Boston’s grass roots

Jim Vrabel offers a rich history of community organizing in Boston told through the voices of the activists of the 1960s and 1970s who helped shape the city

A People’s History of the New Boston
By Jim Vrabel
Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press
288 pages

history is replete with the stories of the mighty and powerful. Jim Vrabel’s latest book, A People’s History of the New Boston, tells another story. Vrabel, a former newspaper reporter and longtime community activist who has worked for Mayor Ray Flynn, the Boston School Committee, and the Boston Redevelopment Authority, is also a quintessential historian and sets out to give all those who have pushed at power from the outside their due.

More than 40 years ago, Stephan Thernstrom followed a similar impulse in The Other Bostonians: Poverty and Progress in the American Metropolis, 1880–1970. “A study of the present that neglects the processes of change by which the present was created is necessarily superficial,” wrote Thernstrom.

Vrabel drills deep into the processes of change that help explain how Boston became the city it is today. He does so by drawing on more than a decade of personal interviews with some 100 past and current community activists to paint a portrait of the transition from the Old Boston to the New Boston. While the term “New Boston” has more recently come to describe the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of the city and its political leadership, it also refers to the efforts started in the late 1940s to remake the city through big development projects. Through the book’s 22 chapters, Vrabel lets readers hear directly the voices of people as they tried to salvage their neighborhoods from the architects of that New Boston. He gives voice to those activists who worked hard every day and were ignored at City Hall and the State House until they organized and fought back.

Interspersed with meticulously researched archival materials that document the actions of politicians, especially mayors and other government officials, most notably those at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, Vrabel clearly shows the neglect, abuse, and disdain demonstrated by many in the 1960s and 1970s toward the activists trying to protect and preserve their neighborhoods. In writing about the city’s leaders, he sets out to document “how willing they were to listen to the people of Boston and to share power with them.” His conclusion? Most of them weren’t interested.

Eighteen of the 22 chapters tell the story, in a case study methodology, of a particular community struggle against powerful forces. Vrabel skillfully includes profiles of the 18 neighborhoods of Boston while chronicling an issue, protest, or controversy in each one of them. He also suggests noteworthy works by other authors that more fully examine a controversy or community conflict he describes.

A People’s History of the New Boston is a must-read for a new generation of community activists, politicians, government officials, students of cities, and the media. The book recognizes the role neighborhood organizing can play in changing the course of history and suggests some of the reasons there may have been a decline in activism in Boston beginning in the 1980s.

Vrabel traces the rise in Boston of what sociologist Harvey Molotch calls the “growth machine,” which determines who gets what in a city. In Boston, the growth machine era coincided with the reigns of Mayors John Hynes, John Collins, and Kevin White. Much of the energy of the growth machine coalition, led by business elites, real estate developers, labor organizations, the local media, and supported by politicians, was devoted to development issues, including pursuit of urban renewal projects like the razing of the old West End. These have been among the most contentious battles in modern Boston history. The planning agency of the city, the Boston Redevelopment Authority, was the arm of government to implement the growth machine policies of urban renewal that triggered a militant response by the people in Boston’s neighborhoods.

Vrabel points to the limited, but still notable, successes that community activists had in slowing the bulldozers, if not always stopping them completely. This was the case in each story Vrabel details: the destruction of the West End and New York streets neighborhood of the South End; the expansion of Logan Airport in East Boston; Harvard University’s land grab in Mission Hill; and the real-estate-fueled destruction of Mattapan by the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group. In each case, the growth machine won much of what it was seeking to accomplish, making millions of dollars in profits and destroying the social fabric of Boston’s neighborhoods in the process. The early losses taught other neighborhoods the consequences if they were not organized.

Neighborhood activism can be credited for sparing much of Charlestown and South Boston from the urban renewal bulldozers, and the neighborhoods of Roxbury, the South End, and Jamaica Plan ultimately won a reprieve by stopping the I-95 highway project, but not before thousands of homes were destroyed in the process. The book shows that the determinants of Boston’s development policies are largely political.

Boston’s public school segregation and desegregation get significant attention. Both the protest movement to improve the schools led by black parents and organizations, and the movement led by white politicians to stop busing as a school integration strategy are highlighted. Vrabel characterizes US District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s 1974 order — that the city’s school committee had willfully engaged in discriminatory policies — as the right finding, but says it was unfortunately paired with the ill-conceived remedy of busing thousands of school kids across the city. It is a widely shared opinion that busing was an abject failure in Boston, and Vrabel captures the highly charged sentiments on all sides of the issue.

Vrabel also pays important attention to the history of organizing around preserving and building affordable housing in Boston. He provides a case study of the successful effort by a group of Puerto Rican activists in the South End to transform a vacant piece of land known as Parcel 19 into Villa Victoria, a neighborhood of affordable housing modeled on a village in Puerto Rico. He examines the history of public housing in Boston and efforts by thousands of poor tenants to live in safe and sanitary housing, and the important role played by tenant leader Doris Bunte, who went on to serve as administrator of the Boston Housing Authority. In analyzing the tenant movement in the city, and the battle over rent control, Vrabel again demonstrates that many of the victories were short-lived. The real estate interests captured the local politicians through hefty campaign contributions and gutted the hard-fought gains achieved through rent control in Boston, forcing many low-income residents from neighborhoods that were fast becoming gentrified.
The determinants of Boston’s developments are largely political.
While Vrabel’s book focuses mainly on the activism of the 1960s and 1970s, he does devote a later chapter to the 1983 mayoral election and the repudiation of Kevin White’s growth machine coalition in the selection of Mel King and Ray Flynn as the two mayoral finalists. Vrabel notes that the 1983 final election that Flynn won had the highest turnout — 70 percent — of any mayoral election since 1949, when James Michael Curley was ousted by John Hynes and the growth machine spearheaded by West End developer Jerome Rappaport.

Vrabel highlights Flynn’s redistributive and managed growth policies, including linkage, a tax on downtown commercial development to fund affordable housing and job training; the expansion of the Boston Residents Jobs Policy guaranteeing construction jobs for Boston residents, minorities and women; the granting of eminent domain powers to a Roxbury redevelopment nonprofit; and the largest production of affordable housing for a city its size, much of it built by community development corporations.

Vrabel suggests that Boston today is missing “that spirit of activism and protest that contributed so much to make the New Boston better.” This is a provocative perspective, and he suggests several possible reasons: Kevin White’s deft political machine; Ray Flynn’s hiring of lots of the community activists; Tom Menino’s autocratic management of dissent.

Mel King suggests that that the outrage of the 1960s and 1970s is gone. While some of the outrage may be gone, there are many people organizing in Boston every day to make Boston better. Community Labor United is combining the power of community-based organizations and labor unions. The Youth Jobs Coalition organizes more than 1,000 youth each year to march to the State House and engage their legislators to fight for jobs and economic opportunity. Grass roots activism was also evident in the recent minimum wage and living wage campaigns. Activism may be different today, but it still exists vibrantly across Boston.

Meet the Author
The book closes by taking a look at the city today. Vrabel calls Boston’s story a “tale of two cities,” and cites a 2009 Boston Foundation report showing that income inequality in Boston is among the worst of any city in the country. The process of change by which the present was created, both in Vrabel’s study of the 1960s and 1970s, and the decades since, makes one wonder to what degree the policies of recent decades have both widened inequality and dampened activism. Perhaps the city is ripe for a new generation of activists to help change the course of Boston’s history for the better.

Don Gillis was the director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighbor-hood Services and the Economic Development and Industrial Corporation under Mayor Flynn. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in urban sociology and sociology of education at Boston University.