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Boston - Overview Back to Boston
 
American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes once called Boston "the hub of the solar system", but common usage has expanded to the now-current Hub of the Universe. This half-serious term is all you need to know to understand Boston's complicated self-image. Vastly important in American history, and for centuries the seat of the USA's social elite, Boston lost prominence in the early twentieth century, largely to the cities of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Over the past two decades, Boston has regained political, cultural, and economic importance. Is it the center of everything? Don't expect a straight answer from a wry Bostonian.

The city was founded in 1630 by members of the Massachusetts colony, Puritan religious dissidents who had fled England to find freedom in the New World. It rapidly assumed a leading role in the fledgling New England region, with a booming economy based on trade with the Caribbean and Europe. The devastating Fire of 1760 destroyed much of the town, but within a few years the city had bounced back.

Boston was the center of America's revolutionary activity during the Colonial period; several of the first Revolutionary War skirmishes were fought there, including the Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, and the Battle of Bunker Hill; the battles of Lexington and Concord were fought nearby. The residents' ardent support of independence earned the city the nickname The Cradle of Liberty.

Throughout the 19th century, Boston continued to grow rapidly, assimilating outlying towns into the metropolitan core. Its importance in American culture was inestimable, and its economic and literary elite, the so-called Boston Brahmins assumed the mantle of aristocracy in the United States. Harvard College in nearby Cambridge became, and in many ways remains, America's premier center of learning.

At the same time, the city's working class swelled with immigrants from Europe. The huge Irish influx made Boston one of the most important Irish cities in the world -- in or out of Ireland. Gradually the Irish laborer population climbed into city's upper class, evidenced no better than by the continued importance of the Kennedy family in national politics.

From the early twentieth century until the 1970s, Boston's importance on the national stage waned. Cities in what was once the frontier, like Chicago, San Francisco, and later Los Angeles, shifted the nation's center of gravity away from liberty's cradle. In the past two decades, Boston's importance and influence has increased, due to growth in higher education, health care, high technology, and financial services. It remains America's higher educational center--during the school year, one in five Bostonians is a university student.

Boston's nicknames include "Beantown", "The Hub" (shortened from Oliver Wendell Holmes' phrase 'The Hub of the Universe'), "The City of Higher Learning" (due to the plethora of universities and colleges in the Boston area) and - particularly in the 19th century - "The Athens of America," on account of its great cultural and intellectual influence.


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