Winter 2016

City Stories of Nature and Grace: An Urban Pilgrim’s Progress

Philip Bess

I was born in west suburban Chicago into a family of midwestern Baptists more verbal and musical than visual, and lived there long enough to become a Cubs fan, before being uprooted and transplanted west at the age of six. But that early move also made me, in some partial but formative way, a child of the California desert-and-coastal-plain automobile suburbs of the fifties and sixties. Though in my childhood and youth I had spent tourist time in big city downtowns, and attended college in a traditional pre-1945 town in greater Los Angeles—even living in a coach house in a gridded neighborhood adjacent to campus during my senior year—I lacked both urban sensibility and urban eyes. Call me sub-urbane. My first powerful urban memory, unpleasant and unforgettable, dates from when I was twenty-one. A month before beginning graduate school at Harvard, I had driven east from California (via Chicago, where I made my first visit to Wrigley Field), parked my car in the near-west suburb of Newton, and taken the T to Harvard Square. I was completely unfamiliar with Boston. It was late August, and at 4:30 in the afternoon I emerged from below ground into 98-degree heat and comparable humidity, entering for the first time the human zoo of Harvard Square. I thought I would suffocate.


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