Faneuil Hall has seen a lot of action in 300 years. Squatting on Boston’s harbor front, the hall was built in 1743 by Peter Fanueill designed as a public market place and given by Faneuil as a gift to the city. Original 1%-er coming through. Surprisingly, there was some grumbling about this by city officials because this was New England after all where the art of petty bitchery was hatched and honed. The pros included one-stop shopping, the cons included worry over noise pollution, specifically “noisy push-cart hucksters,” and price gouging. In the end, Faneuil got his plan approved by a thin seven votes. His lukewarm support secured, Faneuil barreled forward, dipping into some of his hard earned savings as a slave trader (*cough* *cough*) to help pay for the building.
Faneuil Hall resembles a traditional English country market (you can take the colonists out of the colony…). The first floor consisted of long rows of open stalls where merchants sold goods and food. The second floor housed an area for meeting rooms and general assembly. A fire ripped through the market in 1761, but by then everyone had quite warmed up to the place and it was rebuilt, but “biggahhhh” because, well, Boston.
In the end, Boston got way more than a place for farmers and butchers to sell their stock; they got a place to foment revolution. Maybe if Peter Fanueil had lead with that he would have gotten more than a few polite golf claps. In 1764 colonists gathered in the expanded and enlarged assembly arena to “discuss” (read: raise hell over) Britain’s oppressive Stamp and Sugar taxes. Not long after they would meet again to rail against the crown and eventually come up with the hashtagable: “no taxation without representation.” Faneuil Hall would be the hot seat of many, many rallies and protests leading up to the American Revolution, so much so that it became informally known as the “Cradle of Liberty.” Suck it Chicago and your “city of big shoulders.”
Centuries later, Fanueil Hall Market Place gets more tourist than rebel action. Three more market buildings—South Market, North Market, and Quincy Market—were added decades later and host restaurants, bars, and boutique as well as commercial retail outlets. Talk about your noisy hucksters.
On any given day, the space is a happy, chaotic sprawl: shoppers, sight-seers either wandering around or following along with groups led by tour guides dressed as historical re-enactos, horse drawn carriages take people up and down the cobble stone streets around the market, magicians, acrobats, bucket drummers, mimes, and all kinds of street performers stake out coveted real estate around the market areas to raise their brand of joyful noise (well, except the mimes).
This past Sunday I turned my feet toward Fanueil Hall not thinking much about where I was going only that I needed to be somewhere other than fused to my phone. The scene was very much like any other summer weekend with people strolling and enjoying the water front. In front of the great, granite steps of Quincy Market an ensemble of grade school violin players performed a medley of patriotic songs. At the farthest end a small carousel turned laconically, its plaster horses and tigers and bears gently galloping on their track while wide-eyed smiling kids perched on their backs, furiously waving. Unconsciously, I started humming that old Chicago tune: “Saturday in the park/I think it was the Fourth of July/People dancing, people laughing, a man selling ice cream.” You would never think a place like this was once home to the hard, messy, dangerous work of world changing.
I bought some food and found a bench. I enjoyed the feeling of warm sun on my face and smelled the salt in the wind whipping up over the waterfront. For a few seconds I thought to myself, it could happen here, at any time, right now, a choice put into motion causing catastrophic reverberations like the aftermath of an atomic blast. It could…
But that day was not that day…here.
I pushed the thought away, refused to give it energy, because that felt like the most radical act I had to give. Instead I pulled the ordinary happiness of the people enjoying this grand, historical market place around me and settled into the insulation it provided.
These hours, I decided, were for simply being here the way Bostonians centuries ago were, heading to Fanueil Hall as a matter of mundane routine, to buy and barter and sell until history demand something more of them, the way it demands more of all of us now.