When I think of Boston’s neighborhoods, I first think of food, cultural attractions and parks. There is good Peruvian fare in East Boston, Mike’s Pastry is in the North End, the Museum of Fine Arts is in Fenway and Arnold Arboretum is in Jamaica Plain. I imagine that most college students think about the neighborhoods in Boston along similar lines. And rightly so; what else could there possibly be in these neighborhoods?
This past summer, I spent a lot of time in the South End. I was conducting an ethnography about how people use urban space to deal with summer temperatures, which meant that each day I would station myself in parks, attend musical and community events, go to neighborhood meetings, volunteer with different organizations, and basically just be there. I feel like I know the South End pretty well at this point, which means I can give some good recommendations about what to eat and what to see. For example, Morse Fish on Washington Street has amazing fried catfish at a good price and Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe has been run by the same family for almost 100 years – this is where Obama ate a burger last time he was in town. You can also check out some historic parks (Blackstone and Franklin Squares), and see shows at Boston Center for the Arts (BCA).
But this is not really what the South End is about. People live in the South End. I met people who were born and raised in the South End back when it was considered one of the most dangerous areas in Boston. I met people who moved there recently because it is now a hip-hop-and-happening place to be. I attended Little League baseball games, the summer concert series at Titus Sparrow Park, and neighborhood association cookouts. I befriended librarians, police officers, dog-walkers, and restaurant owners. But most importantly of all, I saw people caring for each other, introducing friends to friends, and discussing the newest store openings. I became part of the community.
For a college student that previously only equated neighborhoods with things to do, finding the South End community was one of the best things to happen to me during my four years as a university student in Boston.
And then I had to leave. The semester started and I could no longer participate in the life of the South End. I did try to stay engaged, but it wasn’t the same. I was no longer part of the community – I was just a transient college student, and it hurt to accept this fact. But after all, college students are supposed to live in a city for four years and then leave. Right?
Community requires investment. Community requires presence. And community requires patience. Students can certainly become part of a Boston community if conditions are right, but you cannot attend a community like you can a concert or a brunch buffet. So when I tell people what they can do and see in South End, I intentionally leave out the part about community and focus on the delicious food, cultural attractions, and parks.
As college students, it is up to us how much we want to engage in life outside of our universities. I think it is important to understand the investment, presence, and patience that is needed to truly be enmeshed in a local community. I found a rich and vibrant community this past summer in the South End and then had to leave it behind. This process was painful for me, and perhaps painful for those I became close with during that summer. College is an ephemeral experience, but perhaps community is as well.
At least the fried catfish will always be there.
Featured image photo credit: Evan Kuras