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Is Boston's Tech Scene Besting New York?

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Is Boston's Tech Scene Besting New York?

There’s a lot New York could learn from Boston about lifestyle.

You might proffer this The Onion slam of Boston in response to my statement, but there’s more than a grain of truth in this takedown of New York in the same pub. A recent trip to Boston’s innovation district, Seaport, impressed me with the praxis of its mixed-use philosophy: “Live, Work, Play.” I knew Boston could do the work — especially in the tech sector — and the live, but I wasn’t so sure about the play. For two years, I came to Boston regularly, but the nightlife failed to impress a jaded New Yorker. Apple to orange though it may be, I couldn’t help but compare. But Boston’s recently booming Seaport tech district is set to surpass New York, especially with the big moves by GE, Neurala, Red Hat and now, Amazon — and those business moves have sparked an abundant food, drink and social scene.

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Photo by Dakota Kim

American cities may be modernizing to Millennial demands, but not without growing pains. Industry may be out and technology may be in, but American urban landscapes have been sluggish in reacting — partially due to the car-dependent structures of said sprawling cities (Detroit being a prime example). While waiting for subways to spring up, car service apps like Uber, Lyft and Gett have filled the void. Meanwhile, Millennials and Gen Z, who eschew gated suburban homes and seek out energizing urban public spaces and experiences, have struggled to curate affordable, stylish, user-friendly lifestyles in the crumbling ruins of these aging cities.

Evidently, it was time for a lifestyle-meets-work reboot. And Boston is beating New York to it in terms of ease of work-life balance and booming tech growth (despite New York’s tech startup initiatives under Bloomberg, and perhaps even because of De Blasio’s seemingly less-techy emphasis).

In 2010, former Boston mayor Thomas Menino, inspired by Barcelona’s 22 district, cemented his legacy with plans to radically transform 1,000 acres of land in South Boston into “The Innovation District” (now merely known as the “Seaport”). And did the cranes ever come calling. Towers popped up like mushrooms along the compact thrust of land southeast of the Financial District. Hefty anchor establishments include Vertex and GE, which chose Boston over New York (in part due to a hefty incentive package from the city of Boston, no doubt).

Boston is a tech base — its Kendall Square area near MIT, after all, has been dubbed “the most innovative square mile on the planet” and seems to churn out an endless mill of hungry MIT grads looking to revolutionize your app game. There’s no shortage of work force if you’re a startup founder looking for fresh college grads in Boston. But Kendall Square is relatively distanced from the city center, whereas the Seaport’s proximity to the Financial District (a brisk, pleasant five-minute stroll over any number of short bridges over the water) means direct interactions with the business world, including venture capital meetings for startup owners. New York may have Wall Street and the gold that lines that street, but Boston brings a quality of life that New York’s sheer insanity destroys with every stalled train and long line.

And if you want to talk supporting risky startup innovation, it’s essential to nurture a stronger social safety net, including unemployment, food security, and healthcare — like Massachusetts has been doing with MassHealth for a decade now, since 2006. What’s more, though rankings of startup funding favor New York, funding doesn’t always result in profitable, sustainable long-term success. In a long-term sense, it’s easier to sustain life in Boston, which means more long-term startups. Attrition is low, so folks are sticking around and innovating into middle age and even past retirement. “There are 60-year-olds in Boston who founded great companies, as there are in the Valley and Seattle,” Rob Gonzalez writes. “The other big cities — NYC, Chicago, Atlanta, Austin, etc. — will take a long time to notch their wins, create their mentors, grow their ecosystems and deliver consistent results.”

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2017 has brought a slew of new business to the Seaport, including restaurants (the world’s oldest startups), shopping, residential real estate, and AI startups like Neurala, which is claiming some major breakthroughs. Red Hat has made good on its promise to finish building its new office by mid-year, and its Global Executive Briefing Center, Engineering Lab, and Open Innovation Labs are pretty cushy, plus there’s a hidden speakeasy, natch. And now comes the news that Amazon will lease 150,000 square feet one block from GE’s HQ. In an old city, everything in the Seaport feels (and for the most part, is) new. Amidst the red brick of old candy factories, a lifestyle-based city is springing up. This Boston just feels, in a way that it didn’t 10 years ago, chic and cutting-edge.

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Photo by Dakota Kim

With all the cranes, I wondered (as others have) what the future Seaport would look like, and how it would retain tech and art innovation. Let’s face it: this area isn’t cheap to live in and young artists and tech workers will have a hard time grasping a foothold there. One reassurance is that with the ICA, Boston’s most daring contemporary museum, perched on the north face of the Seaport, parties and openings will always abound on the large, sea-spritzed patio. Inside the museum, I took in a stunning Mika Rottenberg video about globalization and the same Nari Ward exhibit I saw at the Perez in Miami last January. Boston is looking to transition into a more global cultural city, and I can’t help but wonder if my own beloved city of New York is declining because we just don’t have the luxuries of space and time that Boston does.

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Photo by Brandon Baunach CC BY

Despite New York’s initiatives to attract startups, I’ve seen a bevy of techy friends and coworkers leave New York for more relaxed pastures, declaring that our city of money eats its young by crowding them into dangerously shoddy Bushwick lofts housing seven people. I’ve never seen any of my friends in Boston live in as tight quarters as my friends in New York do. As the luxury buildings rise, young tech workers may need to commute into the Seaport from JP or Cambridge, but the train ride is quick and certainly more pleasant. Hopefully Boston will continue measures to keep art and innovation in the Seaport while bringing in more accessible affordable housing than this lottery.

Boston’s waterways are key to understanding quality of life in the Seaport. A cooling breeze from the channel flutters against your hair when you’re walking to work or lunch. Water is everywhere, seemingly, so a jog along it doesn’t feel like a reach for lunch, whereas getting to the Hudson in midtown New York traffic can feel like an episode of The Amazing Race — and that’s only really exciting in your early twenties, IMO.

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One morning, I scaled the roof of the Envoy Hotel for a sunny 9 a.m. yoga class (after copious amounts of coffee, of course) to the sound of gulls and boat bells. Then, I made up for the calorie deficit with decadent duck confit on toast, drizzled with duck fat gravy, at the Outlook, the hotel’s stylish restaurant where Chef Tatiana Rosana, young and hungry, is showcasing her Cuban heritage and her wife’s Korean heritage. A decade ago, I would’ve expected such a hip young chef to expect to prove her mettle in New York, Chicago or San Francisco, America’s premiere food whetstones. Instead, she’s plying the Seaport with her locally-sourced cuisine, including a blockbuster juicy strip steak paired with a tortilla espagnola, romesco and black garlic sauce. It’s the opposite of the seafood I would’ve expected from Boston — worldly, instead of regional; innovative, instead of traditional.

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Chef Rosana is exemplary of the new, young, hungry Boston that’s eschewing nautical stripes, fine wines and lobster rolls in favor of hoodies, craft beer and vegan donuts. Instead of just sailing, Seaport residents get high on huge swings at The Lawn on D, an installation halfway between art and amusement park. Instead of just fine wine, Boston’s foodies also reach for fine beers. At nearby Harpoon Brewery, a mere five-minute drive away, I took a tour of the facility and sampled over a dozen craft beers without waiting in a two-hour line like I would’ve in New York. Part of Boston’s charm is its smaller size, where there aren’t 8 million other residents trying to do the same fun things as me and thus making my fun thing not fun.

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Like Aziz Ansari (and most Millennials), food choices are vital to me. A skip across the bridge led me to Boston Public Market to sample vegan cider donuts and sour beer. A sign at Red Apple Farm cider donut stand proclaimed that the lack of apples for sale was due to early heat and late frost leading to only 60 percent of the usual yield, but that the first apples, vistabellas, would ripen the last week of July, plus raspberries, blueberries and peaches would be in soon. I care about food sourcing and farmers, and this specific information was novel to me. Except for in my CSA, I hardly ever see information this specific about the harvest.

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At Red’s Best, the Boston mackerel shined like a silver sun, its fresh fillets just-sliced by the fishmonger. Fiddlehead ferns, organic chocolate truffles, goji berries, maple soda and gluten-free cookies adorned the stands, without the mile-long lines I’m used to at New York’s food halls. Afterward, I returned to the Seaport and took a long walk around, looking at its food businesses. Vegan, local, gluten-free and organic were everywhere I turned, and prices were several dollars lower per item than Manhattan or Brooklyn.

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That evening, getting into Fenway for a game with the Twins didn’t feel like previous hauls to Yankee Stadium, because again, no lines, and also, proximity. With car-sharing apps, there’s no reason to try to park near Fenway, and the ride from the Seaport was only 20 minutes.

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Inside the park, I was delighted to see an abundance of the sours, goses and wild beers I love — that beer section alone included 10 beers, from a Wicked Weed Tropicmost Passionfruit Gose to a Cascade Sang Royal 2015.

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The next day, I coworked with my fellow laptop rockers at District Hall, the Seaport’s startup and innovation center, run by a small, all-female, non-profit staff. There, I chugged a Barrington coffee and chatted with a young, hungry (literally) gent working on a food startup. It was easy to transition from coffee to craft beers an hour later. Where’s the easy, free New York lounge where I can co-work with friendly folks like this?

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On the sweeping harbor patio of District Hall’s restaurant Gather, I gulped down a few oysters and some fresh tuna poke before heading to Demetri Tsolakis’ and George Aboujaoude’s beautifully airy Greek ouzeria Committee for succulently tender grilled octopus garnished with kalamatas, sun-dried tomatoes and white beans, accompanied by an Assyrtiko cocktail. I ended the evening by meeting my friends on the rooftop of the Envoy Hotel at the area’s most in-demand bar, the Lookout, watching the sun set with a glass of syrah in my hand and Boston’s quaintly hip rail bridge in sight.

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On my way out, transferring was so easy. In Boston, getting from the train station to the bus station doesn’t feel like a Herculean slog against time, but a simple jaunt down South Station’s stairs (Penn Station to Port Authority with a big bag? Fuhgettaboutit.). At the risk of sounding like a traitor, I tell younger friends to choose internships in Boston’s Kendall Square or Seaport over New York’s Times Square because the quality of life will be better (with a wild weekend trip to New York, of course!).

Boston is now somewhere I choose to visit voluntarily so that I can escape from New York’s hustle and get in a fun, relaxing weekend with friends, drinking craft beer and not waiting in lines to do it. Boston has long been a great beer city (Lord Hobo and Bukowski were among my old haunts), but the Seaport, with its large spaces for brewing, has become a booming destination for beer lovers to taste the world’s best drink at its fount. On the way home, I’ll grab unique beers to go at Trillium Brewing or Craft Beer Cellar.

It’s not just what your city can offer, but how easy it is to access those things. Urban planners think constantly about how to tool traffic flow, infrastructure, zoning and more, crafting the ultimate vision of a beautiful city to live, work and play in. In my opinion, Boston is the quiet tortoise slowly and steadily winning this decade’s quality-of-life race for the young and techy. Now if only we could do something about that winter.

Dakota Kim is Paste’s Food Editor. Tweet her at @dakotakim1.

Header image by Sarah Nichols CC BY-SA

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