by Maryka Gillis
I am writing this from one of two coffee shops, not including the six Dunkin’ Donuts, in my small outside-of-Boston hometown. Like so many CC students, my hometown is 45 minutes outside of the city, so my freshman year I said I’m from “Boston” until I was challenged frequently enough with, “From, like, Boston-Boston, or from outside of Boston?” that I changed my answer to “North of Boston” (pronounced “northaboston”). When I tell people this, they have one of two reactions. One response is, “Oh, I’m from outside of Boston (“outsidaboston”) too, where are you from?” We exchange suburb names and every once in a while try to find a mutual friend. The other response is simply an “Oh” and a mildly patronizing, presumptuous smile. Outside of Boston. That’s a CC trope we’re all comfortable with.
I’m sure many “outsidaboston” natives would protest the classic upper crust suburbia stereotypes often associated with our towns. In fact, many are unaware of the presumptions. Until I started at CC, I was unaware that Massachusetts and the rest of New England are often perceived as exceptionally wealthy areas. To a degree, it’s true—Massachusetts has one of the highest median incomes in the country, after a few other, mostly east coast states. However, that’s statewide and glosses over regional and city-specific socioeconomic makeups. Growing up here, I had no idea about the assumptions associated with small cities outside of big east coast cities. I’d heard that east coasters were less friendly as a demographic, which was by no means shocking, and I knew Massachusetts drivers were “Massholes”—also unsurprising. But I was surprised to learn anyone would assume my little working class hometown was anything other than economically average, at best. Growing up, I was more familiar with assumptions people have within New England. People from across Massachusetts tend to think of Gloucester as a provincial town with a much stronger accent than the rest of the state. A strong accent, the assumption goes, means less education and more economic disadvantages. Gloucester is also known for its beaches, its supposed pregnancy pact and the heroin problem we developed in the ‘90s that never really went away.
Gloucester was founded on cod fishing in the 1600s, and fishing has always been an important part of the town’s economy. In the early 1900s, there was a huge influx of immigrants, particularly Sicilian fishermen. My family was among them. At my high school graduation, more than half of the last names announced were Italian, and our mascot was the Fisherman. My heritage is intrinsically linked to this small island town. I was born in the same maternity ward as my mother, my grandmother and my great-grandmother (and, as far as I know, her mother as well). When I’m home, I live less than half a mile from the building we, and the rest of my maternal family, were born in. I am not a unique case for my hometown.
There is no shortage of fourth and fifth generation fishermen in Gloucester. Despite government regulations that have restricted catches in the past 20 years, fishing is still very much a part of our culture. Besides the beaches, whale watches and seafood that attract tourists from other parts of the country and beyond, our main attraction is the Man at the Wheel statue. The Gloucester Fishermen’s Memorial is an eight-foot bronze sculpture of a captain looking out to sea, inscribed with “They that go down to the sea in ships 1623-1923” and flanked by plaques etched with names of fishermen who died at sea since 1716.
The town is hard working and gritty. Its diverse socioeconomic makeup resulted in a running rivalry with the small town with which we share our island. Growing up, we considered them snobby and boring, and they called our home a dangerous, dirty place. Visiting a high school friend recently, I met her friends from a different town closer to Boston. When she introduced us, she said, “They always joke about how grimy Gloucester is, I’m glad you’re here to back me up,” to which one of them responded, “Yeah, that’s cause you grew up with a bunch of rednecks.”
Gloucester is a 25-square-mile city with a population of between 25,000 and 30,000 people, depending on the season. Beyond simple demographics, Gloucester is a dynamic, coastal city with a dozen beaches, a hundred-year-old Italian fishing neighborhood, an art colony, no shortage of potholed one-way streets and way too many hair salons and pizza places. When I leave, I miss the smell of the cold salt spray and the seagull whitewash on my windshield that stays until it rains—windshield wiper fluid has nothing on digested crab bits. Though it can be exhausting to see former teachers and peers every time I go downtown, it is comforting that my preschool teacher remembers my name. I got endless amusement from smoking a cigarette with my high school health teacher outside a bar where, incidentally, the bouncer was shot at a few weeks later. (That bouncer also, incidentally, had a fling with my preschool teacher and sent endless Facebook messages to my good friend when she turned 21.)
There is a deeply engrained identity that doesn’t exist in many places. Though the close relation of many residents mandates a genealogy check with grandma before dating, it also contributes to a sense of unity that extends beyond family relations. The amalgam of nonnative cultures with lineages too old to trace results in a close-knit, attentive community. People tend to stick around.
Hearing false conceptions of my hometown and region and then feeling defensive is not remotely unique. It is a common experience, and I’m interested in how preconceptions can impact the perception people have of their origins, as well as how we form and can begin to deconstruct assumptions.
Each time I go home after being gone for some time, I have new questions about the Gloucester of my childhood compared to its reality. With more perspective on other places, my perception of the city has become more objective. The most valuable realization I’ve had since going away for school is that though my home is one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been, there are so many other places that, if they were home to me, may be equally as special. It is not only the home aspect that makes a place so familiar and special, though—it is also the degree to which we know a place. The more familiar I am with any place, the more I am able to appreciate its nuances.
When I notice presumptions about an area, I question my own perceptions of other places. Since leaving my hometown I have been trying to deconstruct my assumptions and instead experience the concrete and abstract realities of a place. When I tell people at home that I go to school in Colorado, they inevitably ask about the skiing, craft beers and recreational marijuana. More often than not I let them live with their preconceptions, as I let assumptions about my outsidaboston town sit. But every once in a while I tell them there’s more to Colorado than that. There is hiking, climbing, strip malls, military stations and spontaneous 70 degree days in January. There are mountains, but there are also plains. Colorado has a culture, but more important are its individual cultures.
In my last few years as a permanent resident of Gloucester, I was disillusioned with the smallness of the city and how insular it felt. I harbored a lot of guilt for wanting to get out so badly, and I felt I wasn’t fully appreciating the connection I had. Now, my sentiments have changed, but it has been an important process to recognize the validity of a changing relationship. Rather than assessing what a place is like, it makes sense to allow space for various reactions to and relationships with places. It is individual relationships with a place that form its character and substance.