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A People's History of the New Boston

A People's History of the New Boston

Jim Vrabel
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 288
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    A People's History of the New Boston
    Book Description:

    Although Boston today is a vibrant and thriving city, it was anything but that in the years following World War II. By 1950 it had lost a quarter of its tax base over the previous twentyfive years, and during the 1950s it would lose residents faster than any other major city in the country. Credit for the city’s turnaround since that time is often given to a select group of people, all of them men, all of them white, and most of them well off. In fact, a large group of community activists, many of them women, people of color, and not very well off, were also responsible for creating the Boston so many enjoy today. This book provides a grassroots perspective on the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, when residents of the city’s neighborhoods engaged in an era of activism and protest unprecedented in Boston since the American Revolution. Using interviews with many of those activists, contemporary news accounts, and historical sources, Jim Vrabel describes the demonstrations, sitins, picket lines, boycotts, and contentious negotiations through which residents exerted their influence on the city that was being rebuilt around them. He includes case histories of the fights against urban renewal, highway construction, and airport expansion; for civil rights, school desegregation, and welfare reform; and over Vietnam and busing. He also profiles a diverse group of activists from all over the city, including Ruth Batson, Anna DeFronzo, Moe Gillen, Mel King, Henry Lee, and Paula Oyola. Vrabel tallies the wins and losses of these neighborhood Davids as they took on the Goliaths of the time, including Boston’s mayors. He shows how much of the legacy of that activism remains in Boston today.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-301-8
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. [i]-[viii])
  2. Table of Contents (pp. [ix]-[xi])
  3. [Map] (pp. [xii]-[xii])
  4. Introduction (pp. 1-4)

    Boston, today, is seen as one of America’s best cities — one that works for its residents, generates jobs, welcomes visitors, remembers its past, and embraces its future. But this latest incarnation of what the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first governor, John Winthrop, called the “City on a Hill” is a fairly recent one. The “New Boston” only came into being in the second half of the twentieth century. The “Old Boston” that preceded it didn’t work very well for anyone, and was described as a “hopeless backwater” and “tumbled-down has-been” of a city.¹

    Credit for building the New Boston usually...

  5. CHAPTER 1 The Old Boston and the New Boston (pp. 5-9)

    “Boston is a dead city, living in the past. If you want to be successful in any business, get out of Boston.”¹ As the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, this was the kind of advice being given young entrepreneurs in the Old Boston. Boston wasn’t the only dead city in the United States at the time. Many of them, especially older cities in the Northeast and Midwest, were struggling against powerful forces that they had to confront if they wanted to survive. But a case could be made that Boston was “deader” than most.

    Part of the reason for...

  6. CHAPTER 2 To Hell with Urban Renewal (pp. 10-33)

    Urban renewal, created by Congress under Title I of the Housing Act of 1949, would later be described as a kind of domestic “Marshall Plan” for declining cities such as Boston.¹ But urban renewal was initially less about rebuilding cities than promoting what was described back then as “slum clearance,” since Title I pledged that the federal government would repay cities two-thirds of what it cost them to buy and clear “blighted areas” and loan private developers up to 90 percent of what it cost to build something new there.²

    To qualify for this federal largesse, cities had to come...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Community Organizers and Advocacy Planners (pp. 34-38)

    When urban renewal began, people in the New Boston’s neighborhoods were pretty much on their own in trying to figure out how to deal with it. That soon began to change when some people in the nonprofit sector and academic world decided to get involved in the “real world.” They created new kinds of organizations that provided residents with the kind of help they needed to respond to the city’s efforts to rebuild their neigh borhoods — and even to do that rebuilding themselves.

    One of the first of these new organizations was Action for Boston Community Development. Founded in...

  8. CHAPTER 4 A Rekindled Civil Rights Movement (pp. 39-46)

    Urban renewal may have rekindled the flame of activism and protest in much of the city in the mid-twentieth century, but the civil rights movement being carried out in the South at the time rekindled that flame in Boston’s black community. “You can’t overestimate how much what went on down there fueled what went on up here,” said Hubie Jones years later.¹

    Jones grew up in the South Bronx in New York and moved to the Boston area in 1955 to attend graduate school at Boston University. He and his wife Kathy were among the few African American families who...

  9. CHAPTER 5 From School Reform to Desegregation (pp. 47-63)

    Just as in civil rights, Boston has a long and contradictory history when it comes to public education. Some of the best accounts of this history are contained inFrom Common School to Magnet School: Selected Essays in the History of Boston’s Schools, edited by James W. Fraser, Henry L. Allen, and Sam Barnes.

    Boston was home to a number of educational firsts in the United States — the first school (Boston Latin, est. 1635), the first public school supported by taxes (the Mather School, est. 1639), and the first free public high school (The English High School, est. 1821)....

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Conflict over the Vietnam Conflict (pp. 64-74)

    For many young people in the New Boston in the 1960s, it wasn’t urban renewal, civil rights, or the Boston schools that spurred them into activism or paying more attention to the world around them — it was U.S. involvement in a small, until then obscure country halfway around the world.

    In the 1950s and early 1960s, some of their parents may have paid a little attention when presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy sent U.S. “military advisors” to Vietnam to try to keep the corrupt but democratically elected government in the South from falling to nationalists backed by the Communist government...

  11. CHAPTER 7 The Media and the Protest Movements (pp. 75-80)

    The people of Boston had been protesting for almost a decade, but until the protests against the Vietnam War came along local media hadn’t seemed to be paying much attention. “There were a lot of young reporters at theBoston Globeback then,” recalled Bob Turner, who was one of them, “and they had a sympathy for the antiwar movement that eventually that led to a connection with neighborhood activism.”¹

    Given the history of Boston journalism’s support for dissent, it shouldn’t have taken that long.Publick Occurrences: Both Foreign and Domestic(est. 1690) was not only the first newspaper to...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Mothers for Adequate Welfare (pp. 81-91)

    “Activism comes from a group getting a sense of its own dignity and worth and of being deserving of better treatment,” Mel King said not long ago.¹ In the mid-1960s, one of the groups to develop a sense of its own dignity and worth was made up of women on welfare. At the time, despite all the claims of progress being made in the New Boston, approximately 150,000 residents, one-fourth of the city’s population, were categorized as “poor,” and 40,000, most of them women and children, received welfare — twice the number of residents who had been on “relief” during...

  13. CHAPTER 9 The Illusion of Inclusion and Assault by Acronyms (pp. 92-100)

    “Kevin White understood that times had changed, and that they called for a different style, so he went out into the neighborhoods with his sleeves rolled up and his jacket slung over his shoulder,” recalled the historian Thomas O’Connor. Then he added, “Of course it was a Brooks Brothers jacket, but that didn’t matter.”¹ Fittingly, one of the best books on White and his administration isStyle versus Substance: Boston, Kevin White, and the Politics of Illusionby George V. Higgins.

    A few weeks after taking office, the new mayor proclaimed that these changed times called for bringing city government...

  14. CHAPTER 10 A New Threat from Newcomers — Gentrification (pp. 101-111)

    John Hynes had the vision to embrace urban renewal. John Collins had the administrative skill to implement it. Kevin White allowed it to run its course. By this time, residents had gained the confidence and skills that enabled them to spar with the city and negotiate with the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) planners in order to make urban renewal work better. But now they found themselves faced with a new threat — gentrification, which hit one of Boston’s most diverse and contentious neighborhoods particularly hard.

    Today’sSouth Endwas created in a mid-nineteenth-century attempt at urban renewal. Built on “made...

  15. CHAPTER 11 Do-It-Yourself Community Development (pp. 112-122)

    After spending so much time and energy improving the urban renewal plans drawn up by professionals, activists in the New Boston gradually came to the conclusion they could do a better job themselves. Aided and abetted by those advocacy planners who had appeared on the scene in the early 1960s, they took advantage of a new kind of organization to do just that.

    Community development corporations (CDCs) are nonprofit, neighborhood-based organizations funded by both public sources and private investors. They were originally created to build and renovate housing but have gotten involved in economic development, job training, and social services...

  16. CHAPTER 12 Public Housing on Trial (pp. 123-130)

    Residents who lived in public housing also struggled to remain in the New Boston. Even though they depended on government for the roof over their heads, public housing residents, too, joined the rising wave of activism and protest. Since its inception, government-supported public housing has always played a particularly important role in Boston, one documented by Lawrence J. Vale in his bookFrom the Puritans to the Projects: Public Housing and Public Neighbors.

    Boston was home to the first federal public housing development in the United States, the Mary Ellen McCormack development in South Boston, which opened in 1938. It...

  17. CHAPTER 13 The Tenants’ Movement and Rent Control (pp. 131-138)

    As the 1960s continued, the “renewal” of the New Boston proceeded unevenly. Some neighborhoods benefited from longoverdue attention, and some continued to suffer from neglect. But the chronic shortage of decent, affordable, privately owned housing all over the city only made things worse for the tenants. A newspaper headline summed it up best: “Renewal So Far: High Rents Replace Low.”¹

    It was estimated that the city needed to add another 50,000 new units to its supply of housing just to meet the existing demand.² But since that wasn’t happening, unscrupulous landlords were able to take advantage of the situation by...

  18. CHAPTER 14 People Before Highways (pp. 139-149)

    Urban renewal wasn’t the only big, federal program the city employed to try to build the New Boston — the interstate highway program was another. But if the highways built in the 1950s had helped to drain the life out the city, a proposal to build two more in the 1960s threatened to strangle it just as it was starting to breathe again. The best account of the fight to stop these highways from being built is contained inRites of Way: The Politics of Boston and the U.S. Cityby Alan Lupo, Frank Colcord, and Edmund P. Fowler.


  19. CHAPTER 15 The Mothers of Maverick Street (pp. 150-156)

    During the time Mary Ellen Welch was involved in the coalition to stop those highways from being built, she and her neighbors had another transportation fight on their hands, one best captured in Dorothy Nelkin’sJetport: The Boston Airport Controversy.

    East Bostonoriginally was a cluster of islands in Boston Harbor, one of them owned by John Winthrop and said to be the site of the first apple and pear orchards in New England. In the 1830s, William H. Sumner and his partners filled in some of the salt marshes between the islands, enabling the residential development of the new...

  20. CHAPTER 16 Shadow Boxing in the Public Garden (pp. 157-162)

    Most of the people swept up into the activism and protest of the New Boston lived in neighborhoods that were home to the city’s many “have-nots.” Residents of the two downtown neighborhoods that were home to the city’s few “haves” had less reason to become involved. “We were an insular community over here,” recalled Bernie Borman, president of one of the local civic associations. “Everything else that was going on in the city had no effect on us.”¹ But that changed when a proposed massive development threatened to leave those neighborhoods, quite literally, in the dark.

    Beacon Hilland the...

  21. CHAPTER 17 Boston Jobs for Boston Residents (pp. 163-168)

    The strongest argument for building any of these proposed projects in the New Boston was always that they created jobs, particularly constructions jobs. Eventually, the people of Boston began to ask just who was getting those jobs — and demand a greater share for themselves. The best source for much of the story of their campaign to gain that greater share is Mel King’sChain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development.

    As far back as the early 1960s, activists in the black community had raised the jobs issue. On June 26, 1963, one of the STOP Campaign–sponsored demonstrations...

  22. CHAPTER 18 The Battle over Busing (pp. 169-187)

    The successful coalitions formed to stop construction of the two proposed highways and to obtain a greater share of Boston jobs for Boston residents showed what the people of the New Boston could do if they worked together. “For a while there, it seemed like there was going to be an attempt to forge a city-wide activism movement,” Alan Lupo said wistfully many years later, “but then busing came along and eliminated the possibility.”¹

    “Except for the violence and the bigotry — which is a very bigexcept” — recalled the journalist Renée Loth, “the antibusing movement was very much...

  23. CHAPTER 19 Fighting for a Fair Share (pp. 188-195)

    In the mid -1970s, even as busing was dividing the people of Boston, a new organization — Massachusetts Fair Share — was launched whose express purpose was to bring people from different neighborhoods and communities together around issues of common concern. For a while, anyway it was spectacularly successful.

    In 1973, the first Fair Share chapter was founded in the small, predominately working-class city of Chelsea, across the Chelsea River from East Boston. It was created by Lee Staples, Mark Splain, and Barbara Bowen, All three had worked for the National Welfare Rights Organization during its short-lived bid to compete...

  24. CHAPTER 20 A Downturn in Activism (pp. 196-205)

    By the mid -1970s — with the notable exceptions of the antibusing movement and Fair Share — the flame of activismwasflickering in the New Boston. One reason had to do with policy changes in Washington. For the last decade, federal spending for domestic programs — particularly those for cities — had been cut to pay for the Vietnam War. But for some reason, even though the war had ended, the promised “peace dividend” failed to materialize.

    The Nixon administration, as part of its “New Federalism” policy, also changed how it funneled existing funds to cities, replacing urban renewal...

  25. CHAPTER 21 Back to the Neighborhoods (pp. 206-218)

    “Nineteen eighty-three was the year of the neighborhoods in Boston politics. It was the year in which the old Boston struck back against the ‘New Boston,’” wrote Jack Beatty, the biographer of James Michael Curley, the quintessential mayor of the “Old Boston.” Beatty went on to describe the city in 1983 as one with a downtown transformed “into a parody of midtown Manhattan” — neighborhoods that had “deteriorated dramatically,” residents feeling “left behind in Boston’s giddy rise to the status of a ‘world-class city,’” and a “psychology of exclusion [that] kindled Boston’s urban populism.”¹

    This kindled — or rekindled —...

  26. CHAPTER 22 Boston Today (pp. 219-232)

    “Boston today is more beautiful than Paris,” said former Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis at a recent event celebrating the restoration of the missing link in the Emerald Necklace of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.¹ Boston’s economy is strong today, its budget is balanced, its tax rate is low, and its bond rating is among the highest of any city in the country. Its major service agencies are well run and court receivership is a thing of the past. Its streets — in most neighborhoods — are safe.

    Since 1980, Boston has been growing again, and today its population tops...

  27. Epilogue (pp. 233-236)

    Whether or not Boston supports a new generation of activists who do rise up, those who helped build a better New Boston are glad — for the most part — that they did.

    “Any story about community activism should show the personal sacrifices that were made for that activism,” said Alan Lupo, shortly before his death in 2008, “and the effect it had on a person’s family, on their kids, on their relationships with their neighbors. A lot of them often wondered whether it was worth it.”¹

    The late Ruth Batson of Roxbury wondered. When she and other activists were...

  28. Acknowledgments (pp. 237-238)
  29. Notes (pp. 239-270)
  30. Index (pp. 271-282)
  31. Back Matter (pp. 283-286)