Truman National Security Project

Reflections On My Hometown Under Lockdown

By Gregory Aftandilian | 4.22.13

Although I have lived in several places and have spent almost the past thirty years in the Washington, D.C. area, I have always called Watertown, Massachusetts my hometown. I spent my formative childhood years living there and have special memories of my old neighborhood, as well as warm remembrances of family gatherings, weddings, baptisms, and community functions.

This is why I was especially shocked and disturbed when I saw that Watertown, for twenty-four hours last week, became a battle zone as the brave police forces battled the two heavily-armed terrorists of the infamous Boston Marathon bombings and put the town under lockdown as they searched for the surviving member of the team until he was caught. Seeing armored personnel carriers patrolling the streets of Watertown, my Watertown, the streets of my childhood, was unnerving to say the least.

Watertown was founded in the early 1600s, but for me, it is the quintessential immigrant town. It has a special place in Armenian-American culture, as Armenian immigrants fleeing persecutions in the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th Century and genocide in 1915, came to the area to work in its once-flourishing factories, like the Hood Rubber Company. It also became the intellectual center of the community on the East coast of the United States, boasting the headquarters of newspapers, cultural organizations, political parties, youth groups, churches, and schools. Some of the children of the early immigrants moved to more affluent suburbs after a time, but the community was infused with new Armenian immigrants fleeing the upheavals in the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s that helped it retain its ethnic feel. Watertown has remained the epicenter of the community and is still the place to go to buy Armenian food, and attend church and community functions, and visit with family and friends.

As a kid, I used to see the “old timers,” as we would call them, walking to church and speaking at community functions. These were the early immigrants who had come to Watertown as young men and women in the early 20th Century after having lost so much in the old country but had managed, through hard work and perseverance, to rebuild their lives and prosper in the new country. Although we considered them then as overly strict and old fashioned, we came to appreciate them later on for all they had gone through and what they had built for us. When I returned to the Boston area about five years ago to spend a year as a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government and when I walked the streets of Watertown again, these old timers were sadly no longer there. That generation had largely passed from the scene, and I realized that my parents’ generation had now become the old generation and I had become middle aged. Nonetheless, the memories of these sturdy “old timers” from the “old country” linger on.

Although Armenian-Americans claim ownership of Watertown, there are actually more Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans within its borders. I actually grew up in an ethnically-mixed neighborhood. For example, across the street was an Italian-American family and a Syrian-American family, and down the street was an Albanian-American family. We all grew up as essentially one big family and if any of us got out of line we would be disciplined by one of our grandparents speaking heavily-accented English. I remember once being chased up the street by my friend’s Italian grandmother after I threw something at her grandson (my best friend) for some reason. And we all looked out for one another. One day, when my mother was rushing home because she wanted to be there when her elderly father arrived after walking to our house from church, she was first worried at not seeing him but was later relieved to find him enjoying a drink across the street (my friend’s father had noticed him waiting in front of our house and had invited him in to their house until my mother arrived).

Political scientists and counter-terrorism experts often speak about the need for “resiliency” in the face of terrorism. This essentially means that the people’s fortitude is a necessary ingredient in the effort to stand up to and confront terrorism. The Watertown that I have known was and still is filled with resiliency, and public’s close cooperation with the police during those stressful twenty-four hours last week was proof positive of its existence. Resiliency is also another word for character, and Watertown has plenty of that.

Greg Aftandilian is a Center for National Policy Fellow.