Tell me about Boston.
August 31, 2011 12:25 PM   Subscribe

Potential move to Boston coming up. What's the area like? Its personality, its cost of living aside from rent? Is commuting via car/motorcycle awful? What are some safe, quiet neighborhoods with good schools near(ish) Cambridge?*

What else might we like to know as a family moving from the southwest coast? What do we not know enough to ask about?

(And what's with the broker's fee on rentals? Is that par for the course in that area?)

*Husband would be working half a mile from the Kendall/MIT station.
posted by moira to Travel & Transportation around Boston, MA (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also, I really hated winters when I lived in Utah. Is this a very bad idea, or are there fantastic ways of coping and staying warm that I never discovered?
posted by moira at 12:27 PM on August 31, 2011

Best answer: Great! Boston is very nice. If you're looking for good public schools around Cambridge, my money would be on Arlington, which is lovely. In the area, 1 month's rent is a typical broker's fee for rentals; I don't know how much rental stock is available around Arlington. I do hate to mention it, but Boston really does tend to move on a 9/1 (and, to a lesser extent, 6/1) lease cycle. You will have far less to choose from on dates other than those (though there are always properties available).

If your husband is working so close to the Kendall/MIT T stop, I'd just take the T from Alewife. Commuting by car is a hassle here. There are also buses. Friends of mine make that commute by public transportation daily.

Particularly on that side of the Charles, it's a very intelligent, multicultural crowd, and there's great historical attractions (Lexington/Concord/Walden Pond/Minuteman Trail). I find that Boston is cliquey--whether it's old Brahmans, MIT or Harvard folks, Swedish expats, artists--there's more cross pollenization in other places. But who knows how it compares to what you're used to.

Fortunately, there is a MeFi clique, too.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:37 PM on August 31, 2011

Also, I really hated winters when I lived in Utah. Is this a very bad idea, or are there fantastic ways of coping and staying warm that I never discovered?

No. If you hate winter, and your daily life requires going outside, Boston is maybe not a place you should move. Seriously. I grew up in Boston and lived almost my whole life in New England, but now that we have been in North Carolina for several years, I know I will never return to live there.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:39 PM on August 31, 2011

Best answer: Long underwear is key for surviving winter in Boston. Also invest in some sort of sun lamp thing, as the sun goes down "wicked early", as they say up there.
posted by novalis_dt at 12:42 PM on August 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Meh, winters aren't so bad - the ocean tempers the climate more than in Utah, at least. Boston is a wonderful small city - very bikeable, good public transport, smart people, good food and culture.

Arlington, Belmont, and Newton are all within decent commutes of Cambridge and have great schools.

I paid one month rent to a broker once, it wasn't really worthwhile, but seemed par for the course. Other times I paid no fees at all.
posted by ldthomps at 12:43 PM on August 31, 2011

Best answer: Boston and Cambridge are both, in my mind, great cities. It's fairly liberal, highly focused on academia*, healthcare and tech; but also has a deep-rooted sense of history that you won't find in the newer cities out west. The city is small enough to be walkable (and when I was in university) I loved walking from, say, Kenmore Square and Fenway Park to the harbor, which was pretty much the length of the city, and do-able in a relaxed couple of hours.

1 month or half month broker's fees for rentals are fairly standard, but (thanks to competition from Craigslist) there are a number of apartments available for no fee. It just takes a little more time to find them.

Owning a car to get around the city isn't in your best interest. The streets are a maze, especially if you're used to a grid system, and parking can be expensive or dicey. Car insurance also tends to be expensive due to lack of real competition in the state.

Also, owning a motorcycle is, at best, a half year proposition in New England due to the way winter affects the city's road system.

Towns with good schools commutable to Cambridge? Brookline, Belmont, Arlington are the closest quasi-suburbs that immediately border Cambridge and have good schools. In Belmont and Arlington, you're also more likely to find apartments that are more spacious than apartments in Cambridge, Somerville or Belmont (Brookline can be expensive though) Further out, you're looking at neighborhoods that border the 128 orbital: Newton, Lexington and (maybe) Winchester, but these are truly suburbs and have a separate personality from the city altogether.

Seasons wise -- winter is snowy but manageable, springs are wet, summers are humid, and autumn is magical. Seriously, the worst dog days of summer are totally bearable by the imminent prospect of a crisp and beautiful fall day.

* -- (Harvard University and its affiliated operations is the largest local employer, especially if one counts its involvment in Partners Healthcare, which operates most of the local hospitals)
posted by bl1nk at 12:51 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm from Boston but don't live there now. Winters will be cold but not as snowy as Utah. They will suck if you don't like winter.

As for neighborhoods - your budget will be a huge factor. Cambridge has great schools, as do the other towns mentioned above (Brookline, Arlington, Newton) but all of these areas have very high costs of living. What's your housing budget?

Commuting from nearby towns to Kendall Square shouldn't be too bad if you stay off the major highways (90, 95). I've heard driving can be terrifying for newcomers, but I learned how to drive in Boston, so I hate driving anywhere else. :)
posted by lunasol at 12:52 PM on August 31, 2011

Best answer: If you go the Craigslist route, as many people do, you should be able to avoid a broker's fee.

Winter isn't so bad, except for February, which is always terrible.

+1 for train commuting, especially if you live in Arlington. You can park at Alewife and then take the Red Line (which is by far the best line) to Kendall/MIT.

"Personality" varies a lot by exactly where you are. Just as some examples, where your husband will be working is mostly MIT students/employees and, for some reason, good restaurants. Heading west on Mass Ave from there, you go through crunchy/offbeat Central Square, bourgie Harvard Square, and Porter Square (home of authentic Japanese food and the huge 24-hour Shaws) before hitting Arlington.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:55 PM on August 31, 2011

Best answer: (and then once you're in Arlington, you have kind of a foodie-haven suburb, more conservative than Cambridge but more liberal than the suburbs further west, north, or south)
posted by oinopaponton at 12:59 PM on August 31, 2011

Best answer: oh, secret pro-tip that locals only learn after a few years in the city and moving around: one of the most significant factors in determining your social circle will be which side of the Charles you live on.

People in Jamaica Plain and Brookline don't hang out that much with people in Cambridge and Somerville. It's less of an attitudinal thing (JP's Centre Street is not that much different culturally from Cambridge's Central Square) and more of the way the city's transport system is organized. Crossing the river on the T or the bus system can be a pain in the ass. So, if you work in Cambridge and want to be able to associate with work colleagues, you should consider living in Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington or Belmont. If you want a separate social circle from work, then look at Brookline, Newton or (if you can afford it) Beacon Hill or Back Bay.
posted by bl1nk at 1:04 PM on August 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I moved to the Boston area 3 years ago after growing up in the south and attending school in Pennsylvania. Like any major metropolitan area in the U.S., there are good things and bad things about living here. Traffic can be a nightmare on certain highways in certain directions at certain times of day (just like anywhere else). The T is a great option if you live and work close enough to it, although it has its unreliable moments from time to time. People love to grouse about local politics (as if corruption and political stalemates doesn't exist anywhere else)

I've found the area to be quite pleasant. I regularly bike the Minuteman Bikeway between Bedford and Cambridge, and it's not that bad to bike all the way into the city during nice weather. There are so many great historical and scenic areas to explore. The coast of Maine is just a couple of hours away, the mountains of NH and Vermont are about 3-4 hours, and Montreal is 5 hours.

The weather is wonderful for about 9 months out of the year. Especially coming from the ridiculously hot and humid south, the summers here in New England are wonderful. It can still be a bit humid, but the temperatures are usually in the 80s, with maybe only a handful of days hotter than that. The only downside is most places here were built before the advent of central air conditioning, so you'll probably have to deal with window or through-wall a/c units that are noisier and less efficient. Fall is gorgeous.

Winter can be cold, windy, and snowy, but I haven't found it to be that miserable. I enjoy the snow (for a while), and I live in an apartment complex that handles clearing the sidewalks and parking spaces. All I have to do is clear off and move my car after it snows. So maybe I'm a bit spoiled in that regard. The key to staying warm in the winter is appropriate clothing. I always silently scoffed at people who wore hats, until I tried one and realized what an idiot I had been for walking around with my head exposed to 20-degree temperatures all those years. Get a good pair of gloves that can be cinched tight under or over your coat sleeves, so snow doesn't get in when you're shoveling, having snowball fights, etc. The same goes for a sturdy pair of boots. So much of my discomfort during my first few northern winters was a direct result of trying to make my paltry southern winter clothing work in an environment that it was not designed for. Pants that repel water and dry quickly are important. Jeans do not keep you warm and will just get very wet from the snow clinging to them. Long underwear or pants with insulating liners will make a world of difference.

Arlington might be a nice town for you. East Arlington, in particular, has a nice residential atmosphere with a lot of things walkable (including the Alewife T stop). It's a dry town which, according to a friend of mine who lives there, discourages some of the rowdier college kids from renting there.
posted by Nothlit at 1:07 PM on August 31, 2011

Nothlit, Arlington has liquor stores, doesn't it? Or is that not what you meant?
posted by teragram at 1:20 PM on August 31, 2011

Best answer: Get yourself & your family tall, warm, waterproof boots (for slush season, Feb-April), and warm, waterproof coats. Pea coats are fine most of the time, but when you have to walk/bus/T home in the snow or sleet, you'll end up miserable.

Be aware of colleges in the areas where you're looking--you probably don't want to be surrounded by rowdy undergrads. Thus, avoid certain parts of Allston/Brighton, JP, and Somerville. I don't know how rowdy off-campus MIT and Harvard students get, so maybe keep an eye out in Cambridge as well!

Also, if you end up in an apartment without laundry, be conscious of where the closest laundromats are. You're gonna have to make that schlep all winter! It can work, though. My laundromat in Somerville was kept squeaky clean and warm all season long, so it wasn't a total nightmare.

Look carefully at the windows in the apartments you see, and ask about the type of heat used in the building. I lived in multiple places where the windows were so old, they had ropes & pulleys attached, and were not much better at insulation than actual holes in the walls. It made it expensive/impossible to keep the apartment warm in the winter. $300+ a month just to keep the temperature at 66. Blech. This isn't the norm, for sure, just something to keep a look out for if you aren't used to being in very old buildings.

Car insurance is going to be very, very expensive. I was lucky and was able to register my car under my parents' name in NH--we could cover all three cars in NH for less than what it would've cost me to insure my one car in MA. Also consider the toll that winter driving will take on your vehicle. You will need front wheel drive for sure, and there will be salt and sand-related problems after years of use. Make sure you always have plenty of wiper fluid and replace your wiper blades regularly. Wash the car a few times each winter to cut down on the salt & sand buildup on your paint & undercarriage. Keep a snow shovel in your trunk and lock de-icer in your purse. Get a long, sturdy combo ice scraper/brush for each car. If I had had a car new enough to merit it, a remote starter would have been a heavenly luxury on winter mornings--and evenings.

If you do choose to have a car or cars in the city, be sure to ask your realtor or landlord about parking, especially on-street parking, permits, and snow emergency parking. You want to be up on such things long before the need arises.

Read up on tenant rights in Boston--just to be safe. They are some of the best in the nation, as I unfortunately had occasion to find out (I was poor and lived in hellholes; I'm sure it won't be a problem for you).

Please don't be afraid of my super negative advice! If I had a choice, I would move back to Boston RIGHT THIS MINUTE! I miss it terribly--the food, the people, the's a wonderful place to live. I'm just sharing with you the things that were hard, uncomfortable lessons to learn, in the hopes that you can avoid some of the unpleasant things and focus on the positives! Yay! Please MeMail me if you have any general questions about my experience, though it has been seven years since I left the city. You'll have a wonderful adventure!
posted by Fui Non Sum at 1:41 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Streets, sidewalks, and supermarket aisles tend to be narrow and cramped. In compensation, these places often have character, with interesting architecture and lots of trees. There aren't many places to see wide-open sky. Shopping and dining is clustered together in small storefronts along main streets and major squares, while big-box stores tend to be in out-of-the-way corners of town. A lot of the housing stock is two-family or triple-decker houses, so you're likely to have a neighbor on the other side of your wall, ceiling or floor. Driving can be very confusing at first, with numerous one-way streets, unmarked turn-only lanes, and in many areas, street signs are tiny or absent altogether. Strangers are less likely to strike up friendly conversations in public, but I'm not sure if that's a Northeast thing or just a city thing.

The aforementioned narrow streets and sidewalks are one of the more unpleasant things about winters here, in my opinion. Walking, driving, and parking can all be difficult when snowbanks get high. If you have a car, it's worth trying to get off-street parking if possible. Otherwise you'll be responsible for shoveling your own space, and moving your car out of the way during snow emergencies.

Older housing can be drafty and expensive to heat in winter, but at least you can survive without AC in the summers. Some buildings have oil furnaces requiring periodic deliveries to refill the tank, so if you'll be responsible for your own utilities, gas heating is more convenient. Two winter tricks I've been slow to learn (I'm from Texas) are how to tie a scarf properly so it actually seals the top of your coat, and wearing waterproof boots when outside. Change into indoor shoes once you get to your home or office.
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 1:41 PM on August 31, 2011

One downside that hasn't yet been mentioned: people in Cambridge/Boston seem to me to be generally rude and unfriendly. This was an unpleasant surprise when I moved here and continues to grate, three years later.
posted by ewiar at 2:06 PM on August 31, 2011

Arlington is indeed a dry town. There are liquor stores in Arlington.

The dry town label refers to the fact there are no bars in Arlington (businesses that only sell alcohol and drinks). There are restaurants with bar service in them but you are only allowed to order two drinks. If you want to order a third drink, the bartender cannot legally serve it to you unless you order food.
posted by seppyk at 2:18 PM on August 31, 2011

Best answer: In regards to your actual questions...

Is commuting via car/motorcycle awful?

In general, if you will have standard 9-5ish type business hours and would be working at Kendall/MIT, commuting by car/motorcycle will be awful if you previously had simple surbuban/coastal commutes. In reality, it's fairly manageable. If I was working near Kendall/MIT, I would try very hard to get a place that has simple access to the metro red line because I hate grinding commutes.

Its personality, its cost of living aside from rent?

A lot of people are mentioning Cambridge, Somerville, Arlington, Belmont, etc. I could probably throw in Medford, Watertown, and Waltham into that mix as well. It is important to note that there are many neighborhoods in each of these towns with a unique character of their own.

Cambridge will have a lot of college kids, but there will be a vast difference between living near Porter Square (young professionals, families, and college kids), Kendall/MIT (closer to the city, beginning to get more urban), and North Cambridge (families and some rent-controlled properties). They all may be Cambridge, but the character of each neighborhood is different. Do your homework on the neighborhood before committing.
posted by seppyk at 2:29 PM on August 31, 2011

Response by poster: As Dixon Ticonderoga said, I'm seeing a lot of two- and three-family houses. How does that work? Does each family have a separate entryway? Which bits of the house are shared? (Basement? Attic? Garage? Porch?)
posted by moira at 4:32 PM on August 31, 2011

Response by poster: Fantastic answers, by the way. Very helpful.
posted by moira at 4:33 PM on August 31, 2011

Best answer: I'm seeing a lot of two- and three-family houses. How does that work? Does each family have a separate entryway? Which bits of the house are shared? (Basement? Attic? Garage? Porch?)

When you walk in the front door, you see a staircase and a door. The door leads to one apartment, the staircase leads up either to one two-story apartment or to two one-story apartments. Porch (for hanging out) and basement (for storage and, if you're lucky, laundry) are shared. If there's a garage, that's usually up to the tenants to figure out. I've actually never had access to an attic in a triple decker, so I'm not sure who gets it.
posted by oinopaponton at 4:36 PM on August 31, 2011

Best answer: My humble ranking of commuting options:
- Gold: Live on the red line.
- Silver: Live on the the orange line (Medford, perhaps) and transfer at Downtown Crossing. Or live near one of the inner commuter rail stops (Belmont, Waltham, etc.) and transfer at Porter or South Station. Or live on a bus line that goes to Kendall (North Cambridge, maybe? I don't have a bus map handy.)
- Bronze: A bus + subway commute. Or live in the suburbs, drive to Alewife, pick up the red line ($7/day in parking).
- Less than bronze: A multi-bus commute.

Note than none of these involve actually driving to Kendall, which is a good way to learn to hate one's life. None of them involve biking, either, which is the best way to get around in spring/summer/fall but tough in winter.
posted by orangejenny at 5:23 PM on August 31, 2011

Best answer: I moved to the Boston area (Somerville but kind of where Somerville/Medford/Cambridge/Arlington all come together - these are all great areas and I would recommend any of them) about a year ago and am enjoying it, although I don't expect it to be my long-term home (I'm halfway through grad school and will most likely move away once I've graduated). I found my place through a broker, and yes there was a fee (I think it was ~ half a month's rent) - but you can always go through Craigslist if you don't want to deal with that. My place is a two-family house - my landlord and his wife live on the first floor, and I live on the second floor. We have separate front doors from the front porch and a shared backdoor (with stairs up to the rear of my floor, but I've been asked not to use this entrance). There is no basement or attic, the porch is theoretically shared but I never use it). A lot of similar houses have only one front door though, with a second door for each apartment at each flight of stairs. There is no laundry in the house; the nearest laundromat is a couple blocks away - I second the above suggestion to consider laundromat proximity when looking for a place.

Driving: I have a car, and have found it to be useful, but I could definitely function without one. Registering my car, getting insurance, and getting a parking permit were all expensive. Street cleanings are frequent and I often forget about them, so my parking tickets have been through the roof too (it is my understanding that in Cambridge if you do this they will just tow you - eek). Driving in this area is challenging and confusing (I've found it to be worse than DC, though not as bad as San Francisco), and parking is difficult as well if I'm outside of Somerville (Cambridge in particular sucks on this front if you're not a resident). I do live right next to several bus lines and about a mile away from the Davis Square T stop - being near the red line is definitely a major plus, and I think this is definitely something you should be aiming for if possible. This semester I'm going into Cambridge once a week for a class I'm cross-registered for at another school, and the commute is extremely easy. I like the T in general, although I wish it stayed open later (I would rate it negatively compared to DC and SF on this front - and obviously nowhere near the gold standard of NYC) - it is easy to stay out past closing time and end up having to pay for a cab home. Cambridge is a ton of fun and one of my goals for this year is to spend more time there - Somerville has a lot going for it but is a tad sleepier.

Weather: I love fall and spring here. Summer can be a little rough if you don't have air conditioning (I don't, and I'm pretty toasty right now despite my beautiful ceiling fans - if I had spent the summer in town I probably would have bought a window unit, but I just got back from 2.5 months in lovely cool SF and so haven't had to deal with too much heat), but you may be used to heat where you're coming from. It's really pretty mild compared to other places I've lived before (DC in August, oh my god); it's just that air conditioning is less standard. Winter can be very beautiful but I have a pretty hard time with it - it is COLD and LONG, and it gets dark really early (which really gets me down), and shoveling out my car is an epic pain (I am unpracticed in this - people who are used to it may not think it's such a big deal. Also I have a bad shoulder which makes it especially slow going). Garages seem to be very rare in my neighborhood; this may differ elsewhere. I have learned to love long underwear, and I've gotten more use out of my L.L. Bean boots in one winter than in the previous 5 or so years that I owned them.

People: when I first moved here I would have been inclined to agree with the comment above that says they're unfriendly - I've definitely been put off by people who seem short/snippy to my Southern sensibilities, and strangers are really not interested in being your friend. However, once you get to know people, they really are ok. In the couple days that I've been back, I've had really pleasant chats with the folks at the local market, deli, liquor store, and pizza joint - who I hadn't seen all summer. It just takes a little time for people to warm up, I think. Because of the education/health/tech focus of the area, there are a lot of very bright, educated, interesting people around, and there are a sizable number of folks from other parts of the country or overseas. There is TONS of amazing ethnic food, lots of arts/culture, etc. I've seen some great concerts, been to some museums that would rank among my favorites anywhere in the world, and I take a dance class that I love at a local studio. It's also generally a pretty liberal area, and a politically engaged one. All that said, to me it feels a bit "small-town" compared to say New York or even DC (despite being about the same size as the latter) - I guess I would just say it's a little less "sophisticated" - this isn't necessarily a bad thing, just...a thing.

One other thing that is a general plus is proximity to other stuff - it is totally normal to spend a weekend in Vermont camping or skiing, or to take the train to NYC (despite all of Amtrak's flaws, I have really fallen in love with train rides). Western Mass, upstate NY, New Hampshire, Maine, and even Canada are all at your fingertips (obviously a car will be sort of key for at least some of these). Not that you need to leave - there is really a lot to do right around here. I'm single and childless, but it seems like it's a great place to raise a family. If there were more career options for me around here, I'd be thinking a lot more seriously about sticking around.
posted by naoko at 9:44 PM on August 31, 2011

Best answer: Boston winters will be, on a whole, worse than Utah, so if you truly hated Utah winters strongly reconsider moving to Boston.

(1) Massachusetts overall has fewer days of sun per year than Utah, and I think a lot of those days are in winter, where you can have weeks go by with the sky nothing but overcast from dawn till dusk. This makes January and February pretty tough if you like light or are affected by SAD.

(2) Boston is significantly farther north than Utah, so the shortest days in December and January are noticeably shorter.

(3) Boston is far east in the Eastern Time Zone. This means the sun rises earlier and sets earlier within that time zone (compared to, say, Ohio, where the sun will rise later and set later). Combined with (2) you get sunsets well before 5PM in winter. If you work traditional hours it will be dark long before you get home for 2-3 months of the year.

(4) Boston is right by the ocean. This moderates the winter temperatures so it doesn't get as cold as Utah (or even Western Mass) but it is a much more humid cold and this can feel colder to some people than the thermometer temperature might indicate.

(5) Snow tends to stick around awhile (see above lack of light) and in years with big snowstorms you'll end up with huge piles of snow, taller than your head, narrow streets, icy sidewalks (if people even bothered to shovel). It can be challenging to get around by foot or car, especially with small children.

There's a lot to like about Boston (and Cambridgeport is a great family-friendly neighborhood convenient to lots of stuff) but if you move there go into it with your eyes open re: winter.
posted by 6550 at 11:01 PM on August 31, 2011

Best answer: just chiming in some additional cents on naoko's points:
when I first moved here I would have been inclined to agree with the comment above that says they're unfriendly - I've definitely been put off by people who seem short/snippy to my Southern sensibilities, and strangers are really not interested in being your friend. However, once you get to know people, they really are ok.
I always feel like the stereotypical Bostonian (and Cantabrigian and Somervillian) "invests" in their friendships. They don't go into them lightly, but they tend to take them very seriously when they do choose to engage. An interesting flip side to it is knowing some Bostonians and New Englanders who've moved to cities like Seattle or SF or LA and then complaining bitterly about the flakiness of the residents and how a hundred people all seem to want to be your friend but none of them ever follow through on plans.
All that said, to me it feels a bit "small-town" compared to say New York or even DC (despite being about the same size as the latter) - I guess I would just say it's a little less "sophisticated" - this isn't necessarily a bad thing, just...a thing.
yeah, in the 10+ years that I've lived here, the city has always had a bit of a brain drain of individuals. People come here for school and stick around a few years, then realize that their chosen career path has limited opportunities in Boston and they move on to a city that offers more potential: NY (finance, art, music), DC (politics, law), or SF (Boston's got a decent tech/.com scene but the startup vibe is nowhere near as dynamic as SF) ... but then, hey, September rolls around and a bright fresh crop of grad and undergrad students come in to replace the slosses.

So, personally, what I find from that is that Bostonians are not quite as career obsessed as their peers in other cities. Some might see that as diminshed ambition or mediocrity though others might see it as more balanced and a more sane sense of priorities.
posted by bl1nk at 5:28 AM on September 1, 2011

Response by poster: We're not moving to Boston after all, but your answers were great. Thanks so much.
posted by moira at 4:39 PM on September 14, 2011

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