Book Reviews: A People’s History of the New Boston by Jim Vrabel

Author: Jim Vrabel
TitleA People’s History of the New Boston
Publication Info: Amherst : University of Massachusetts Press, [2014]

This book is a short social history of activism in Boston in the 60s, 70s, & 80s as people coalesced around causes to make the city better, although sometimes the populist ideals could lead to conflict among different groups.  After 50 years of economic decline and deterioration, politicians and business leaders announced a “New Boston” in the 1950s where money was invested in downtown real estate development and corporations.  Yet, for many who lived in Boston’s neighborhoods, there was very little benefit and often damaging consequences to the New Boston.  The city known for it’s revolutionary history had become docile and respectful of authority, but in the time covered by this book a new activism would arise as people organized around various causes.  These included opposition to urban renewal, tenants’ rights movements, anti-war protests, “people before highways,” opposition to expansion of Logan Airport, the civil rights movement, and public schools.  On this last topic, Vrabel provides a nuanced view of the busing crisis, not forgiving the racism and violence of the opponents but also revealing the nonsense of busing as a solution to public school quality and equity.

The book concludes with the 1983 mayoral election in which the candidates Ray Flynn and Mel King both represented the activism A lot of the issues discussed in this book seem so relevant to today’s Boston.  As Vrabel notes, activism and popular participation in politics today is once again minimal.  It seems to me that most activist groups today are comfortable people who come together in NIMBY movements that border on the nihilistic so that it seems impossible to make any changes to the city even if it would be beneficial.  Yet, this history shows how the political and corporate establishment of the past really tried to railroad changes through the city with no input at all and explains the deep and lingering mistrust.

It’s a good, brisk book, more of an overview than a comprehensive history, and Vrabel includes the titles of more detailed books on each topic in every chapter for those who wish to conduct further research.
Favorite Passages:

“Journalists who report on activism aren’t advocating anything, they’re just telling the other side.  It’s the other journalists, the ones who just report the ‘establishment’ side of things, who are the real ‘advocacy journalists.’ When the governor calls a press conference, it’s all set up with lights, electric outlets, press releases, the whole bit.  The press knows what’s expected of them, they show up report what they’re told. When a neighborhood group calls a press conference, there is nothing set up.  The press doesn’t always show up, and when they do they don’t know what it’s all about.  That’s unequal access, and that’s something some us tried to do something about in the 60s and 70s.” – Alan Lupo, p. 78

“Activism comes from a group getting a sense of its own dignity and worth and of being deserving of better treatment.” – Mel King, p. 81

Recommended booksBoston Riots: Three Centuries of Social Violence by Jack Tager, The Boston Irish: A Political History by Thomas H. O’Connor, Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston by Michael Rawson,  A City So Grand by Stephen Puleo, All Souls by Michael Patrick McDonald, and Lost Boston by Jane Holtz Kay.
Rating: ****