Like I’m sure so many others can, I remember exactly what I was doing when I found out that something terrible had happened during last year’s Boston Marathon. While my situation was a bit different from the norm since I was studying abroad in Beijing, it is likely that the majority of people reading this column can relate to the cycle of emotions I went through upon hearing the news. Overcome with feelings and cut off from most forms of communication thanks to Chinese firewalls and limited cell phone service, I took to my blog. In it, I tried to communicate all of my sadness and anger as well as my love and support from hundreds of miles away. “This event may have destroyed the marathon,” I told my readers, “but it did not destroy the city of Boston. This is something that cannot be done … Instead of destroying this idea, this attack will only serve to strengthen this bond. I have watched from abroad as the people of Boston have gathered around each other in love, support, and friendship and have even witnessed it myself from thousands of miles away. This type of brotherhood cannot be broken, no matter the extent of the hate thrown at it.”
When I returned to the U.S. nearly a month later, I was pleased to learn that many others had echoed the same sentiment, and that the idea had been nicely wrapped up in a new mantra-“Boston Strong.” I was proud of Boston and how it had responded. From the tragedy came hope, from disorder came unity, from anguish came healing. The “Boston Strong” ribbons that adorned the city served as a message to all who had been wounded that an entire city of people was pledging to stand firmly behind them. The t-shirts being sold in store fronts were tangible proof of this love, and the donations pouring into the One Fund were enough to inspire confidence in the future for anyone watching the totals add up.
Unfortunately, I can’t say that I have continuously been impressed with or proud of how “Boston Strong” has been used in the year since the incident, and I know I’m not alone in this. In fact, in doing research for my column, I found that it didn’t take very long before controversy over the phrase began to arise, with Boston Magazine publishing a blog post entitled “The Beginning of a ‘Boston Strong’ Branding Backlash” before even a month had passed. The backlash is less than surprising. Anyone who lives in Boston has watched as “Boston Strong” has become attached to a number of different aspects of city life completely unrelated to the marathon. When the Bruins were in the Stanley Cup, the “B” in “Boston Strong” became the Bruins logo. When the Red Sox were in the World Series, the same thing occurred again. And, while they can’t help but balk at the lack of tact when cities like Chicago responded with shirts that read “Chicago Stronger,” many Bostonians have found themselves becoming increasingly disgruntled with the use of the phrase as a sort of rallying cry for our sports franchises and a marketing gimmick for local companies. All of a sudden, “Boston Strong” has largely ceased to feel like a powerful demonstration of solidary. Instead, it is increasingly coming to be seen as a brand-the “official slogan of Boston sports teams,” a frequently utilized hashtag, and a logo sold on tote bags and mugs.
Unsurprisingly, I have considered writing this column many times, wanting to express my disappointment at having watched the evolution of “Boston Strong” from a powerful mantra neatly summarizing a unity that all Bostonians know exists to a salient marketing tool used, to rally support for causes much more superficial than I feel were originally intended by the two students at Emerson College who coined the phrase. But, as previously illustrated, this kind of column has already been written in almost every major Boston-based publication, and I did not want my piece simply to be a subpar commentary on a topic that professional journalists had already covered.
I was motivated to write this column now, however, because, in recent weeks leading up to this year’s marathon, I have seen a change in how “Boston Strong’ is being used-a change which, I believe, represents a return to the original meaning of the phrase. The release of the new #WeWillRun video, the upcoming Sports Illustrated cover honoring the people of Boston and last year’s marathon runners, and the increased concern in making sure the proceeds of “Boston Strong” products are going to the One Fund have all served to remind the city of Boston why “Boston Strong” came about in the first place and why we all rallied around it.
Yes, “Boston Strong” is going to be commercial, and partially for a good reason. Selling shirts and other products helps to keep support for the One Fund going and works to remind people that we are still healing. The power of the slogan isn’t in the words itself, however. It did not make Boston strong, not by a long shot. It simply encapsulated a strength that was already and will always be in this community-strength we always recognized on some level but that made itself known in the moment we needed it most. Boston is strong and will continue to be strong whether we have a mantra for it or not. In fact, there were likely come a time in the near future when we won’t need “Boston Strong,” and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The sentiment will continue to live on in the hearts of people. I simply hope that, until that day, we can work as a city to remember the initial purpose of the phrase and stop it from once again becoming a frustrating example of corporate branding when we are far removed from marathon season.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.