Downtown View: Helicopters, Schmelicopters

April 28, 2011
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What’s all this stuff about helicopters over Beacon Hill? A few lazy reporters decided to interview only the complainers. Their editors loved putting out a story about rich people whining.

Those of us who love this neighborhood were miffed at the newspaper reports. They were written in a gleeful tone—gotcha was the theme. The wealth of the neighborhood was the only attribute the reporters seemed to notice. All neighbors were painted with the same brush of cliché that our nerves are so delicate we can’t tolerate a bit of noise from a helicopter rushing to Mass General to save the life of a person who lives elsewhere.

But the reporters forgot to talk to the rest of us. I surveyed some people on my block and a few local business owners who live on the hill. There was zero concern about helicopters. One person said she had never noticed helicopters.

There are many reasons most of us don’t notice them. We’re busy, for one thing. We’re paying attention to other things.

We also know that helicopters are a consequence of living in a neighborhood that is one of the most convenient in America. That’s the real story about this place—it’s in the middle of everything. We never have to get in our cars. Half of us don’t even have cars. We walk to the drug store, hardware store, dry cleaners, grocery store and to our physical therapy appointments at MGH. We walk to work. It’s a huge time-saver never having to sit in traffic or find a place to park.

But being in the middle of everything has its consequences. Many of us find these consequences interesting rather than onerous. I have lived near MGH and the Charles/MGH T station for 40 years, so I’m somewhat of an expert on consequences.

Our family hears ambulances, the Red Line trains whose wheels aren’t always oiled, pile drivers, fire engines, honking horns, the rumble of the garbage trucks three times a week, and the whooping and hollering of 25-year-olds as they try to find their illegally parked cars after the bars let out. We’ve got firecrackers on the Fourth of July and jackhammers tearing up the streets. It’s hard to hear helicopters when there is so much other background noise.

We put up with the noise because we love living in a real neighborhood with people knowing their neighbors, participating in all the community activities, and feeling safe about their kids because everyone from Gary Drug to the pizza parlor guys knows them. It’s a feeling of community that much of America can’t imagine. It means that those of us who don’t complain are comforted by familiarity of the complainers—they’re our neighbors, we’ve known them for years and they are running true to form.

We put up with noise because our neighbors, sometimes rich, sometimes not, are varied in circumstance and family life, making them more interesting than people who choose the same house plan in a boring new suburban development. Some people here live in small rental apartments, others in condos, some in repurposed garages and a few live in large single-family row houses. Any skin color or ethnic group is welcome here—we just don’t have issues like that. If you participate, follow the zoning rules, and appreciate the neighborhood’s quirks, you’ll be welcome.

Moreover, the noise reminds us that we live in one exciting place. When a new governor is sworn in, when a particularly dramatic construction event is happening—usually on a Sunday morning—or when a news story is unfolding, we get helicopters.

What do most of us do under those circumstances? We run out to see what the fuss is all about. In the news reports, some neighbors pointed out that having a bunch of helicopters buzzing around above us could be dangerous. This was a bit of an exaggeration. If you’ve ever had to cross Cambridge Street depending on the walk lights, helicopter danger seems like nothing.

I’m reminded of my cousin Patty from Milwaukee who often visited me on the Illinois farm where I grew up. (Notice to those who have decided that Beacon Hillers are blue-bloods: The only Brahmin in our family is our half-Chinese son-in-law.)

Patty could never get to sleep at night on our farm. “It’s so loud,” she’d say, mimicking the crickets, June bugs or whatever insect or owl was making a racket. When my father and uncle started the tractor engines in the morning, she’d sit bolt upright in bed, while I snoozed through the rumble that told me all was right with the world.

I’ve traded tractor motors for helicopters, I guess. And it means that all is right in the world.

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