Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The New Boston: A People's History

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The New Boston: A People's History

Article excerpt

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 upon 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 "tumbleddown has-been" of a city.1

Credit for building the New Boston usually goes to a small group of "city fathers"-all of them men, all of them white, and most of them well-off. That story usually focuses on the bricks-and-mortar improvements made to the city's downtown.

But that is only half of the story. As the late, great, and very local journalist Alan Lupo wrote, the building of the New Boston was really "a tale of two cities." "One city was that newer Boston, brimming with confidence, attracting money and the middle class, [the other] the old Boston, increasingly angry . . . at what it perceived to be an insensitive government . . . and distrustful now of all outsiders, preachers, planners, reformers, and do-gooders."2

A People's History of the New Boston attempts to tell the other half of the story. It gives credit to many more people-women as well as men; black, brown, and yellow as well as white; the poor and working class as well as the well-off. This story focuses on how those people made Boston a more humane and a morally better city, and it extends to Boston's neighborhoods.

This book also attempts to explain how they made Boston better- by engaging in an era of activism and protest the likes of which the city hadn't seen since the fight for abolition and, prior to that, the beginnings of the American Revolution. Like that revolution, this one was directed at an insensitive or inept government and selfish business interests. That first revolution, however, was directed at a king, a parliament, and companies an ocean away. This one took aim at government and business interests here at home. That first revolution gave birth to a new nation, conceived in liberty and equality. This one helped make a city much more of, by, and for its people.

Boston has a long history when it comes to activism and protest. It was founded in 1630 by Winthrop and others who were out to purify Protestantism. After Boston's early activists sparked the revolution that gave the United States its political independence in the eighteenth century, the city's preachers, philosophers, and writers helped the country achieve its spiritual and intellectual independence in the early nineteenth century. Boston was a hotbed of abolitionism and strongly supported the effort to preserve the union in the middle of that century. It was very much involved in the labor, temperance, and suffrage movements at the end of it. But in the twentieth century, just as the city's economic fortunes declined, so did its involvement in activism and protest.

In the 1950s, by the time the Great Depression and World War II were over, the people of Boston-like those in the rest of the country-seemed interested in nothing more than going back to work, raising their families, and getting on with their lives. Conformity, not confrontation, was the order of the day, and politics had less to do with protest than personalities.

"Politics was all very familial back then," recalled Neil Savage, who grew up in Roslindale, lives in West Roxbury, and is the author of Extraordinary Tenure: Massachusetts and the Making of the Nation:

Political offices were often seen as 'belonging' to certain families. If you knew the family, you worked on their campaigns. Voting was seen as a civic obligation, and winning candidates were obliged to do what they could for their supporters. The only people who didn't like the way things were run back then were the 'reformers' and 'do-gooders,' mostly liberals and women, who thought it was a corrupt system. …

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