"We Own These Streets." Is Boston Always Like This?
January 27, 2013, 12:10 AM
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I don`t spend much time in Boston, but over the decades I`ve picked up a sense that young white people in that famous city are a little different in attitude, more territorial than the ones in the other cities I`ve known well (Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and, more marginally, New York and Washington). Last Saturday, I was in Boston`s financial district next to Faneuil Hall late at night for the first time in 26 years. I noticed the same edge as in 1986, one I seldom pick up from crowds of young white people drinking in other expensive city centers. The Bostonians give off a proprietary vibe that says, "We own these streets."

Political scientist James Q. Wilson, another nice Catholic boy from SoCal, was struck by that Boston vibe when he arrived at Harvard in the late 1940s. George Will recently wrote about Wilson:

Political scientist James Q. Wilson grew up there; in 1967, the year after the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” he wrote a seminal essay on the political vibrations that produced California’s new governor: “A Guide to Reagan Country.” His conclusion was that Ronald Reagan represented the political culture of a region where social structure nurtured individualism. 

Southern Californians had, Wilson wrote, “no identities except their personal identities, no obvious group affiliations to make possible any reference to them by collective nouns. I never heard the phrase ‘ethnic group’ until I was in graduate school.” 

Eastern teenagers had turf. Their Southern California counterparts had cars, the subject of so many Beach Boys songs (“Little Deuce Coupe,” ‘‘409,” ‘‘Shut Down,” etc.). They hung out in places reached by car and with lots of parking, particularly drive-in restaurants. 

“The Eastern lifestyle,” Wilson wrote, “produced a feeling of territory, the Western lifestyle a feeling of property.” 

The East was defined less by cold weather than social congestion — apartments in ethnic neighborhoods. Southern Californians lived in single-dwelling homes and had almost no public transportation, so their movements within the city were unconfined to set corridors. 

Houses and cars — the “Sunday afternoon drive” was often just to look at others’ homes — strengthened, Wilson wrote, “a very conventional and bourgeois sense of property and responsibility.”