stop on the Freedom Trail’s journey: the Massachusetts State House, which is just a block from the Common.
On the west side of the Common is the Boston Public Garden, an assortment of beautiful flowers and trees planted around the perimeter of a small lake that takes up a good portion of the Common’s west area. For any botanist or plant fans reading, this location is a must visit sometime during the spring or summer. If you go in the winter like I did, you’ll miss out on the chance to see many of the flowers in bloom.
Day Two: Ivy League’s and Chinatown
As a group of three college students, my friends and I made the commitment to go visit Harvard while we were in town. If you ever travel to Boston, I recommend that you do so too, regardless if you graduated college 20 years ago or are just starting high school.
Harvard is a place that doesn’t need much explanation on its history or pedigree, but I’ll still offer some background to give an excuse to highlight some of my favorite details about the school.
First founded in 1636, Harvard University is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Named after John Harvard, a man who lived in Boston that willed over 400 books to the newly founded University after his death in 1638, the school is considered (with Yale and Princeton) as one of the most prestigious schools in America. Some notable alumni to graduate from Harvard University include former United States Presidents John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and John Adams. Some notable dropouts from Harvard include Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. As someone who loves history and the United States government, I could not contain my excitement to go to Harvard.
The journey to reaching Harvard’s campus actually involves leaving the city of Boston and traveling six miles north to the town of Cambridge. Easily accessible by multiple bus routes, the journey to Cambridge is a great way to ease out of the skyscrapers of Boston into the more suburban life of Massachusetts.
Along your way to Harvard, you’ll actually notice something pretty interesting. Just over the Charles River and located about 3 miles from Harvard is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT. Known as the best institute for technological research in America, MIT specializes in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) research and study. If you ever wanted to become an engineer, MIT is probably the best place you can go in the world to get your education.
After passing the beautiful campus of MIT, we finally reached Harvard’s campus. Taking a moment to appreciate the environment (and the number of people smarter than I’ll ever be) around me, my friends and I began the hike inwards through the campus.
Strolling through Harvard’s campus is an absolute adventure. Funded by some of the wealthiest and most reputable alumni in the world, there isn’t a single building on Harvard’s campus that isn’t reminiscent of a 17th century Gothic church or new-age 21st century design. The entire campus could be considered one big monument, as every class building and dorm has hosted a number of students and professors who have changed the world.
My favorite part of walking through Harvard’s campus was passing by the law school. As someone who plans to go to law school after I finish my undergraduate degree, there is no comparison for a place like Harvard. Walking up the steps to the law library and following in the literal footsteps of past Presidents was an amazing experience. Harvard would be a dream school to study law at, but if I never get in, I can still say I made it to Harvard (as a tourist, which is probably the more typical way.)
After my friends and I absorbed all of the extra IQ points that we could while wandering through Harvard’s campus, we decided to go some place for lunch. Hoping on a subway back to the city, we had agreed the day before that we would stop in Chinatown to eat. That’s exactly what we did.
Similar to Boston’s “Little Italy”, Chinatown is a square collection of city blocks in Boston that served as the location where most Chinese migrants settled after arriving in the city. Similar to Italian neighborhood of northeastern Boston, Chinatown is flooded with Chinese restaurants. In a commitment to the overall Asian culture, the area of Chinatown also features many Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese restaurants within its limits.
Contrasting the experience eating in “Little Italy” versus Chinatown is a good way to illustrate what to expect if you ever tour through these distinct areas of Boston. On one hand, the Italian neighborhoods of “Little Italy” valued a slower, more deliberate eating experience. Almost all of the restaurants in “Little Italy” contained dim lighting and soft Italian opera music. The mood outside reflected the ambience established inside, as people took the time to slowly stroll up and down the sidewalk in order to appreciate the atmosphere and as not to upset the meal they just ate.
Chinatown, on the other hand, moved in a fast and coordinated manner. A good deal of the patrons that walked besides us in Chinatown were locals who worked in the city and had made the walk or bus ride into the neighborhood for a quick bite of lunch.
Around half of the restaurants in Chinatown are sit-down establishments, while the other half are small restaurants barely large enough to fit the necessary cooking equipment inside. These restaurants offered their food to-go, and for the patrons who needed to return to work at the end of a 30-minute lunch break, served some of the best to-go food in the city. For patrons like my friends and I who had no real place to be, stopping by one of these restaurants that offered no indoor seating meant getting creative and using places like the Chinatown Park as a spot to sit and enjoy a great meal.
Much like the restaurants in Chinatown, the area itself is constantly buzzing with activity in a relatively narrow operating space. Street vendors who offer goods and tourist tokens operate on the sidewalk right next to the apartment complexes that many in the area call home. Stores seem to stack on top of each other as some basements are leased out to other small businesses, and back-alleys actually serve as the front entrance to some enterprises nestled within the square perimeter.
Overall, Chinatown and “Little Italy” give off two distinct impressions of Boston, even though they are located just a few miles away from each other.
As a concluding point on my comparison of the two neighborhoods, you might’ve been wondering why I’ve been including the quotations around “Little Italy” and not Chinatown. This is due to how the locations are actually referenced within the city. Chinatown is the name that actual Bostonians refer to the neighborhood as, and it even has a stop in the main subway network named after it. “Little Italy”, on the other hand, is the unofficial nickname for the Italian neighborhood. If you went to Boston and looked for a subway stop called Little Italy (like you would with Chinatown), you wouldn’t be able to find it. The subway stop that leads to the Italian neighborhood is Haymarket, which is a few stops north of Chinatown.
After wandering through Chinatown, my friends and I returned to our hotel. It was New Year’s Eve, and as we searched for things to do in the city, we found that COVID had restricted a lot of the normal night life that was present in the area. As a result, our New Year’s was pretty dull. To make up for it, we planned a busy third and final day in the city.
Day Three: Fenway, JFK, and the Boston Way
Excited by the New Year’s spirt, my friends and I charged in to the cold the next morning. Our first stop was Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox.
Similar to the last point I made on Chinatown above, Fenway has its own stop on the subway system that brings travelers within near walking distance of the historic stadium. Built in 1912, Fenway Park is the oldest ballpark in America. Iconic for the Green Monster, the huge green wall in left field that replaces the normal outfield fence structure, Fenway has been home to the Red Sox for over 100 years.
With all-time greats such as Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, and David Ortiz having manned the helm of team captain, the Red Sox have managed to win nine World Series Championships in their century and change of playing in the MLB.
The area around Fenway Park is almost as unique as the park itself. Brick buildings that attempt to mirror the age of the ballpark form a diamond-like structure around Fenway. In these buildings are amazing restaurants, stores, and even a bowling alley. Similar to the Boston Public Garden that I mentioned earlier, the best time to see Fenway is when the MLB season is in full bloom, which is from April to October. When we passed through the area in January, the stadium and its bordering constituents were nearly empty. Despite this, statues of the aforementioned greats still offered amazing picture opportunities as we walked the perimeter of the ballpark, and heading into the neighborhoods around the stadium offered some great views of what local life is like in Boston.
After having stopped by Fenway at its slowest point in the offseason, we decided to make the cross-city journey to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library to keep the day going. As an admitted history nerd, traveling to the JFK Presidential Library was a dream come true. Even though we knew the inside of the Presidential Library would be closed (like many of the other public buildings were during our trip in January), I was ecstatic to go.
The youngest person ever to be elected President of the United States, JFK’s reputation has become something similar to the tales of the American Revolution that I opened this article with. A respected President and individual during his lifetime, JFK’s reputation has reached lore-like status in the decades following his ill-fated assassination in 1963. Know for his success in handling the Cuban Missile Crisis and failure in leading the Bay of Pigs assault on a Fidel Castro-led Cuba, JFK has become the representation of suave in American politics. Coming from the lineage of the historical Kennedy family, JFK is remembered more today for his success as a man and politician than his (sometimes ugly) shortcomings.
Regardless of how he should be remembered, Kennedy is one of my favorite Presidents because of how young he was when he was elected. Inaugurated at the age of 43, Kennedy offered a fresh face amongst the old men who had existed in the White House for generations.
Even if you can’t get in to the JFK Presidential Library or don’t have a high opinion on him as a President, you need to go visit the Library. I’ve made that remark about a few landmarks in Boston so far, but I really mean it now. Located directly on the Boston Harbor on the southeast side of the city, the Library and the grounds it sits on are absolutely stunning. Following the path to the Library leads you to a sleek and elegant building that holds the public records from Kennedy’s administration that are on display.
Peering through the glass door at the entrance of the Library allows you to see a few of the artifacts, but the real treasure of the grounds is found behind the building’s structure. Following the same path leads you to a marble staircase, and at the bottom of this staircase is a complete, panoramic view of the Boston Harbor.
Almost hidden behind the Library, this view is easily the best in Boston. Not only does it allow you to see the Boston Harbor Islands, located a few miles off the coast, but it gives arguably the clearest view of the skyscrapers in Downtown Boston.
Taking the time to reflect on where you are and the centuries of history that have passed through the streets and waters around you is a great way to appreciate the journey you’ve taken to Boston.
This is what I did as I strolled the path along the coastline. Hearing the history about a city is one thing, but being in the spot where all of the stories unfolded is a completely different feeling. In terms of the United States, there are probably few cities that can rival this feeling that Boston provides.
A Conclusion Fit For Boston
This may not be the longest blog post about Boston that you’ve ever read, but it is certainly the longest that I have ever written. As I conclude my story about traveling to Boston, I want to highlight the history of the city once more, but in a different way then I previously have.
As I mentioned in my overview of the Boston Common, the date of March 17th is a unique day to the city. Before researching for this blog and taking a deep dive into Boston’s pre-Revolution history, I was unaware what March 17th meant to the city of Boston. Now known as Evacuation Day, it is a day within the city that celebrates the dismissal of over 11,000 British troops at the conclusion of the Siege of Boston.
In a way, this holiday does more than celebrate the British withdrawal.
This holiday celebrates the rebirth of one of America’s oldest cities.
Even though the event that spurred this holiday became another domino in the series of events that would become the Revolutionary War, it’s important not to underappreciate what this specific holiday means. Serving as the first victory to an unexperienced, underfunded, and unorganized Continental army, this moment in time built confidence that the fire which would become the American ideals could burn on the world stage.
Without the successful Siege of Boston and the actions of heroes like George Washington and Paul Revere, Boston would have been forever lost to the British. Our nation and the democracy we know today would have never existed, and the actions of those who spoke out and fought against the British tyranny would’ve been punished with charges of high treason. The lives and legacies of the Lincolns, Roosevelts, and Reagans in the centuries that followed would’ve been replaced with a future that was almost certainly less fruitful and less free.
To put it short, the greatest nation to ever exist wouldn’t have existed at all.
When I walked through the city streets of Boston this past winter, this thought lingered with me in the back of my mind wherever I went. In Boston, you aren’t just seeing the history of Massachusetts or visiting a cool tourist attraction– you are visiting the birthplace of the free world.
I remember my 8th-grade history teacher telling us about a funny exchange she had with a student who had just moved to America from Britain. When my teacher had asked the girl about how schools in the UK taught the Revolutionary War, the student admitted with a laugh that British schools didn’t spend much time at all talking about it. The student pointed out that British history spans over 1000 years, so one war and colony lost didn’t change too much in the grand scheme of British history.
But to those of us in America, it changed everything.
Becoming the nation that leads the free world hasn’t been a journey without turmoil and failures. In taking the steps to fight for freedom and ultimately putting the people in charge of the federal government, America became the greatest social experiment in human history. Over 250 years later, I can proudly report that we are still here and we are still standing strong.
So when you take a trip to Boston, you’re doing more than drinking beer at a Red Sox game or walking through the snowy campus of Harvard, even if you don’t realize it. You’re walking through the city that sparked a revolution and created the home we know today.
It’s a pretty awesome thought to think about, and it’s an even cooler thought to experience.
So the next time you visit the New England area, make sure to take a midnight ride through Boston. Or maybe even stop and spend a few days.
I promise that you won’t regret it.