Comparing Boston and San Francisco Bay Area

This article was very amusing to me since I can relate to it personally. I’d never been in Boston until I left the midwest to go to college there. It was a strange place at first, very old looking and feeling, lots of history, huge crowds of people. As time went on I learned how life could actually be rather hard there: the weather is trying (I still get chills thinking of all the times I froze walking across the Mass Ave bridge), the crowds and decrepit infrastructure, the horrible driving once I got a car and moved to the “suburbs” (to a town founded before there was a California).

I was more than just a student. For a couple of years I lived as an “adult”, working full-time and living the way everyone else did, fighting traffic and black snow and slush, living in tiny basement apartment. At that time it was hard to live there, everything was difficult. And once removed from the artificial world of college and actually living “local” I discovered how hard it was, but mostly I began to understand why all the people seemed both rude and aggressive. Understanding that comes from a simple experience, riding the MBTA which I did before I had a car and then after when the car frequently wouldn’t start in the cold. The MBTA is jammed and you literally had your face inches from another person. And so I realized that the only way people can have any privacy is to be oblivious to anyone around them, unlike the uncrowded midwest where strangers at least are polite to each other, since strangers are rare. But getting on the subway was a contact sport, people on the platform pushing to get in as the others are trying to get off, lots of elbows flying. This did, however, prepare for riding trains in Tokyo where the infamous “pushers” are real!

So when the time came I could consider moving even though I’d never been to the Bay Area that’s where I wanted to go. Given my interest in tech it was either Boston or the Bay Area. Naturally after eight years in Boston (given the era) I also saw the Boston area as tech mecca and the Bay Area as a mere lightweight pretender (I believe it was then, pre-boom in Silicon Valley). Nonetheless I took the leap for the only job offer I got in the Bay Area and soon found myself living in Palo Alto in a nice apartment with a pool and beautiful gardens; it was like a fantasy. After several months of still feeling like this was just vacation I remember getting up and saying, “Ah, yet another perfect day in paradise.”  Nearly year-round summer and cloudless days aren’t hard to get used to.

But the real contrast came (and much of how I relate to the article I linked) came when I had to take some classes in San Francisco. So I took the train to the city (unbelievably civilized, a parking lot for the car, a comfy seat, quiet and clean). But it was getting off the train and taking the bus that was the shock. People lined up in the expected queue and waiting for all the people to get off the bus before getting on, then moving gently to seats. The pushing and shoving and fighting of the Boston subway was a memory of the bad old days.

Soon I got tired of walking to work and so bought a bicycle, rediscovering my love of biking. I began to stretch my riding beyond just the commute to work and looping around and through the Stanford campus. I actually rode on Christmas day my first year there and saw the students that hadn’t gone home for the break lying on the grass working on their suntans with those reflecting mirrors I’d never seen before. Boy, what an easy life.

I translated that “easy living” into what I saw as far less intensity in the workplace, but I was wrong. Like the article said work in Boston was a contact sport too, very aggressive, people in your face, very intense. I developed my own amateur theory that the weather was the difference. Living in Boston was hard and in Palo Alto it was easy, so the people in Boston had to be tough and the people in Palo Alto were soft. But gradually as I got more in the swing of Silicon Valley I learned the intensity is there (in fact, greater, IMO) but it’s just different. Whereas “office politics” was aggressive in Boston, it was more subtle, but just as deadly in Silicon Valley. IIRC, Rahm Emanuel once commented that the difference between Chicago and Washington was that in Chicago they look at you when they stab you and in Washington you get stabbed in the back. That was a key difference I found, somewhat like the article says, between the two areas.

So which is better? Actually I think both are better than almost anywhere else (and I have Texas, Montana, and Nebraska as my hands-on anywhere elses). Boston does have that “old” feel to it, with lots of historical status whereas the general California attitude is much less structured and open. The casualness of dress is just the tip of the iceberg as a difference. The living I liked better in the Bay Area, but I did miss some of the open intensity of the Boston area.

If any of you reading this are from outside the U.S. and contemplating a visit here, I recommend both areas as the most interesting in the U.S. Neither is easy to really feel as an outsider, but both have plenty to explore.


About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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