Birmingham to Boston
December 16, 2012 1:58 PM   Subscribe

Moving from Alabama to Boston to join a startup. How do I adjust to this new city and the startup culture there?

So 6 1/2 years ago I asked MeFi if I should move to Boston or Seattle... and then I chose Seattle. I loved it there, and after 4 years I moved back to Alabama in December 2012 to join a tech company here.

Flash forward 2 years and I've joined a Boston-based sports startup and we're moving again.

This isn't my first rodeo. I cannot imagine a bigger cultural adjustment than moving from rural Alabama to the heart of Seattle. Having spent the last two years in Birmingham (whose culture is incredibly underrated) I don't expect the adjustment to be as difficult as some might want to paint.

What do I (we -- 4 years married to my wife) need to know about the city in general and the startup/tech culture there? (We've traveled there a handful of times, but never in the winter.)

One thing people told me when I moved to Seattle was "Invest is a good waterproof jacket that you can take anywhere... because you will October through June. That, alongside "pedestrians rule", "no one in Seattle likes Starbucks, but everyone drinks Starbucks when they have to", and forewarning about the "Seattle freeze".

(Also, if any of you ever want to meet up for beers or coffee, holler via direct message.)
posted by bamassippi to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I did the rural South to Boston move for college. It was a pretty serious culture clash (though I think that if you are doing this as an adult with a career, it will probably be easier).

Boston is cold as balls. Seriously. It snows a lot, and the snow accumulates on the ground between snowfalls as opposed to melting away quickly. Also the streets aren't that well plowed, so you find yourself wading through a slushy salty possibly iced-over muddy mess every day. I'd at least invest in good winter boots that can handle mud and salt. You'll also want a warm coat, sweaters, hat, gloves, and scarf.

You guys will probably want a few changes of each item, for variety's sake -- one thing that really contributes to the winter doldrums, in my experience (as a woman who somewhat cares about clothing), is having to wear the same warm outer-things every day. You start to feel as if the winter is an endless Groundhog Day esque miserable shitstorm. Oh, this fucking hat again? Kill me now.

It doesn't start to get warm in the spring until April or May. You will be wearing a coat every day from November through the end of April, at the very least. Possibly longer if you guys are cold-natured people or don't adjust easily to the climate. In New York it was really helpful to have a lighter "spring" coat and shoes that are still up to slogging through mud and slush but aren't something an eskimo would wear. Not sure if this is as true for Boston, as I only spent one spring there.

Everybody is weirdly obsessed with Dunkin Donuts and there are DD's everywhere a la McDonald's, Starbucks, etc. in other cities.

Also, people are not polite in the way that Southerners are polite, though that may be easier for you to deal with after living in Seattle. That said, as a Southerner living outside the South, I find that I still have cultural misunderstandings based on politeness. It's worth saying that it's not that New Englanders aren't nice people, there just isn't the same attention paid to surface expressions of politeness. Which can be a little off-putting at times.
posted by Sara C. at 2:14 PM on December 16, 2012

A friend who teaches at Wellesley says she hates how New Englanders won't speak to one unless they have a reason....which IS true in a way, and one of the reasons why it's my favorite part of the country.
posted by brujita at 2:23 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

I, too, made the move from Alabama to Boston for college. One of the things that seems insignificant, but becomes frustrating really fast: there are many streets that lack street signs. Don't assume you can use written turn by turn directions to get you anywhere. GPS is helpful, even for walking in unfamiliar locations, not just driving.

The T (as the transit system of subways and trolleys is called) is quite useful. It took me three or so years of living there, however, before I realized that the distance between stations is usually quite short; unless you're carrying something heavy or are unable to walk long distances, it almost never makes sense to take the T just one stop. Walk instead.

Boston is more expensive than Birmingham, generally, and I have been told that it is more expensive than Seattle, too.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:38 PM on December 16, 2012

 Not sure if this is as true for Boston, as I only spent one spring there.

Definitely applies to Boston.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:40 PM on December 16, 2012

One thing people told me when I moved to Seattle was "Invest is a good waterproof jacket that you can take anywhere... because you will October through June.

Boots. Boots. Coat. Boots. Boots.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:51 PM on December 16, 2012

The lack of street signs is epic. I moved from the south to Chicago, and from Chicago to Boston. Chicago is laid out on a grid, a peach to understand and navigate once you know the system. Boston is laid out according to the whim of ancient cows, and largely unlabeled. BRING A MAP. And possibly a compass.

That said, I disagree with the comment about the lack of politeness in the Northeast. One set of our neighbors is amazing and friendly - they've been nothing but helpful, friendly and warm to us since we moved in. On the other side, more really friendly people. Across the street, my hairdresser, also very friendly. To either side of her, I have no idea who those people are; we've never spoken. To me, it's much the same as any other place I've lived - friendly people and distant people mixed all in together.

Also have to disagree about the need for a coat constantly from November to April. Maybe it's because I came from the south by way of five years in Chicago, but I never put on a coat until the end of December, and then it's just a fleece-lined hoodie unless it's raining; then something a bit more waterproof. I did the big fluffy coat thing for a couple of years after I got to Boston, but it's really more hassle than it's worth; now I just wear a down jacket over a sweater on the coldest days. January and February, I add good gloves, good shoes with traction (I'm a fan of LL Bean's Snow Sneakers), ear warmers and a hat. I bike commute to my train station these days, and even on the bike, last week, the hoodie and gloves were all I needed.

You can't park in downtown Boston for less than the price of an arm. If you're working downtown, and your parking isn't subsidized by your employer, get used to riding the T. The T is sort of like BART in the Seattle area, only everywhere, and not as upscale. Outside of Whole Foods and Trader Joes, there are very few places you need to be in the Boston area that the metro system (T plus commuter rail plus bus service) can't get you, and everybody takes public transportation if they're going into the city, unless they've got a very very good job or a very good reason not to.

Rent is expensive. More expensive than Seattle, from what I recall. Even outside of the city, if you're in one of the nicer 'burb's, you'll probably be paying more than you're used to for housing.

Seconding the city-wide obsession with Dunkin Donuts, which is a true competitor to Starbucks here, and possibly more ubiquitous.

Growing up in the South, I picked up things that probably would not go over well here if I were male, unaccented, or working at any place other than a touchy-feely highly diverse (in every conceivable way) health care organization. I still have a trace of my accent, which helps me get away with things like calling people "hon" or "honey" or "sweetie" - a habit I've never been able to break.
posted by kythuen at 3:02 PM on December 16, 2012

Also have to disagree about the need for a coat constantly from November to April. Maybe it's because I came from the south by way of five years in Chicago, but I never put on a coat until the end of December, and then it's just a fleece-lined hoodie unless it's raining; then something a bit more waterproof. I did the big fluffy coat thing for a couple of years after I got to Boston, but it's really more hassle than it's worth...

Yeah, this is because you spent five years living in far colder Chicago. Also notice you didn't drop the coat until you'd spent two years in Boston, which means seven total years in frigid snowy climates.

I would vehemently not recommend that OP and his wife follow this advice because they would be miserable if they did. Get coats at least for the first few years as you get acclimated to Boston winters.
posted by Sara C. at 3:08 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

About Boston:
In my experience Boston drivers are very aggressive about merging/cutting in, and that sort of thing. You may need to steel yourself when you're first getting used to driving there.

It will be useful to become interested in at least one Boston sports team. (I recommend the Red Sox if you're shopping around.)

About winter:
Buy winter stuff after you move, or by catalog/online from someone like LL Bean's (a big New England staple). The winter stuff they sell in the northeast will be better suited for real winter than what you can buy in Alabama.

Be aware that a hat, scarf, and mittens make a big difference to how warm you will be - so do not neglect these things. Ditto wool socks (Smartwool is a famously good brand of washable wool socks. Do not put wool items in the dryer.), and even thin long underwear. You will want to dress in layers, so you can shed your outer few layers once indoors - many buildings are kept very warm in winter so you'll be too hot if you can't shed some.

You will want good snow boots, with treads, which shouldn't be hard to find. Walk slower in snow because there can be hidden icy patches. It's pretty common to have one pair of boots for the trip to work, and then a pair of indoor shoes that you change into at the office. Many people in the northeast take their boots/shoes off when entering a house and there's often a pile of boots by the door, making a wet salty puddle.

If you will be driving:
You will want to learn about winter driving, driving in snow, getting your car out of a minor snowstuck spot. Do not drive in ice, period. There are a few previous Askme's about winter driving which would be worth checking out. You'll want to equip your car with snow tires and a shovel/some cat litter in the trunk. If you're starting the car up after a big snow, clear the whole car of snow before starting. You may be tempted to leave the "loaf" of snow along the top of the car, since it's hard to reach, but clear the whole thing - that loaf will fly off in big chunks and hit the cars behind you once you're up to speed, so it's rude not to clear it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:22 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, in snowy places, look into your responsibilities for clearing your sidewalk. Some places it is the homeowner/tenant's responsibility to shovel their own patch of sidewalk within a certain time period, and you can get a warning or ticket if you don't shovel it by then.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:24 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

In my experience Boston drivers are very aggressive about merging/cutting in, and that sort of thing. You may need to steel yourself when you're first getting used to driving there.

OP is from Birmingham; he's good to go there. :-)

(I live a bit south of BHM)
posted by randomkeystrike at 3:30 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, whatever you thought was "aggressive driving" living in the South or Midwest, and probably the PNW as well, is vehemently NOT aggressive compared to Boston driving. I'm a hardened NYC and SoCal driver, and I still shudder at the idea of Boston drivers.
posted by Sara C. at 3:51 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think the really pernicious thing about (stereotypical) Boston driving is how aggression is combined with unpredictability. To be fair, part of it might be that driving in Boston is much more confusing than, say, driving in NYC, since almost nothing is on a grid (or even on straight lines) and lots of roads are one-way. Fortunately, Boston has good mass transit and is also pretty walkable so you can limit your exposure.

Avoid downtown on St. Patrick's Day.
posted by en forme de poire at 4:21 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

As someone who has lived in Boston for 6 years, I do not drive anywhere I haven't memorized the route for without a GPS.

Boston neighborhoods are very distinctive, moreso than other big cities I've lived in. Try to find one you like to live in.

The pizza here varies from awful to mediocre, and rarely achieves greatness. I'm not sure how that compares with either Seattle or Birmingham though.

Boston (especially Boston proper) is an extremely friendly city for walkers, and a somewhat less friendly city for biking; If you are at all inclined to those modes of transportation they are far easier to manage than driving.
posted by contrarian at 5:09 PM on December 16, 2012

I've driven about everywhere in the country *except* Boston, so I'll have to give you that one.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:29 PM on December 16, 2012

Another random winter tip: As you walk along, check the gutters/eaves of buildings you are going to walk alongside of for icicles. Don't walk along directly under the eaves of buildings after a heavy snow, or if you can see that the building has big icicles. Icicles and big snow clumps fall. You'll usually see a drip line in the snow; skirt a little ways out from that line.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:36 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, it's cold, traffic, etc.

But Boston has a really great startup culture! You will find so many meetups and industry groups around here. Check out TIE, ENET, Entretech, and the Cambridge Innovation Center, to name just a few.

I'm a startup lawyer in the "Innovation District" (Boston seaport area) -- message me if you have any questions about startups specifically, or want to grab a cup of coffee once you're here.
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:37 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Boots. BOOTS. And make sure they're waterproof, have decent traction, and go past mid-calf if possible. The curbside slush puddles can be absolutely epic and are frequently much deeper than they look, and even in the fancy parts of town (the Back Bay, Beacon Hill) sidewalks aren't necessarily very well shoveled or salted and can be extremely slippery. As someone mentioned above, the snow often sticks around for along time, which means when you've had a snowy spell you get these giant hills of shoveled or plowed snow along the curb that you then have to climb up and over to cross the damn street. Again, this happens even in very nice and well-traveled parts of downtown -- people trample the snow down into a densely packed, icy disaster and it lingers for ages.

On a similar note, if you own a car and park it on the street (or in a private driveway, as opposed to a garage) be prepared to spend a half hour or so digging yourself out after the plow goes by and blocks you in with a foot-tall mound of icy snow.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:31 PM on December 16, 2012

I'm not from the South (I grew up in northern NY State) but I've been working at a startup in downtown Boston for the past 3.5 years, so I can speak to the tech scene here.

Many, perhaps most, techies live on the Red Line. If you will be working in Boston or Cambridge, consider renting or buying a place on that line, especially on the Cambridge/Somerville end. That said, the red line has been more fragile in recent years--it seems like there are delays every time it rains or snows. They did some repairs last winter and things have been somewhat better since. But the green or orange lines might (might!) be better options.

Regarding the driving, I've been living here on and off for the past 10-15 years and I think drivers have been getting better. I've also noticed a decrease in native Boston accents (like T drivers/announcers), which may be related. Or maybe I've adjusted my driving style. Regardless, you will still have to get used to the small irregular streets and the rotaries.

I haven't lived in Seattle, but obviously Boston has no equivalents to Microsoft or Amazon. All the companies that get big enough get sold or slowly die off. Some of the bigger companies (Google and Microsoft) have outposts here. That said, there are a bunch of small companies doing interesting things. The ruby/rails scene is fairly strong; Pat Shaughnessy is one of the foremost ruby writers and regularly presents stuff at the Boston Ruby Group meetups.

More companies here are young, and so newer technologies come in to vogue sooner than elsewhere. You can still get a job knowing Python or Java or C++, but Ruby is where it's at. There are probably startups that use newer crazier languages like Clojure or Haskell, but I haven't looked at job listings in a while. If you're a neophile, you will be entertained for a good amount of time.

One of my coworkers said that you always want to be on good terms with your colleagues, because the tech community is pretty small and you never know who you're going to end up working with again.

The Boston tech scene is definitely not for everyone, but I've been enjoying it, and I hope you do too!
posted by A dead Quaker at 10:13 PM on December 16, 2012

The pizza in Boston is fantastic compared to Seattle. You will be disappoint by donuts and coffee, though.

Warm winter clothes. Defensive driving. A good GPS (though Seattle's layout is also odd). Neighborhoods mean a lot (though that's true in Seattle as well).

Welcome aboard! MeMail me with specific questions if you like.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:00 AM on December 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Welcome to Boston! It's cold, but not That cold. I own a parka and wear it maaaaybe 2-4 days a year. I maybe wear my hiking boots a couple of the snowiest days a year. I swear we've been hit hard by global warming - I've seen roses still in bloom in Cambridge as recently as last week.

The Red Line is the T line you'll probably want to be near. There are nice public transit apps that can help. Driving really isn't that bad, once you're in the mind-set - but then I largely avoid it on weekdays in favor of biking, as biking is often faster, easier, and cheaper. Boston isn't as bikeable as Seattle, but it's getting better by the minute.

Many places have shoveling requirements, which you will be Very Grateful for as you walk around. There are also snow emergency parking requirements you want to keep an eye out for. Parking is often a bigger deal than driving, if you have a car. If you're looking to buy vs rent, watch for towns like Cambridge and Somerville where the taxrates for owner/occupiers are Cheap (in Cambridge they subtract the first $200k from your home value).

People aren't weirdly overfriendly like they were in my midwestern youth, but they're also most often happy to help if you have a reasonable question. Boston is reserved, not rude (unless you're wearing a Yankees cap). Witness this thread, we Love to be smartypants. Oh! And there are frequent fun IRL events in Cambridge - like trivia - so join us!
posted by ldthomps at 12:13 PM on December 17, 2012

Lived in Seattle for 20 years, been in Boston for 3.

The pizza in Boston is pretty crappy, but then the, pizza in Seattle is pretty crappy too, except for Tutta Bella. How is it that a place with such great Italian heritage can't make a decent Neopolitan pizza, I do not understand.

Everything they say about coats and drivers are true. Way less good Asian food, and the Ethiopian cuisine seems to be way further along the path to Americanization, too.

Tons of smart, energetic folks out here--it's a really invigorating place to think and work. Lots of fantastic cultural offerings, the music culture in particular puts Seattle to shame.

Also, geography up here in this part of the country is so compressed. NYC is a cheap 3 hour bus ride away, and there are several significant urban centers between here and there. Lots to see and do, easy to get around inexpensively--that's really cool, and far different than the PNW or, I suspect, Birmingham.

Good luck on your move!
posted by Sublimity at 4:12 PM on December 17, 2012

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