Thursday, September 17, 2009

Accidental contentment

I didn't choose Dorchester. It chose me. For that, I am grateful.

I took the train up from New London, Conn. in the spring of 2007. The trees were in blossom and I walked the length of Dot Ave between JFK/UMASS and Savin Hill, detouring along side streets between the T tracks and Upham's Corner. I was hooked. Not all of Dorchester is as nice as the neighborhood I inhabit, but most of them are close.

I had a few hours to kill before the lady I was visiting would be free so I made the most of my time, wandering aimlessly while enjoying the sights and the sounds and the smells. I stepped into the shops, this part of Dot Ave is crowded with tiny, busy storefronts, and I sat in the parks, watching the life of the neighborhood go by with an easygoing rhythm.

On subsequent visits, I drove my motorcycle to Dorchester and I wiled away my visits exploring the all the sub-neighborhoods and parishes and hilltops. Most parts of Dorchester are much like the others. All of them are attractive little nodes of commerce and community bound up into a larger boundary that, itself, is bound up with the life of the greater city beyond the Dot proper. There are varying income levels and different corners have different vibrations, but all in all Dorchester is a tidy place in which to experience a sense of contentment. I know. I've been content since I moved here shortly after my first visit.

Perhaps I have low expectations or, rather, I have high expectations that are easily met. I suppose I would be happy living in Beacon Hill or the North End or the South End or Back Bay. I haven't tried but I have been in all those places and, frankly, I am quite content in Dorchester. If I don't know all my neighbors by name, I know them by face and vice versa. We exchange pleasantries and news as we pass on our errands. I have never been made to feel unwelcome and I never been made to feel I don't belong. I don't think anyone who inhabits Dorchester feels that way. I may be projecting. Dorchester really is a melting pot where dissimilar people of dissimilar backgrounds gather, communicate, and get along.

There is such a thing as a Dorchesterite. It is a certain kind of Bostonian who lives in Dorchester, the city's biggest and most diverse political subdivision. Dorchester was once it's own town and though it is now just a piece of a larger metropolitan puzzle, it retains a unique identity that grows on the people who live here. As home to the first public school, Dorchester respects and encourages lifelong learning, be it book smarts or street smarts. That is why UMASS Boston is located in Boston. It is also why the savviest card sharps play poker in its American Legion halls. It is why small businesses thrive in Dorchester.

Dorchesterites are always learning how to get along. Dorchester is a work in progress. Every generation and every day bring new ideas as much as they bring new people. Dorchester is flexible and adaptable. It is open-minded and affable. I have yet to meet anyone who lives in Dorchester who regrets their address. Some may move away but just as many move in. It is an organic part of Boston, an organism that changes and grows as its decades turn into centuries. It is not a time capsule or set piece as much as a living place that is a setting for life's many, little, individual glories to unfold.

It's not infrastructure that matters so much as the people who make use of it. Dorchester is inhabited by people who have their feet firmly planted on it's pavement. They live in their homes as much as they live in the wider community by extension. There aren't any highrises, there aren't any skyscrapers, there is little glamour. Dorchester is the best part of a city without feeling like a city. When you move to Dorchester, you feel like you've come from the end of the world to your home town.

Home is where the heart is and Dorchester has heart. Home to more than 100,000 souls, it contains more than 100,000 beating, vital hearts. You can't have love without a heart. You can't measure the amount of love contained in a place that is home to more than 100,000 of them. Dorchester is like that. Facets of it can be described, but it cannot be felt except through intuition, a gut feeling, an empathetic instinct, with the animal brain more than reason, with sympathy more than logic, by its aura more than its bones or reputation.


eeka said...

The first public school was Boston Latin School, and the original site was on School Street where the plaque is (on the Freedom Trail, near that overpriced steak house).

Whalehead King said...

Thanks, Eeka.

The first public elementary school was the Mather School founded in Dorchester in 1639. It is true that Boston Latin was the first public school open for students who had been taught the rudiments at home. That happened in 1635 and there is a sidewalk mosaic that commemorates it in front of the former City Hall that is now a steakhouse and offices.

This is a detail I neglected to mention and I appreciate your correcting the record. To clarify:

Dorchester is home to the first public school open to everyone from a young age up. That is why a schoolhouse is featured prominently on Dorchester's official seal.


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