I often wonder if cities can have souls; if living in a certain place can affect how one thinks and acts. And if so, is one a Pittsburgher, say, before one is an American? In feudal societies this was certainly the case. We are all proud of our hometowns, but where should this pride end, and when does civic pride turn into civic paranoia?
Such questions came to mind this weekend with the release of the film Patriots Day. The docudrama depicts the events of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and the subsequent hunt for its perpetrators that played out in the streets of Cambridge and Watertown, where I was living and working at the time.
As a Pittsburgh native who lived in New York City for a decade and in Boston for twice that, I had felt strangely at home in New York, but like a stranger in a strange land in Boston.
Something happened to Boston after 2001, after it won the first of its Super Bowls, and a few World Series. It’s something that didn’t happen to Pittsburgh when it experienced a similar string of championships in the 1970s; Boston changed and adopted an attitude. The famous New England disdain for outsiders evolved into a reflexive form of resentment. Just wearing a Pirates cap would get you snide comments by walking into a sports bar, and boy, do the cops love to ticket cars with Steelers stickers.
National pride and civic pride became inverted.
The name of the film, Patriots Day comes from the Massachusetts holiday of the same name celebrated on the third Monday of April. The Boston Marathon is also run on this date. If you live in Boston but are not from Boston, Patriots’ Day is probably one of the most annoying holidays much the same way Tom Brady is one of the most annoying football players to anyone not living in New England. The only thing you can do, as one of the characters says in the film, is watch the marathon, run in the marathon or go to the Red Sox game.
Once I did watch the marathon, standing near the finish line. You have no idea how fast the runners go if you’ve never seen them up close. This has always been one of my happiest memories of Boston. But now I realize that I was standing very near where the bomb blasts occurred in 2013.
The founders of the Boston Marathon stressed the event’s connection with both America’s battle for liberty in the Revolutionary War and the ancient Greek battle of Marathon, in which Athens fought for liberty against the invading Persians.
One perspective I had hoped the film would explore, but didn’t, was the imposition of the “shelter in place” mandate, when residents of Boston and the surrounding communities were not allowed to leave their homes during the manhunt for the second bomber. A shelter-in-place warning is normally used for radiological or chemical defense; what happened during this day was actually a “lockdown,” which is a very rare thing in America.
As stressful and exhausting as the day was for those of us who were locked down, when it was over, the local public reaction — specifically the overblown and self-adulatory chest-thumping — was unsettling. Although the film claims that that the crowds who stormed the streets in the aftermath of the bomber’s capture were cheering for the police, they actually were cheering for themselves. This is when Boston truly bared its soul.
It felt out of scale that a 19-year-old kid, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, shut down a large city for an entire day and was found, by accident, hiding in a boat in someone’s backyard. The ordeal that started with a bombing was over, not with a bang but a whimper. The celebration seemed false; the chants of “Boston Strong” seemed exploitive.
It brought to mind another time of civic upheaval in ancient Athens, about 60 years after the Battle of Marathon, when the leader Pericles delivered his famous Funeral Oration, in which he said, “These men have shown themselves valiant in action, and it would be enough, I think, for their glories to be proclaimed in action.”
We needed the dignity of a Pericles to heal. But what we got was a baseball player telling a stadium of roaring fans, “This is our fucking city.”
That day, the Penguins came to town and played the Bruins in a game rescheduled from the day of the bombing. The Pens wore “Boston 617” patches on their uniforms. The cameras showed a young man, about the same age as the bombers, wearing a Pens jersey and holding up a sign that read, “Steeltown Loves Beantown. Go America.” The players raised their sticks in solidarity. Finally, with those last two words, I truly felt proud.