I can hear the comforting wail of firetrucks multiple times a day from our mid-rise condo in downtown Boston. That siren is one of the most-played tunes on the soundtrack of my life, reminding me that I’m surrounded by constant action. My husband and I are raising our 8- and 11-year-old sons on one of the busiest commercial thoroughfares in the city. During much of the day, horns are honking, music is blaring, and panhandlers are yelling, sometimes directly at me. There are definitely downsides to this life, especially safety concerns. According to the FBI, in 2017 violent crime in Boston was almost 15 times higher than in nearby Cambridge. Because of this, I avoid certain streets after midnight and keep my bag strap looped around my arm while walking outside.
My boys’ art projects consume every extra inch of our limited space, and I know we’d have more room in the suburbs. Many of my friends have moved away from the city for a larger home, a yard, and some of the highest rated public schools in the country. But choosing to live with a lot less square footage in the city has been an overwhelmingly positive decision for my family.
The neighborhood has come a long way since 1974, when what is now the Boston Planning & Development Agency designated several blocks on Washington Street an adult entertainment district. For years, the “Combat Zone” was filled with erotic bookstores and nude-dancing venues. “Drugs, prostitution, strip joints . . . the area was a concentration of crime and sleaze,” says Tunney Lee, professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at MIT. Now, major landmarks include the upscale Ritz-Carlton Hotel, with its friendly doormen who dote on our dog, and the 25,000-square-foot Roche Bros. grocery store.
We bought our new three-bedroom condo here five years ago, after spending eight years in a two-bedroom rental on Boylston Street — the exact spot where the second Marathon bomb went off in 2013. We grew weary of the tourists who would walk into our building and ask us, in front of our children, if we were home at the time of the bombing (we were, but were not hurt). We decided to move downtown because we got a good deal on our unit, and we liked living in the heart of the city.
Though it has become a thriving center of business, retail, and tourism, the area around Washington Street is just beginning to develop its residential identity, with a mix of owners and renters, including lots of college students. Like much of Boston, this neighborhood desperately needs more affordable housing. A planned 19-story tower at 41 LaGrange Street is set to include 126 mixed-income rental units. And at The Union building at 48 Boylston Street, 46 units have been designated for low-income housing in partnership with the St. Francis House, a nearby homeless shelter. The building will include a dog day care and pet supply shop run by the house’s residents.
Children 17 and younger make up less than 8 percent of the neighborhood population downtown, one of the lowest concentrations in the city, according to the Boston Planning & Development Agency. At first, I was concerned about a lack of community. But through school and neighborhood youth sports leagues, we have found a lovely network of friends, including neighbors with young children, and my sons have met many playmates on the playground or sledding on the Boston Common. When it’s rainy and we can’t play outside, we’re only a short distance away from the Museum of Science, the Boston Children’s Museum, or the new Chinatown branch of the Boston Public Library. And what we give up in space, we gain by our friendships with the characters in our neighborhood. From May through November, our friend, farmer Chris, sells us our veggies at the market at Copley Square. In the fall, my boys pick up his Siena Farms Kids’ Share, a weekly box of produce and child-friendly recipes. We get our morning news, sports scores, and weather forecasts from Gilbert, the town crier on the Common, whose friendly energy is as powerful as an extra cup of coffee. I stroll with my kids to school every morning, and I walk to work.
I don’t have to spend my spare time landscaping a yard, but we still enjoy the outdoors. I volunteer with the Rose Brigade, maintaining the blooming beds in the Public Garden. Every day, even in the snow, my sons and dog play on the Common, skating on Frog Pond in winter and splashing in it during summer.
Many friends with children have already left Boston’s downtown for the suburbs, but I can’t imagine living anywhere else. We would miss the excitement of the city and the community we have built here. Recently, when I watched my boys holding homemade signs and screaming for joy at the sight of Patriots players rolling past in the duck boat parade, I realized yet again that my family is exactly where we belong.
Mary Shertenlieb is a teacher at Emerson College and has worked for Turner Broadcasting. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.