I work in Copley Square, one of the most photogenic neighborhoods of Boston. Once a week, if not more often, I cross the plaza to my office, by threading my way through crowds of Asian tourists. They live up to (down to?) the stereotype by pointing subcompact digital cameras in every direction and snapping pictures: some with family in front, some without. They’re not lacking for vistas: the square is bordered by the Boston Public Library to the west, Trinity Church to the east, the Hancock Tower to the south and Patrick Henry’s childhood CVS to the north. Amateur photographers pose their family members, who stand with hands folded in front of their waists or with arms outstretched. Look! Boston!
The reason Asian tourists descend on Copley Square in flocks of thirty or more has nothing to do with the square’s history and everything to do with buses. The tour buses that serve the Boston area make this neighborhood a regular stop. Copley Square didn’t play a role in Boston’s revolutionary history – in fact, it was a swamp back then – but it’s certainly photogenic. Tour bus companies recognized the square was photogenic and began including it on their tours. And now strangers to the city get out and take photos because the tour bus stops here.
The history of Boston is neither so old, nor so mysterious, that we have to argue over which came first: did the tour buses decide Copley Square was a point of interest, or was it Copley’s status as a point of interest that got tour buses to stop here? The answer is clearly the latter. Yet seeing tourists pass through Copley Square always gives me an opportunity to revisit it with a stranger’s eyes. And I’m reminded of how much institutions – like tour bus companies – shape our view of the world, while the world also shapes the way these institutions grow.
And I hope that, in every busload, there’s at least one sullen teenager or cranky grandma who gets off the coach, draws their collar up against the St. James winds, and asks, “What’s so special about this place, anyway?”