A Year in New England: Boston vs. The Valley

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.

Weather

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.

Work Ethic

This is more along the lines of Stanford vs. Harvard, or perhaps even Stanford Genetics vs. Harvard Systems Biology, and so all attempts at generalization should be suitably curtailed.

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.

Intellectual Density

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

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:

SF Victorian Boston Brownstone

For SF, the hills; for Boston, the Charles:

SF Hilly Street Charles River

For SF, the colorful murals; for Boston, the endearing monotonicity, a quantity with a quality all its own:

SF Mural Back Bay

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.


18 comments

  1. Pingback: A Year in New England: Boston vs. Silicon Valley | Rocketboom

  2. Pingback: A Year in New England: Boston vs. Silicon Valley | Enjoying The Moment

  3. As someone with strong ties to both areas…I’d say pretty good analysis overall. I agree with many of your points, and hope you grow to enjoy Boston even more in the coming years. :)

    There are a few things I’d like to point out though.

    First, brownstones are NOT the dominant housing form of Boston (or, the metropolitan area in general). Not even close. That would be the triple decker.

    Foodie culture I can’t comment on, I’m a Ron Swanson-esque carnivore at heart and know nothing of veganism. I do know that SF will trounce Boston based on the sheer proximity to the central valley’s agricultural base.

    Also can’t comment on any of the academia stuff. Agreed that separation of classes is more pronounced here, whereas I’d say it’s more of the unspoken/slient variety in Norcal. Boston is far more clique-y than SF.

    You’re spot on in regards to the weather.

    It doesn’t take a 1/2 hour to get to MIT from Harvard unless you walk.

    Boston also has a sports culture that ravages SF’s, something that often gets overlooked.

    Also you need to get out of the Cambridge bubble (as I like to call it) and experience more. It just sounds like you haven’t really gotten to the whole city yet. I don’t mean that in a mean way. You’ve only been here a year. Just keep an open mind to the rest of the town and enjoy it!

    Welcome to Boston :)

    • Thank you for the warm welcome! :-)

      You’re absolutely right about my being in a bubble. In fact it’s not even so much the Cambridge bubble as the academic bubble. Even my daily bus routine is a bubble, because I take the M2 from Cambridge to Longwood Medical Area (that’s what I was referring to in terms of the 1/2 hour, as I work out of HMS).

      I got to see some of the city the first few months I was here but once work really got going I became a lot more cocooned. Definitely looking forward to seeing more during the upcoming months and years. Boston has a lot to offer, and greater New England too. I’ve managed to sneak out a few times to Maine and Vermont and they were spectacular. The whole area is incredibly rich in history and natural beauty.

  4. Agreed with above commenter. It sounds as though you’ve hardly left Cambridge. Have you explored Brighton, Allston, JP, Somerville, Boston proper? Have you attended a feast in the North End? Walked the Emerald Necklace or gone through the Arnold Arboretum? People-watched on Newbury Street? Checked out the Boston Book Festival? Spent a weekend at HONK fest in Davis Square? Gone on brewery tours or set a goal to try all of the beers at Sunset or Saus? Hiked the Middlesex Fells? Watched a Red Sox game in Fenway or headed to a bar near the TD Garden for a Bruins game? Checked out the local music scene at the Middle East or Brighton Music Hall?

    • Thank you for all the suggestions! I have done some fraction of the things you listed, but certainly not enough!

      I hope my post did not come across as critical of Boston. I actually like it here a great deal. The things I was looking forward to before moving here (academic environment, history and culture, etc) have all met or exceeded my expectations, and the things I was worried about (weather mostly) have turned out to be a lot more manageable than I thought. I look forward to spending a lot more time here and getting to know the city and its people better.

  5. Speaking of getting routed in the food category, at least Boston doesn’t suffer from extremely high levels of radiation from Fukushima in their local produce, fish, livestock, etc (and rain).

  6. +100 for going to the north end! there is a wealth of charm, italian food…bakery and otherwise, and a crap ton of history. i grew up in marin county, and then lived in new england for several years…SF can’t really compete on US history…even though it’s got plenty!
    and i hate to un-assuage your weather concerns (un-assuage…sorry for the made-up word), but winters/summers year to year aren’t necessarily consistent. consider it…an adventure!

    when you’re able, take advantage of the commuter rail and go down and visit providence…head up to rockport/gloucester/newburyport, and then catch a bus up to portsmouth. there’s SO much, so close together!

  7. Awesome post, and great observations too. Especially the part about the academic class stratification, I’ve also noticed this being much more pronounced and really nauseating in the East Coast academic circles at least.
    I also feel like the seasons give a great sense of time lapse, although nothing beats the nice warm CA weather it does seem like one long party. I do have a few friends though who grew up in the east coast and just wanted to move to CA because they can’t deal with the winter anymore. So I suppose the grass is always greener on the other side =)
    One thing I really miss about CA is the great outdoors and national parks that are easily accessible there it’s hard to match the Sierras and Yosemite IMO.

  8. the “class difference” is more about “respect” for those who are highly educated and/or are highly accomplished in their field. Something you don’t really see elsewhere.

    Foodie culture – you need to venture into the city proper – each neighborhood has their own thing going on (JP and Roslindale are very big “locavore” places, for example). The food is generally much better south of the river.

  9. All excellent observations, although as someone else noted, watch out, the winter might be different next year. And the summer. One summer I spend a night or two sleeping in my office for lack of AC at home.

    My only contention is about intellectual density, which is MUCH higher in Boston. It is not only that it is more technical, as you rightly pointed out, it is also that since there is a lot of stuff, and since Boston is tiny relative to the Bay area certainly) the intellectual density is very high. It is noticeable in subtle things like pub tours or parties- the conversation is noticeably more intellectual (in my experience) and you’ll inevitably leave the party having learned some new thing about evolution theory, or what have you. maybe this is more telling about Bostonian social skills, but be that as it may.. :-)

    • I don’t disagree with you about the intellectual density of social situations–in fact I think you are quite right. I wasn’t terribly clear in my description. When I referred to density not being a selling point of Boston, I was primarily referring to the distinction between the Stanford campus and HMS campus, and the density of their respective professional environments. I think from a professional standpoint, the density of Boston doesn’t give you (me) much, for the reasons I mentioned about the Stanford campus having co-located world-class CS and biomedicine. But socially, yes Boston has a much denser and more technical atmosphere. SOMA in SF might have that too now, I’m not sure, but in a more techie and less science-y way. Maybe.

  10. Hm… could you please provide a comparison of the girls between these 2 cities? You missed one of the most important topic, my man.

  11. Thanks for your post. My husband and I are contemplating a move from Boston (we actually live in the MetroWest) to Silicon Valley (from academia to industry), so it’s interesting to hear what you have to say. Our biggest concerns are the cost of living and finding an affordable home/neighborhood for our family.

  12. Reblogged this on {B*inspire} and commented:
    This is interesting viewpoint to someone pondering upon moving the other direction.
    On my several short visits to the Bay Area (i mean, even nick names are source of confusion Bay State = Massachusetts), I felt such diversity and inclusiveness as a Asian american that I almost felt like “I might be less special here!”
    My white-american husband was like “you might as well live in miniature Korea here.” and definitely he was a minority in some towns like Milpitas w/ 50%+ of Asian population.
    Weather-wise, I love New England’s 4 colorful seasons (but again, remember I’m not the one who has to shovel the tons of snow) and seeing yellow and arid landscape of west coast and having warm to mild temperature all year round is somewhat depressing. But even in that, I know my preference can change, especially as I’m getting older with my two strong headed boys.
    Intellectual density part. My hubby is a startup guy from the core and I am also a fan of startups and nerdy talks that I even built this quite useful network of Boston startup scene around my career. Guess what? I can definitely see SF/SV area will fill me up in this part, more than enough.
    So here comes the moment of truth — Beantown vs. SV?


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