A walking history lesson

A walking history lesson

By Ricky Popolizio

Would Boston be as historic by any other name? Indeed it would, as each moniker given to Beantown, from City on a Hill to Athens of America, signifies some aspect of Boston’s significance in American history.

While you may know the first restaurant in America was in Boston and the American Revolution was rooted in the Hub, did you know Boston has its own leaning tower, and neighborhoods that are now upscale were once places only the blue-collar population would frequent? Not to mention many famous figures such as George Washington, Paul Revere and Ralph Waldo Emerson who hung their hats in and around this “Walking City.”

And what better way to explore such a city than with a walking tour? History of Boston is an interactive exploration course offered during the Summer I semester and taught by Clay McShane. The class is based on exploring Boston’s history, which you don’t need to look far to do. Each street corner, each edifice and every name stems from a historical root. And the walking tour guidebook packs a humorous and intriguing punch with each new discovery.

Written by Jane Grossman and Felice Yager, “Boston Foot Notes: A Walking Guide” provides the walking curriculum. But this book isn’t a guide to simply hit statues, buildings and all the “usuals” such as the Boston Tea Party site and the Old North Church. Grossman and Yager provide a colorful, intricate storyline for each historical visit along the path of each of the five Boston neighborhoods (Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Cambridge, Downtown and North End, Waterfront and Charlestown).

But even a knowledgeable Bostonian could learn a thing or two on these tours. On the Back Bay tour learn about a popular society lady who was known to walk her pet lion down Commonwealth Avenue in 1875. This famous art collector was considered “one of the seven wonders of Boston,” and upon moving to the Fenway, she requested that number 152 Beacon St. be retired and never used again. And Mrs. Isabella Stuart Gardner got her wish.

Ever heard of “the leaning tower of Boston”? Stand in front of the new addition to the Boston Public Library and feast your eyes on the tower of the New Old South Church. At the same time, take in what is considered one of the 10 most beautiful buildings in America by the American Institutes of Architects, Trinity Church. All of these places surround beautiful Copley Square.

When the Hancock Tower was built adjacent to the religious edifice, supervising architect Henry N. Cobb hoped to “deflect concerns of overshadowing Trinity Church by reflecting its glory.” Today, the church is perfectly reflected in these mirrored panels.

At Beacon Hill, ascend up what was once called Mount Whoredom (the name derives from the seedy characters who patrolled this now expensive and elite neighborhood), one of the three hills that made up “Trimountain,” better known as Tremont. Walk along Joy Street in the area once home to thousands of immigrants who fled to the United States. While in the Beacon Hill area, stroll past the African American Meeting House (the oldest standing African American church in the country), and snake down dark Holmes Alley, one of many escape routes that helped slaves outwit their masters. John Kerry resides in one of the townhouses of Louisberg Square, and nearby Acorn Street is “the most photographed street in Boston.”

The Downtown and North End walk includes a tour of the Paul Revere House, where Revere resided from 1770 to 1780. Passing by the Old Granary Burying Ground, it seems impossible that over 12,000 people are buried there; Grossman and Yager explain how. New meaning is given to the phrase “mass burials” as you discover in the guidebook that bodies were buried four deep, “not in caskets but wrapped in linen cloth and sprinkled with lime.” Oh how things have changed, and while many of the original buildings and sites in Boston remain intact, some things have been completely transformed.

One would never guess that what is now a jewelry shop was once the “hub of the Hub” as the Old Corner Bookstore, where the most famous authors of America and Britain such as Emerson, Longfellow, Thoreau and Dickens gathered. Just across the street is the Old South Meeting House, where the Boston Tea Party protest began. Conclude the tour with a bite at America’s oldest restaurant, the Union Oyster House.

Even shopaholics can get their history fix when they discover that Newbury Street, presently a meeting ground for the rich and ostentatious, was a lower middle-class area for Bostonians with “no purse or pedigree.”

Professor McShane begins the “History of Boston” class around 1630, the date the Puritans landed in Boston. From there, he uses few notes, a slow but steady delivery and seemingly infinite knowledge to illustrate the history in and around Boston that continues to shape the city today.

It would be a shame to study within the walking hub of college, the universe and liberty without exploring the historical haven itself. So put on your sneakers, grab your guidebook and devour this city’s historical landmarks around every corner.

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