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The Boston of 2009 doesn't resemble the Boston of my childhood - except in one troubling way.

By Ty Burr
January 4, 2009
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On and off, I search for the Boston of my childhood, without apparent luck. I return to houses from the past, schools, playgrounds, but the Proustian thrill is elusive. Old Boston seems dead; either that, or I'm looking in the wrong places. Perhaps I'm seeking a nest and finding only the tree.

In the six years since returning from a quarter century of living in New York City, that yearning toward Beantown nostalgia has waxed and waned. Oddly, I find the coming inauguration has sharpened the need to connect the dots of the past, as did the ascension of Deval Patrick to the State House two years ago. Race, and racial connection, is the lens through which I think of Boston now, if only because it was my blind spot, and the city's, when I grew up here.

I was fortunate, really: a child of reasonable privilege and late-'60s complacencies raised in Brookline, up the hill from the high school both my parents went to. White kid in a white suburb, and if there were frictions, they were based on class rather than race. The neighborhood represented a Venn-diagram overlap of three distinct local clans: upper-class WASPs, upper-middle-class Jews, working-class Boston Irish. At the time I thought such distinctness was the normal order of things.

The children all played together nicely, although I recall one occasion when one of the Irish kids punched me, a glasses-wearing WASP, after calling me a "yid" -- suddenly, all three ethnicities merged into one bizarrely comic (if painful) back-lot incident.

Where were the black kids? There were a few in the progressive-minded private school that I and they were lucky to attend, and . . . that was it. Somewhere there was a place called Roxbury that my not particularly progressive parents never, ever took us, and in my teens, the busing crisis erupted on TV and in the newspapers but not remotely near my life.

I moved to Manhattan after college; it took me a few years to get the hang of the thing. The delighted shock that came from joining an undifferentiated, multiethnic mass of humanity on the streets and in the subways was accompanied by a sharper jolt when I opened my mouth and betrayed shards of provincial racism, like asking a black friend if I could borrow the boombox I carelessly assumed he had. Did I really think like that? Well, it was the '80s, and I was young. Stupid, too.

Since moving back, I often find myself wondering why Boston isn't like New York's fractious but functional ethnic stew. Size has a lot to do with it, and geography, and the histories of which clans came to political power and which were pushed to the fringes or fled to the suburbs. The romance of WASP continuity, too, stopped resonating in New York long before it stopped here, if it ever has. Power in Manhattan is about money and fame. In Boston, it remains money and name.

On the face of it, the old balkanized Boston has disappeared, replaced by a new cosmopolis. My father's law firm downtown is long gone, as is the building that housed it, as is he. Southie, now "genre-fied" in movies as an Irish stronghold, is in reality home to many Asians. Harvard Square is a shopping mall, the Combat Zone is history. The flood of college students still ebbs and flows, bringing fresh ideas and stale beer cups with each tide.

Yet the borders remain. I live in Newton now -- white man in a white suburb -- and when some people hear that I often bike to work through the middle of Roxbury, they gasp in concern or crack racist jokes. Have they ever even been there, I wonder? Did they see the people who picked me up off the pavement after an opening car door flattened me on Dudley Street, who sat with me until the ambulance came, and gave me their names and numbers for the police report?

Of course not, because this is a city still built and predicated, I think, on keeping us apart. My old Boston -- the real one, outside my childhood cocoon -- still exists in form and attitude and fears of the unknown. There is terrible urban violence, and it has racial and geographical distinctness, and the reasons are too deep-rooted to be tidily resolved at the end of a column. I'm willing to cycle through the new Boston, but I still haven't figured out how to confront it. I'll never truly make it home until I do.

Ty Burr is a film critic for the Globe. E-mail him at tburr@globe.com.

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