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A City Invisible to Itself

Sunny August afternoons on the Boston side of the Charles River are pleasant but unremarkable—unless you happen to bring along a gaggle of neighborhood teenagers who have never been there. Boston is a thriving metropolis, attracting more than 22 million visitors in 2012 alone. Yet on the summer afternoon that I sat along the Charles, eager to detail the region's maritime history, I was stopped cold by the genuine awe of the eight Boston public high school students accompanying me. Their wonder had nothing to do with my attempt as river historian and everything to do with the fact that several had never seen the place up close. They wanted to take off their shoes and feel the water, Instagram its edge, and text multiple selfies to their friends and family members. They were super-tourists in their own hometown.

Boston's civic boosters proudly remind us that in addition to a landscape offering a three-dimensional pop-up of 18th-century democracy, our museums, cultural institutions, and natural attractions are the envy of the world. But what about for the people who live here? Much of what a casual tourist, business traveler, or even a college student knows about Boston remains a mystery for many of its own residents, and particularly its young people. It's as if it is a city invisible to itself.

A visitor on the typical Boston tourist trek could blanch when they learn that the city is 53 percent non-white. "What?!" they might exclaim. "Where?" There are two perplexing issues entangled here: Boston's residents, particularly its nonwhite majority, are not a regular or visible part of the city's public face; and visitors seeking to encounter Boston's real heartbeat, its multiracial resident population, leave town mostly disappointed.

It's a classic Boston story. My own experience growing up in Dorchester echoes this weary theme: once a neighborhood kid, always a neighborhood kid. The upside of this tale is kinship with a set of city blocks bursting with generations of familiar social relationships. The shadow side is too many Boston kids and families who don't fully explore or enjoy the city's many advantages.

I won't rehash Boston's 20th-century land-clearance rush, which displaced long-term working-class and multiracial neighborhoods in the name of modern so-called progress. But it's clear that today we live the result of this history: an urban geographic core that is almost entirely white and high-income.

Don't let the cynics convince you it has to remain this way because it doesn't. The triple-hope cocktail of an incoming centrist mayor, renewed investments in public transportation (the Fairmount Line through Dorchester; late-night MBTA service), and a school system focused on improving student achievement all signal a city poised to reinvent itself. Add to this mix a restructured Boston Redevelopment Authority potentially focused on increasing the number of moderate- and low-income housing units, and we could really be on to something. So while housing activists, the city's housing chief, and the BRA hammer out a more just housing plan for the future, let's rethink how to address some of the social needs of residents right now.

Of the 17,000 public high school students enrolled in Boston, more than 80 percent are students of color. This young, energetic crowd is the most diverse segment of Boston's population yet too frequently finds itself cloistered behind informal neighborhood lines and school walls. We need civic leaders, planners, and business allies willing to link multiple institutions and resident networks to create bold, cross-city experiences for young people and families who live in the city right now.

Boston's official tourist maps usually stop at the borders of downtown. A newly drawn cultural map that allows residents and visitors alike to experience Boston's full character would be a revelation. What if the high school graduation requirement for every teenager included attending opening night at Symphony Hall, catching a Red Sox game, sketching at the Museum of Fine Arts, collecting shells from the Harbor Islands, and tracing the slope of Beacon Hill at the Museum of African American History? Imagine the social impact of this experience for young Bostonians—and all the travelers and suburbanites they would encounter along the way.

And despite what we sometimes think, with longing glances at New York or Chicago, Boston is a city rich in cultural institutions and resources. In addition to the well-known organizations in the Back Bay, Fenway, and South End, there are more than 200 cultural organizations in Roxbury, Dorchester, East Boston, and Hyde Park, according to a report by The Boston Foundation.

The real challenge is how to repair a social fabric shredded by 50 years of racialized turf battles over housing, schools, beaches, and everything in between.

These nationally televised fights have damaged the city's collective sense of space for more than two generations. Boston's new mayor, school leaders, city planners, transportation strategists, funders, and each of us have a civic mandate to override the city's many divisions and build a place worthy of its proud and hardworking populace.

 I wish I could say that my summer team's surprise encounter with the Charles River was an isolated event, but it wasn't. Again and again as we crisscrossed the city, someone would shout, "I've never been here before!" Walks to the fountained courtyard of the Boston Public Library, the apple-orchard flanked Dillaway-Thomas House in Roxbury, and Jamaica Plain's towering breweries all yielded a new flurry of social media posts. Although the students represented many parts of Boston—including South Boston, Charlestown, Mattapan, Dorchester, Brighton, and the South End—most of them had not visited large chunks of the city or even one another's neighborhoods.

In a city approaching its 400th birthday, this kind of "classic" Boston anecdote needs an official expiration date. ■