It has now been over a year since my move to Boston from Palo Alto, which seems like a fitting time to take a retrospective look at the two places. My sampling will be far from unbiased, having lived close to 20 years in the Bay Area. As a result this will be more like “Boston through the eyes of a Northern Californian”. There is no specific order to the comparisons below; I will vacillate between the substantive and the frivolous. And there will be no declared winner; both places are far too different and offer far too much for one to dominate the other in the Pareto optimal sense. At times, this will be more about Stanford vs. Harvard than the Bay Area vs. Boston, as much of my experience is ultimately grounded by my local environment.
I will start with this one because it seems so obvious yet it’s a lot subtler than I thought. The conventional wisdom has it that Silicon Valley is sunny and warm pretty much all year round, while Boston is cold and miserable pretty much half the year, and that that’s what makes the weather terrible here. The part about the Valley is more or less true, at least if you live outside of SF. Much of the Peninsula and the South Bay enjoy ~75 degree weather for a good fraction of the year. Boston’s weather on the other hand is a lot more complicated than “it’s too cold”, and this came as a surprise to me.
First, the winter. Yes it is cold, but it is not that cold. The worst it gets to is teens and single digits, and that is only for two to three weeks. Most of the time it settles in the 20s and 30s. More importantly, the winters are very sunny, probably more so than California. Bostonian winters are dry, which means one is often greeted with crisp clear skies.
Second, the summer. Yes it can get a little hot, but again it is not that bad. There are a handful of days when it is humid and uncomfortable, but for the most part the temperatures hover around the low 80s. What came as an (unpleasant to a Californian) surprise was how wet the summers are. Rain is a very regular visitor, probably once a week if not more.
But the real problem is the spring, or lack thereof. Boston’s spring is a confused, unconfident, mess of a season, lacking any shred of assertiveness or personality. It is pushed around by winter to near oblivion, and then stomped on by summer just as it is beginning to escape winter’s grip. There is no spring. Which leaves fall as the only semi reasonable time of the year, when it is not too cold, and not too wet, and when the temperature is actually comfortable.
And therein lies the real problem with Boston’s weather. It isn’t the harsh winters, or the humid summers, but the general lack of decent weather days. They do exist, to be sure, sprinkled during the last days of spring and the early days of fall, but there’s only a few of them, maybe 40 in all. Worse yet, their arrival is unpredictable, and they often come in short bursts that last only a day or two, which makes them useless to plan outings around.
And so, on balance, Boston does have inferior weather, but it is not for the reasons I was led to believe, and it is not nearly as bad as I had feared. The seasons have their charm too, and they serve to mark the passage of time. Unlike in California, where the months and years blend together into a single, if admittedly beautiful, morass, New England seasons are marked by visible changes in temperature, humidity, and foliage. This imbues life with a cyclicity that is absent in California. The sensory memories of each season provide a mental anchor to the passage of that time period. In some ways, I feel that my sense of time, on the months scale, has actually improved in Boston.
Culture: A Certain Sense of Class
This is a huge area, and so I will pick just one aspect that stuck out for me. In Boston, and perhaps all of New England, there is an undeniable sense of class distinction, and one that is very much different from the Bay Area. In the latter, there are class distinctions to be sure, but relationships across class lines are either friendly or hostile, and are as a result symmetric. In Boston on the other hand such relationships are most frequently characterized by deference of the weaker class to the more powerful one.
Let me give an example. At Harvard, when I, an academic distinguished by my backpack and possibly dress, walk through a hallway, janitorial or construction workers get out of my way. If they are sitting on the stairwell, they will rise. If I walk into an empty office where they are temporarily sitting to rest, they apologize, get up, and leave, all without me saying a single word. This happens very frequently, probably more than once a day, so much so that I am probably no longer noticing it. At first the effect was really jarring, since at Stanford this almost never happened. Either the reaction is that of equals, i.e. I’m in the hallway first and so I’ll just loiter like I was before, or it is antagonistic, i.e. I’m sitting in the stairwell and I sure as hell aren’t getting up just because some self important a$$$$$$ is walking by.
This distinction doesn’t just hold between blue collar and white collar workers; it even holds within the ranks of white collar workers. Another example: I was having dinner with professional A when professional B, someone with broader administrative powers than A, passed by. Professional A shot up immediately to greet him and apologized for not having noticed him earlier. The display of so much deference by one professional to another is something I have never seen before.
Having said this, on the whole I would say Boston and the Bay Area have far more in common than in difference, particularly within their academic circles, in part because they are made up of the same people. The most frequent “other” city I hear mentioned in Boston is not New York but San Francisco. There is a great deal of mixing between the two regions, owing to their historic strengths in academia and entrepreneurship, and so in most ways they are part and parcel of the same culture.
In short, the two are indistinguishable save for one anecdote. The triviality of the anecdote, and the fact that it is the strongest piece of evidence I could muster, should be further proof of their indistinguishability.
Many biology departments have an annual ritual where they whisk away all their students and academics to a remote area for a few days of talks, panels, and entertainment. Stanford and Harvard are no exception. For both, on the second day of the retreat, the afternoon hours are reserved for personal time and recreation, which are then followed by an evening round of talks starting from around 5pm. At Stanford, this evening session is typically much more sparsely populated than the other sessions, presumably because a lot of people decide to take the entire rest of the day off. On average, I would say attendance is about half of what it usually is.
I expected to see a similar effect at Harvard, since the setup is very similar and in fact the good days of summer are fewer in Maine (where the retreat was taking place) than in California. To my surprise however, when people reconvened for talks at the Harvard retreat, the room was almost at full attendance. Is this evidence of a stronger work ethic? Hard to say. Probably not, as all my other unconscious indicators have not registered any discernible difference.
One of the “selling points” of Boston, at least when you’re being wooed as an academic, is its intellectual density, the fact that three world-class universities are within close proximity to one another, embedded within a larger network of academic and industrial research laboratories. The Bay Area too has world-class universities and a large research network, but by accident of geography and urban (mis)planning, it is diffused over a much larger area. Or so goes the claim.
I think there are truths and falsities in this characterization which require some unpacking. On a gross Bay Area vs. Boston level, my sense is that the intellectual environment in Boston is more technical and more technically advanced, the difference between the “D” and the “R” in R&D. Using accidentally overheard conversations as the litmus test, in the Bay Area it would be “Principal Components Analysis” while in Boston it would be “Non-negative Matrix Factorization“. There is a lot more talk about code and engineering in the Bay Area, and a lot more talk about math and research in Boston. And there are a lot more graduate students and postdocs reading papers on the subway. And there is a subway.
This also plays out culturally, at least within academic circles. In the Bay Area it often seems that everyone is looking over their shoulder at the guy building a startup. There is a widespread sense of consternation at the income disparity between academic and industrial researchers. This exists in Boston too of course, but academics here seem more accepting of their fate, more content with the idea that to get to do what they want, they must make a financial sacrifice. Perhaps it even has to do with Boston’s blue-collar roots. For whatever reason, the cloud of dissatisfaction that hovers over Bay Area academics appears lighter here.
On the other hand, if one were to break this into Harvard vs. Stanford, I think the picture is much murkier, and arguably Stanford has the upper hand. The main issue is that Harvard and MIT are not that close, at least a 30 minute trip by some form of public transportation. More importantly, MIT and Harvard really do have their specializations. Harvard has a very humanities feel, and despite being a biomedical behemoth, is still in the process of getting its engineering departments to compete with the very best. MIT has much stronger engineering departments, but does not have Harvard’s breadth and depth in medicine and law. As a result, for interdisciplinary research, either university ends up offering somewhat more limited options than Stanford. There is no equivalent of the Gates / BioX nexus, where a five minute walk can take one from world-class biology to world-class chemistry to world-class CS and engineering, and a ten minute walk lands you in a hospital with actual patients. Kendall Square comes closest, with MGH nearby and many industrial labs in the vicinity.
All in all, I think Boston’s biggest selling point is actually not density, but size. There is simply a lot more science being done here, at a larger scale, and under a bigger spotlight.
Food is unfortunately where Boston gets thoroughly routed by the SF Bay Area. This has less to do with Boston’s shortcomings and more with the fact that SF is second to none when it comes to food, particularly of the vegan variety compatible with my diet. Outside of NYC and LA there are few cities in the US, perhaps the world, which would fare terribly well in this comparison.
The starkest difference is in the quality of fresh produce. In the Bay Area, Whole Foods was typically my second choice, one that I would begrudgingly go to if I miss the local farmers market. Even small cities like Palo Alto had farmers markets that offered produce with noticeably higher quality than Whole Foods and at comparable prices. In Boston, most farmers markets focus on cheap produce, leaving Whole Foods as the only option for reasonable quality organic groceries.
On the restaurant front, the picture is more mixed. Boston does rather well with Indian and Mediterranean cuisine, which I found to be of better average quality than in the Bay Area. On the other hand, Asian food, in particular Chinese and Thai, is almost always mediocre here. Boston does not have the same foodie culture as SF. Bostonians seem less interested in food, with the familiar San Franciscan conversations about the best taquerias and most authentic pizzerias all but absent.
The City: A Certain Sense of Place
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two metro areas is the physical makeup of their respective major cities. Boston and San Francisco both have tremendous character, a distinct sense of place, which is exceedingly rare in American cities. So much so that their identities can often be discovered from a single picture, even a street-level one. What makes this even more interesting is how different the two cities are in this regard.
For SF, it is the Victorian; for Boston, the brownstone:
For SF, the hills; for Boston, the Charles:
For SF, the colorful murals; for Boston, the endearing monotonicity, a quantity with a quality all its own:
There are some areas where Boston wins convincingly here, particularly in infrastructure. The T, despite having a ridiculous spoke and center pattern that cries out for a circle connecting all the lines, is still light years ahead of BART. The streets, despite their occasional grunginess, are cleaner than and not nearly as smelly as San Francisco’s. And politically, Boston appears more functional, with visible signs of progress in construction, parks, and the like.
After a year here, I have grown to like the place. It shares just enough with my hometown to make it familiar and comfortable, yet is different enough to make it interesting and worth exploring. There is an Arabic saying that living amongst a people for 40 days makes you one of them. I am not a Bostonian yet, and perhaps I never will be, but it will be fun trying.