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Highway signs leading to Boston. Shutterstock

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Should you move to Boston?

It’s complicated—here are the pros and cons and other things to consider

If you’re considering moving to Boston in 2020, the first thing you should know is that there is no Boston.

Yes, there is a city called Boston. It covers nearly 90 square miles (harbor included) and hosts some 673,000 residents or thereabouts. But the wider Boston region, even if you define it conservatively, contains dozens and dozens of other towns and communities. For instance, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which the state created nearly 60 years ago to help coordinate regional planning, has 101 municipal members.

All totaled, there might be close to 4.9 million residents in Greater Boston or the Boston area (or the Boston region). Extend things out to central Massachusetts or to southern New Hampshire, and the sum is greater.

In fact, a little over a century ago, there was a push in the state legislature to incorporate every town and city within 10 miles of the Massachusetts State House in downtown Boston into the City of Boston.

It failed, in part due to prejudice toward Irish immigrants and their immediate offspring in Boston (who were invariably Roman Catholic in a mostly Protestant area); but it would’ve created a city larger in area than New York, Philadelphia, or Chicago—and one more populous than any U.S. city save New York, L.A., Chicago, and Houston.

Alas, what we have instead is a patchwork that is equal parts enervating and thrilling. It’s hard to get used to; but it’s worth it. Here are 10 things to know if you’re thinking about moving to “Boston.”

1. Boston is not The Departed. Not only is Boston diverse geographically in the sense that when people say “Boston” they could mean nearby municipalities such as Somerville, Cambridge, Newton, and Brookline, but it is profoundly diverse demographically.

Just over half of the City of Boston is non-white, for instance, and the 56,000-plus students in its public schools spoke 74 languages as of 2018.

And, while the city and the region are often depicted as the farthest-west parish of Ireland or a gritty redoubt full of mobsters and guys in baseball caps talking about loyalty, the Irish influx of the mid-1800s was but the first of many immigration waves that continue to come ashore.

Never mind that plenty of Americans stick around here after matriculating at one of the area’s many, many colleges or universities, or arrive via jobs in the region’s animating industries, which include biotech, tech, and health care.

It is not the Boston of dropped-r-accent-heavy, bro-y movies such as The Departed or Mystic River, in other words, but a variegated mass with many, many backstories.

A statue of a man seated overlooking a busy square in a city.
Harvard Square in Cambridge is a stop on the Red Line and includes the similarly named university.

2. Picking a neighborhood you like is supremely important. Just as “Boston” is a patchwork of cities and towns, those cities and towns are patchworks of neighborhoods.

They are often distinct in terms of retail, parkland, and transit options; and they are actually clearly demarcated as far as urban neighborhoods go in the United States. As such, the neighborhood you pick will become a neighborhood you spend a lot of time in—as opposed to many cities, where one subdivision or mall amorphously bleeds into another.

The City of Boston—which is sometimes called Boston proper, by the way—has 23 official neighborhoods. And within each of those are micro-neighborhoods or enclaves. And, like in other municipalities in the region, these enclaves are often defined as squares—as in Codman Square or Copley Square. It’s a vestige of how the Brits organized this outpost of their empire way back when.

3. You do not need a car to live in Boston. Given that your chosen neighborhood will likely come complete with bus routes, bike lanes, and maybe even a T stop—the T is Boston’s trolley and subway system—never mind plenty of sidewalk, you really won’t need a car here.

It’s nice to have one, but you don’t need one. Besides, parking in the region can be a monumental hassle and a significant expense. Instead, consider basking in the opportunities that one of the nation’s most walkable and bikable urban areas offers.

A traffic jam in Boston. Boston Globe via Getty Images

4. Commuting will be just short of a waking nightmare. One of the potential upsides about not having a car in Boston is that driving here is a major headache. Commutes in general—whether by car, train, bus, or bike—are often long and laborious, culminating in having to do it all again in reverse.

In fact, the number of supercommuters in the Boston region—those traveling at least 90 minutes one way to work—has spiked this decade. Things have gotten so bad that real estate brokers no longer so blithely promise short commutes to core commercial areas.

What’s worse is that there is no end in sight to such commuting travails. The funding just isn’t there, nor is the political will. In the meantime, the region’s population keeps growing.

5. It is expensive. Here’s a fact: The median U.S. home price of around $200,000 bought 371 square feet of residential space in Boston as of May 2018, and it hasn’t improved much for prospective buyers (though there were some signs of a thaw for buyers as 2019 closed). Some surrounding municipalities such as Cambridge, Brookline, and Newton are many times more expensive than Boston proper.

As for renting, well, the region is among the four or five priciest in the nation (and here there’s been no thaw). A studio in a newer building will run to more than $2,000 a month, and even older properties can charge aggressively in a market with a chronic lack of supply and a constant surfeit of demand.

Only if you’re coming from San Francisco, San Jose, and New York City (and maybe D.C.) will Boston’s housing costs not shock you.

An aerial photo of colorful houses in Charlestown.
This is part of the Charlestown neighborhood in Boston.

6. It is dense. Boston is one of the most densely populated cities and regions in the U.S. The City of Somerville, for instance, has about 18,600 residents per square mile. Cambridge and Chelsea, both independent cities, each have more than 16,000 residents per square mile. For Boston proper, it’s around 13,000 residents per mile.

If you’re used to sizable yards and lots of elbow room, forget it here. There will be crowds and, unless you move to the region’s farther reaches, you will hear your neighbors from time to time at least.

7. Space is at a premium. As a result of Nos. 4, 5, and 6, space here is at a premium. And that is space in just about every urban sense—real estate, parking, roadways, sidewalks, bike lanes, parks, offices, building amenities, grocery stores, etc.

The region is full of narrow lanes and tight fits; but it makes escapes to the country so much more enjoyable.

8. The weather is not that bad. Yes, Boston winters can be biblical in their brutality. In 2015, the region suffered through nearly 110 inches of snowfall, all in a couple of months. That is fine for remoter places that are sparsely populated. For a dense region of 4.73 million, it made even mundane tasks such as walking down the sidewalk a chore.

But! Spring and summer in Boston are fairly pleasant, if a little too humid in July and August. And the autumn here... There is no better place in America for the fall than New England. It is breathtaking.

The leaves changing in Boston’s Public Garden.
The leaves changing in Boston’s Public Garden.

9. It is a great place to raise kids. Despite the expense and the traffic and the noise and whatever else, Boston is a wonderful place to raise children/start a family. You just have to adjust your expectations given how much the costs for things such as housing and childcare will consume.

The region boasts some of the best health care hubs in the world and some of the best parks and rec opportunities in the nation.

Then there are just the myriad everyday things to do with kids in Boston and its surrounding communities. Then there are the libraries and the programs through numerous museums, universities, and nonprofits; and then the region’s—and the state’s—reputation for safety compared with a lot of the country.

As for the schools, those vary from municipality to municipality of course. In Boston proper, there is a major building and reshuffling effort underway to better service the city’s faster-growing areas.

10. You will never be bored. How to even begin to explain how much there is to do here outside of work and home? Maybe start with this handy guide.


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