Emerson admissions pamphlets advertise a city campus in the geographic heart of downtown Boston, and that’s what students who survive a selective application process and finance their education get. For me, an enormous draw to the college was its location adjacent to the Common — boasting easy access to every imaginable area of the Boston metro. It’s easy for someone to project expectations on such an appealing proposal.
As winter months approach, students — especially those who live in the dorms — may cling to Emerson’s campus as a familiar base in lieu of frostbite and below-zero drudgery. But when the sun starts to set in late afternoon, I dread spending another winter cocooned in the student activities center. It’s a time that requires me to become deliberate in my effort to get out and engage with the city. Living in Boston means looking beyond the intersection that brochures and tour guides wax all too patriotic about.
In my own life, one thing is certain — my friends and I were much happier to settle into neighborhoods with actual character. As soon as we moved to more distinctive parts of the city — I to Beacon Hill, others to Allston, the North End, and various boroughs of Cambridge — we finally felt like inhabitants of a Boston that had eluded us in dormitories. My realization was simple: Clinging to the comforts of campus seriously hampered my first years at Emerson. I can’t imagine that sets me apart from many other students, and it’s an easy rut to avoid.
One mistake was failing to incorporate other parts of the city into my weekly routine. Hiking to Charles St. for coffee seemed like a waste of time with Starbucks and Emerson’s Cafe at my doorstep. There was no reason to try Border Cafe in Harvard Square with Boloco, Fajitas and ‘Ritas, and Maria’s Taqueria at my fingertips. Furthermore, those 30-second walks to class made anything pushing 10 minutes seem far away. I was a walking #SoEmerson hashtag — a cutesy meme that seeks to validate the things that make us the worst. Our tiny physical and cultural bubble isn’t always cute. And, as it happens, it can be isolating.
Now, I don’t feel validated; instead I regret that more times than I care to admit, my friends and I moaned our way out of making our free time authentic and specific to Boston. The Colonial Building was often an ivory tower of laziness.
The reality is that “the heart of Boston” doesn’t always come with a soul. Look around: at the Common, frequently lined by rows of port-o-johns for fleeting civic events; City Place, the dull, grey bastion of food court gestalt; the Theater District, dead during the day and alive at night by the grace of tourists and Blue Man Group aficionados. Even the temporary amusement of Kim Kardashian-wannabes lined up outside Gypsy Bar wears on students who imagined life closer to Boston’s heart, not its libido.
I don’t mean to imply that this neighborhood doesn’t have a pulse, but its character is harder to find. For as much as we glamorize our surroundings, each barely-dressed clubgoer who trips out of Estate in the early hours of Friday mornings calls into question whether the emperor is really wearing clothes.
There are times it seems we kid ourselves that the corner of Boylston and Tremont is really the place to be. And there are times when it really is. One stroll through the Public Garden on a beautiful late fall day, and I’m reminded that our front yard has its perks — it just doesn’t have everything. When complacency keeps us from branching out, that narrative is worth challenging.
The antidote is simple — get out. Explore the South End’s restaurant scene, bundle up and walk to the ICA, see what Allston’s Harvard Ave. is like in daylight. You won’t regret making the time and mustering the energy, even in a snowstorm.