Podcasts of the Week Ending December 8


On the Media :: Whose Streets?

An expose on news media coverage that biases the priority of the automobile and questions the “heartwarming” stories of people walking long ways to work and transit inequality.

BackStory :: Forgotten Flu

100 years ago, a deadly influenza tore through the United States killing people in their peak of health.

Code Switch :: The Story of Mine Mill

The history of a radical leftist union that organized miners and millworkers in Birminham, Alabama, bringing together Black and white workers at the height of Jim Crow in the 1930s-1960s.

The Memory Palace :: Revolutions

A tribute to the humble – and noisy – washing machine.

99% Invisible :: Oñate’s Foot

The controversy over how Albuquerque would commemorate the conquistador who some see as New Mexico’s founding father and others see as a mass murderer

Nobody’s Home :: “Brown in a Different Way:” The Gentrification Dilemma

Nobody’s Home is a miniseries focusing on the problem of vacant housing in the United States.  It’s strange to listen to in Boston where the shortage of housing is the big problem.  But this episode on gentrification and the long history of inequality in housing ties both issues together well.

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Book Review: Greed and Glory by Sean Deveney


Author:  Sean Deveney
TitleGreed and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Doc Gooden, Lawrence Taylor, Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump, and the Mafia in 1980s New York
Publication Info: Skyhorse Publishing (2018)
Summary/Review:

Sean Deveney follows up his book about New York City in the 1960s through the lens of local politics and sports, Fun City, with this book about New York City in the 1980s through the lens of local politics and sports.  Fun City focused on two figures, Mayor John Lindsay and Jets quarterback Joe Namath, both handsome, young men who rose to prominence alongside the 60s youth culture and offered the promise of a great future (for themselves and the city) but also had hubris that lead to colossal failures.  Greed and Glory, as evident by the extraordinarily long subtitle is not so focused.  Greed and Glory cuts from storyline to storyline with no clear theme, and often is not even arranged chronologically.

The sports angle is covered by the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets and 1987 Super Bowl champion New York Giants.  Star players Dwight Gooden for the Mets and Lawrence Taylor for the Giants each struggle with their celebrity in New York and each end up with cocaine addictions that mar their careers.  But Deveney just can’t seem to focus on these two players and what they mean to the larger story of New York in the 1980s, and instead spends a lot of time describing the experiences of other Mets and other Giants and play-by-plays of important games in their championship seasons.  And while this kind of narrative can be interesting, there are whole other books dedicated to these teams’ champion seasons, whereas this one promises and fails to tell a more relevant story of Gooden and Taylor in 1980s New York.

The other storylines focus on New York mayor Ed Koch as his third term is rocked by scandals among the Democratic party leaders throughout the city.  Future mayor Rudy Giuliani makes his mark as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York by aggressively pursuing cases against the Mafia as well as the political corruption in the Koch administration.  And Donald Trump carries out a convoluted plot to get a NFL team and a domed stadium in Queens (paid for with other peoples’ money, naturally) by suing the NFL on behalf of the USFL.  The plan fails, but he somehow redeems himself by restoring the Wollman skating rink in Central Park.  Pretty much every sketchy detail of his character (and lack thereof) was evident in the 1980s, but for some reason people still decided to make him famous and then elect him President.  Ugh!

These storylines – if the Mets/Giants stories were excised – could almost make a good book, but there’s still too much and it just comes out messy. Granted, the 1980s in New York were a mess and it’s still difficult to make any sense of it.  Deveney doesn’t make a dent in that mess, but I will give him credit for at least making it a pageturner of a read, if ultimately too fluffy for its own good.

Recommended books:

  • The Bad Guys Won! A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo-chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, The Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform–and Maybe the Best by Jeff Pearlman
  • Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler
  • Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
  • New York Calling : From Blackout to Bloomberg edited by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein


Author: Richard Rothstein
Title: The Color of Law
Narrator: Adam Grupper
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2017)
Summary/Review:

Housing segregation continues to be the rule in the United States today as most neighborhoods, cities, and suburbs are greatly tilted to be either mostly white or mostly African American. Politicians, pundits, and everyday people consider this de facto segregation, based on the choices of individuals to live among people of “their own kind,” or credit the wealth disparity that prevents Blacks from affording to live in white areas.

In this book, Rothstein argues that this common wisdom is all wrong.  He argues, with lots of evidence provided, that in the past 100 years, the Federal, state, and local governments have created de jure segregation of housing.  By historically being shut out from housing opportunities offered to whites, African Americans were unable to build equity and create generational wealth to pass on to later generations, contributing to the prosperity gap that exists today.  The places where Blacks and whites live today were created by the de jure segregation laws of the past, and laws against discrimination are only half-measures in that they do not undo the damage done in the past.

Here are some of the ways in which the government segregated housing detailed in the book:

  • Federal Housing Authority subsidizes housing in whites-only subdivisions.
  • FHA enables redlining by refusing to insure African American mortgages.
  • FHA regulations for segregation actually written into widely-distributed manuals. Local projects that intended to be integrated could be forced to follow these Federal regulations.
  • Public housing projects built for whites were larger and better resourced, while separate public housing for Blacks were usually smaller and something of an afterthought. White projects often had vacancies while Black projects had waiting lists.
  • Property taxes overassesed in Black neighborhoods and underassessed in white neighborhoods, adding to the burden of making ends meet for Black families.
  • Government programs that enabled whites to buy homes in the suburbs not available to Blacks. A generation of African Americans ended up trapped in decaying cities, far away from good jobs that had also moved to the suburbs.
  • Restrictive covenants that prohibit Blacks from moving into white neighborhoods granted legal protection.
  • Highway projects deliberately targeted Black neighborhoods for construction, demolishing viable communities and creating barriers around what remained (while at the same time benefiting prosperous white car owners commuting between city and suburbs).
  • Police and governments allow and abet violence by whites against Blacks who move into white neighborhoods. If fact, Black victims more likely to be charged with a crime if any legal action is taken at all.
  • IRS maintains tax exemptions for organizations that fund segregated housing.
  • Housing segregation serves as a stumbling block to integration of schools.
  • Government aware that Black home buyers were being targeted for risky subprime mortgages but fail to act on regulations to protect them.
  • Section 8 vouchers restrict African Americans to housing located only in poor, African American neighborhoods

Rothstein also offers a final chapter with several solutions to segregation and inequality in the United States:

  • Education – this book is a good start to countering the widespread belief in de facto segregation based on individual’s preferences and prejudices. The history of the government’s support for funding and requiring segregation must also be taught in schools.
  • Revive George Romney’s proposals to deny HUD funds to any communities that use exclusionary zoning to enable housing segregation.
  • Use the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing of the Fair Housing Act to rectify barriers to desegregation of housing.
  • Subsidies for African American homebuyers in predominately white areas (in a sense, restitution for their parents, grandparents, great-parents being unable to buy homes in these areas back when whites purchased homes at bargain rates).
  • End zoning regulations that prohibit multifamily housing or require large lots.
  • Promote inclusionary zoning.
  • “Fair Share Act” to require states to establish mechanisms to ensure that every jurisdiction houses a representative share of African Americans and low income people.
  • Allow African Americans to use Section 8 subsidies in areas with higher rents, and model Section 8 programs on the mortgage income deduction which applies to all rather than being first-come, first-serve.

This is a powerful and important book and should be read by all Americans who care about creating a just and equitable country.

Recommended books: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill, The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy by Anna Clark and The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
Rating: *****

Book Review: Fire on the Prairie by Gary Rivlin


AuthorGary Rivlin
TitleFire on the Prairie : Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race
Publication Info: New York : H. Holt, 1992.
Summary/Review:

Harold Washington, the first Black mayor of Chicago, is center to this narrative of big city politics in the 1970s and 1980s.  Rivlin establishes the background by detailing the rise of machine politics under long-time mayor Richard J. Daley.  The Chicago machine makes what I know of similar operations in Boston and New York look like amateur hour, and machine politics persisted in Chicago under Daley decades after it died out in other cities.

While Daley was responsible for perpetuating the segregation and inequality of Black Chicagoans, he was also wise enough to bring leaders from Black wards into his machine, thus making it difficult for a reform candidate to gain support among Black voters.  In 1979, Daley protege Jane Byrne ran an anti-machine campaign for mayor and upon election turned her back on reformers and the Black community.  This set the stage for Harold Washington to make his historic run in 1983.

Rivlin details the ins and outs of the Democratic primary among Washington, Byrne, and the young Richard M. Daley, running for the first time to follow in his father’s footsteps.  After Washington squeaks out a primary victory, the Democrats failed to support his campaign in the general election, with many white voters rallying to lift up the previously moribund campaign of Washington’s Republican opponent.  With a massive turnout of Black voters and the help of Latin and some progressive white voters, Washington once again eked out a victory.

Jesse Jackson is an interesting figure in all of this as the most prominent African American leader in Chicago.  He proves to actually be somewhat unpopular among Black Chicagoans both for his shameless self-promotion (several times he tries to get himself into a prominent spot to be seen on tv with Washington during the campaign) and his lack of knowledge of local concerns.  Jackson actually performs poorly in the 1984 Democratic primary in Chicago compared to other Black Democratic cities.

The celebration of Washington’s victory was short as a block of 29 city councilor’s organized to oppose his every proposal.  The Council Wars dominate much of Washington’s first term. Many of the strategies used to disrupt Washington’s agenda are very similar to what Republicans would later do to Barack Obama.  The Black community is also frustrated by Washington’s commitment to reaching out to white Chicagoans and being “fairer than fair” rather helping them take the share of the spoils they’d been so long denied.

Nevertheless, Washington is able to make some progress and win a second term in 1987.  Sadly the momentum and the council majority were cut short by Washington’s sudden death in November 1987.

I was a bit disappointed that this book largely focuses on the political horse race.  I would’ve liked to learn more about Washington, his accomplishments, and legacy in Chicago.  Nevertheless, this is a compelling narrative of city politics and the racial conflicts of Chicago.

Recommended booksThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream by Thomas Dyja, and Eyes on the Prize by Juan Williams
Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending October 27th


Believed :: The Good Guy

This podcast series from Michigan Radio investigates the story of Larry Nassar, the women’s Olympics gymnastic doctor found guilty of sexual abusing his patients for decades.  This first episode depicts how Nassar was seen in the gymnastic community as a respected and lovable figure, not appearing as a monster despite performing monstrous acts.  There are obvious content warning for rape and trauma for anyone considering listening to this episode.

The Memory Palace :: The Dress in the Closet

This Halloween episode is a ghost story of sorts telling the sad story of Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone and how they were haunted by being guests of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on the night of his murder.

Hit Parade :: The Oh. My. God. Becky Edition

The Hit Parade visits the charts circa 1991-1992 when hip-hop hits finally reach #1.  It was a transitional period for hip-hop between its party song roots and the West Coast gangsta rap that emerged as a hit-churning style later in the 90s.  The new styles sampled pop and R&B songs and featured more conscious lyrics.  Artists included De La Soul, PM Dawn, Arrested Development, and … Sir Mix-A-Lot.  Host Chris Molanphy credits the newfound success of rap on the charts partly to Billboard introducing the new SoundScan system which more accurately tracked record sales and airplay.  This was another nostalgic episode for me as I liked a lot of the rap music from this period but never cottoned on to gangsta rap.

Podcasts of the Week Ending October 20th


To the Best of Our Knowledge :: Pick Your Poison

The most stunning segment of this episode on poison regards “The Radium Girls” of Ottawa, Illinois, who were poisoned painting clock dials with radium.  It’s another example of cruelty of capitalist greed, misogyny, and indifference to human suffering.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Theremin

I’m fascinated by weird instruments like the theremin and the career of Bob Moog, and this podcast has a lot of both.

Fresh Air :: Don’t Be Fooled By The Talking Horse — ‘BoJack’ Is A Sadness ‘Sneak Attack’

I’ve written reviews of BoJack Horseman here stating it’s the “best show on television,” and Terry Gross’ interview with its creator is revelatory.

99% Invisible :: The Worst Way to Start a City

What if a city was born by just having 100,000 people show up at once and claim their spot?  That’s the weird story of Oklahoma City.  Listen to this just for the “Oh, Joe – here’s your mule!” part.

Book Review: Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser


AuthorCaroline Fraser
TitlePrairie fires : the American dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Publication Info: New York : Metropolitan Books, 2017.
Summary/Review:

Like anyone else who grew up in my generation, I watched and loved the tv series Little House on the Prairie as a kid. In fifth grade we read a section of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book Little House on the Prairie and I was entranced.  I immediately read all the books in the Little House series in sequence (except I skipped Farmer Boy because I had no interest in Almanzo).  The earlier books were my favorites and I read Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, and On the Banks of Plum Creek multiple times. This was an important time in my life as a reader because up to that point I was rather finicky and found it hard to finish books, especially fiction.

Of course, I knew that the books were highly fictionalized stories of Wilder’s life and the tv show even more greatly removed from reality.  It was interesting to read this biography to learn the true story of Wilder’s life. Fraser’s research and writing is especially good at establishing Wilder’s story in the context of historical events – conflicts with Indians, financial crises and depressions, political movements, and even climate change. The period of Wilder’s life covered in her 9 books is just a small portion of her long life and is covered in the first 150 pages of the 500+ page book.  For all her romance of life on the Great Plains and the admiration of the rugged individualism of farming, Laura and Alamanzo Wilder were not able to find stability and success in life until they left the West for the South (specifically the Ozarks of Missouri) and found work off the farm.

Laura Ingalls Wilder established herself in Mansfield, MO through her activity in local clubs and working for Farm Loan Asssociation, a federal agency that made small loans to farmers.  Wilder also worked as a writer and editor, eventually creating a popular column in a publication called The Ruralist. Wilder’s entry into writing was inspired by a key figure in this biography, Rose Wilder Lane, who lived in various parts of the country working as a journalist (albeit specializing in “fake news”) and freelance writer, and eventually writing novels and political treatises.  Fraser is barely able to contain her contempt for Lane, who admittedly is an awful person, but nevertheless its surprising when someone is so bad that a historian can’t keep a neutral tone

Wilder writes the Little House books during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s and early 1940s, with the current events informing her reflections on the past. Since the books were written for children, Wilder naturally sanitized some of the darkest times of her childhood, elided events, and created composite characters.  But she also chose to use the books to hide her family’s deep poverty and multiple failures while idolizing her parents as exemplars of independence. This means leaving out parts of their lives when Charles Ingalls skipped out of town to avoid a debt or when the family had a miserable time working at a hotel in Iowa.

Lane served as an editor for her mother’s writing, and the surviving manuscripts includes notes back and forth, of what to retain and what to cut.  Fraser indicates Wilder fought to retain many of her own ideas and writing against Lane’s edits and suggestions and the finished novels have the same style as Wilder’s handwritten manuscripts.  Some scholars believe that Lane ghost wrote some or all of the novels, but Fraser use this evidence to attest that Lane mainly did the editing while writing an occasional interpolation. Lane’s increasingly radical right wing, libertarian ideology also influenced her mother’s political leanings and the underlying messages of the novels.

Fraser also examines the cultural effect of the Little House stories, both as a response to the New Deal when the books were published and in the post-Nixonian era of the television.  In both eras, Little House played the role of offering a rose-tinted view of a patriotic past where Americans took initiative and supported themselves through hard work.  Ironically, Wilder created a fictional version of her parents as independent farmers by erasing their poverty, their inability to survive as subsistence farmers, and the times they benefited from help of the government.  In fact, if the government is to be blamed for an of the suffering of the Ingalls, Wilders, and thousands of other pioneer farming families it is when they acted on laissez-faire and libertarian policies that someone like Lane would support. Examples include the US government ignoring their own scientist’s research that showed the Dakotas should not be opened to farming because it was too arid, and state governments offering little aid to farmers suffering from plagues of locusts and droughts because they did not wish to create “dependency.”

This is an excellent work of biography and history.  While offering a look at the exceptional life of a successful and beloved author, it also is a glimpse into the lives and dreams of many Americans in some of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history. Amazingly the book contains contrasting ideas of what it means to be American and the best way to govern this country that are still relevant to the current political debate. If you love the Little House books, this is a good way to deepen your understanding of their author and the books’ place in our culture.  But even if you have never read or watched any Little House material, this is still a great biography that I’d recommend.

Favorite Passages:

“The New York Times asked recently, ‘Why Do People Who Need Help from the Government Hate It so Much?’  It was no mystery to Wilder.  As she knew too well, people who are poor are ashamed.  It’s easier to blame the government than to blame yourself. Wrestling with shame was one of the reasons she wrote her books…” – p. 511

Recommended booksThe Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan

Rating: ****

Boston by Foot Riots Walking Tour, Oct. 18th @ 6pm


Clear your calendar Thursday, October 18, 2018 from 6:00pm-7:30pm for the Boston By Foot walking tour Bostonians Behaving Badly, lead by yours truly among others.  This tour discusses the history of riots and mob violence in Boston from colonial times to the 20th century.

As a warmup to the tour, check out the most recent Hub History podcast episode, Riot Classics.  All three civil disturbances discussed in this podcast will be featured on the tour.

You may purchase tickets online ahead of the tour ($15/each or $5 if you’re a member), or buy them in cash from the guides on the night of the tour.  We meet outside of the Park Street MBTA entrance on Boston Common.

Book Review: September 1918: War, Plague, and the World Series by Skip Desjardin


AuthorSkip Desjardin
TitleSeptember 1918: War, Plague, and the World Series
Publication Info: Regnery History (2018)
Summary/Review:

It’s a running joke that the Boston news media will try to find the Boston angle to any major news story.  The thesis of this book is that Boston was essentially the center of world events for the month of September 1918, and in many ways Desjardin is not exaggerating.

The 1918 World Series became famous for being the Boston Red Sox last championship for 86 years (after winning 5 of the first 15 World Series).  But the World Series that year is remarkable for other reasons.  First, it came at the end of a shortened season.  As part of the work or fight edict from the US government, Major League Baseball agreed to end the season at Labor Day, with the Red Sox and the Cubs given an extra couple of weeks to complete the World Series.  Baseball was then to be suspended for the remainder of the war, and when the World Series ended on September 11th, no one knew the armistice would occur exactly two months later.  The war also depressed enthusiasm for the World Series with a low turnout in both ballparks.  The players concern of getting the smallest bonus ever offered to World Series participants combined the uncertainty of future employment lead them to strike briefly before one of the games.

The first World War lies heavily over this book as the Wilson government heavily encouraged all-out participation by recruiting and dedicating the homefront to the war effort.  One of the first American war heroes, the flying ace David Putnam of Jamaica Plain, died over Germany on September 12.  The same day the American forces under General John Pershing began the three day offensive at Saint-Mihiel which included the Yankee Division, primarily made up of New Englanders.  This was the first time American divisions lead by American officers took part in an offensive and the successful battle gained respect of the French and British, while making Germany realize their hopes for victory were growing slim.

The War also played a part in spreading the Great Influenza across continents and oceans.  The flu made it’s first outbreak in the US in Boston at the end of August 1918 and by the early days of September it was infecting – and killing – great numbers of sailors at the Commonwealth Pier and a great number of soldiers at Camp Devens in Ayer.  Patriotic events like the Labor Day Parade helped spread the flu to the civilian population.  The official response tended towards prioritizing keeping morale high for the war effort rather than reporting the actual deadliness of the disease, and military officers repeatedly stated the worst was past even as the number of deaths in the ranks increased.  The flu would burn through Massachusetts by the end of September while having an even more deadly October in the rest of the US in places like Philadelphia.

I’ve long thought that the period circa 1918-1919 in Boston is an historic era uniquely packed with significant and strange events.  Desjardin proves that just picking one month from that period provides the material for a compelling historical work.

Recommended booksFlu: The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It by Gina Kolata and Red Sox Century by Glenn Stout
Rating: ***1/2

Massachusetts & Me: Two Decades Together


20 years ago today I drove a rental truck down the narrow streets of Winter Hill in Somerville and officially became a resident of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Nine years later almost to the day, I moved to Boston proper in my present home in Jamaica Plain.  20 years is by far the most time I’ve resided in any state (compared with 15 years in Connecticut, 7 years in Virginia, and 2 years in New Jersey), and close to half of my life.

Living in Massachusetts this long means making many friends, some of whom have moved on to other states, and then meeting new, interesting people.  I’ve developed annual traditions, found favorite restaurants (sadly, many of which have closed), gone to tons of concerts and sporting events, visited museums and historic sites, participated in protests and celebrations, and settled into comfortable routines.  And yet there’s so much more to see and do and explore.

It’s all gone by so quickly, so let’s look back at some of the highlights of my 20 years in the Bay State:

1998-2000 – I work sundry temp jobs at GTE, Genzyme, and MIT, and also spend some time unemployed. FUN!

1999-present – began commuting around Boston & environs by bicycle, and while I don’t ride nearly as much as I used to, it’s still a great way to get around the city.

1999 & 2000 – Participated in the Boston –> New York AIDSRide

1999-2006 – Not really in Massachusetts, but living in day trip distance of New Hampshire’s White Mountains meant I could do a lot of hikes of 4000 foot peaks.

2000 – Started working at a library, where I’m still working 3 job changes, 7 offices, and 12 supervisors later.

2000 – Begin leading historical walking tours as a guide for Boston By Foot.

2001-2013 – Participate in a wonderful church community at the Paulist Center in downtown Boston.

2002-2004 – Studied for my Masters in Library and Information Science at the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

2004 – Witnessed the Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years.

2005 – Married Susan!

2007 – Saw the Red Sox win the World Series again.

2007 – Peter Born!

2008 – Spend a couple of weeks suffering from crippling sciatica and missing work. :(

2009 – I performed in the annual Christmas Revels show.  I even sang a solo!

2010-2011 – I write and lead a new tour for Boston By Foot for the Avenue of the Arts.

2011 – Kay Born!

2011-2012 – I create and lead another Boston By Foot Tour in Somerville’s Davis Square.

2012 – 2013 – Sang in a family chorus in JP.

2012-present – Our kids attend a wonderful Boston Public School and we get to meet lots of cool teachers, kids, and parents (and become public education activists).

2013 – sang as part of a 50-voice choir in Somerville Theatre bringing the music of Beck to life with burlesque dancers.

2013 – Horrified by the Boston Marathon bombing but touched by the many people who helped save lives and the spirit of the community in the ensuing days.

2013-present – Our kids play in the wonderful Regan Youth League

2013-present – become active in another fantastic church community closer to home, Hope Central.

2013 – Watched the Red Sox win yet another World Series, this time with a 5-year-old superfan

2014-2015 – I write and lead yet another new tour for Boston By Foot of Cambridge Common

2015 – Four consecutive blizzards in a matter of weeks bury Boston in a 108″ of snow.

2017-2018 – Yet again, I’m involved in creating a new tour for Boston By Foot, this time of the SoWa District.