Secret Cities

I’m a big fan of the idea that cities have several, distinct versions of themselves throughout the day, and that a city at 8am may feel completely different than one at 5pm. My favorite is the 1am-6am city, which I call the “secret city.”

This morning, I caught a glimpse of Boston’s secret city while driving to the airport. And I have some time to kill while I wait at the gate, so I thought I’d write about it.

My flight is fairly early in the morning, which meant a 3:30am wakeup call. As we drove through Boston, I was struck by how quiet it was, and how peaceful the early morning is. Some people were awake, but not many. You can tell by the rare light poking out of a window amidst a dark sea of sleepers. I call it “secret” because there’s an effort inherent in being awake at these hours, and it’s not obvious that the early wakeup (or long night) is worth the trade-off.  But how often do you get to see a city empty and quiet? It’s tough to make the trade-off every day but, when I do have a chance (like choosing an early flight vs. a midday one), I typically find that it’s worth it.

I remember the first time I realized how much I liked the early morning hours. In high school, I took PE in the morning (before the school day; a necessary sacrifice to fit debate class into my schedule). Driving through suburban Illinois isn’t quite the same as a secret city (the suburbs are always quiet), but getting to see the sunrise every day did grow on me pretty quickly.

Then, in college, I really honed in on the idea of these secret cities. Freshman year it was admittedly from staying out a little too late. But in later years it was more of an active choice: I preferred a 5am wakeup to a 1am bedtime, so would often end up studying in the early hours of the morning. Looking out my dorm window – across one of Penn’s courtyards to other dorms – I could see the scarce scattering of other windows lit, which would slowly grow as the hours passed until the sun rose. Half the time I’d sit there just wondering who else was up, and why they were up. It was great. Those were some of the most peaceful hours of the day, and when I did much of my best thinking. And because few actually look forward to an early wakeup, this version of the city felt like a secret.

That brings me to today. It’s 4:25am and the airport is surprisingly busy; certainly busier than it was half an hour ago when I got here. There aren’t really any children around – it’s mostly young-to-middle aged adults solemnly drinking coffee while scrolling their phones as they try to wake up. I’m writing as I wait for my flight to board. I had thought about scheduling a later flight, but I’m glad I didn’t. I’ll land in a different city, in a different time zone, with many more people awake, the secret city having fully faded into a sunlight city. But having gotten a glimpse of Boston’s secret city this morning made my day, and for that alone the early wakeup was easily worth it.

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