Boston’s oracle

As both practitioner and interpreter, Larry DiCara has spent a lifetime steeped in Boston politics.

Turmoil and Transition in Boston:
A Political Memoir from the Busing Era
By Lawrence S. DiCara, with Chris Black
Lantham, Hamilton Books
234 pages

Turmoil and Transition in Boston, the title of Larry DiCara’s memoir, is an apt heading for his chronicle of the city’s busing years, which coincide roughly with the 12 years he spent in politics. The turmoil part is clear: The school desegregation order ripped the city apart like nothing before or since. The transition, on the other hand, takes a more skilled hand to convey fully. It was not marked by any single event or issue but by a set of changes set in motion during that time that have remade Boston into a far different city than the one in which DiCara came of age.

There may be no better teller of this tale than DiCara, the dean of all Boston things demographic and electoral. For years, DiCara has been reporters’ go-to guy for comment and analysis. He’s finally gathered up all those shared nuggets of local lore and historical context—and many more from his diaries—into a highly readable account of one of the most wrenching decades in the life of the city.

A Dorchester-born son of Italian-American strivers, DiCara went from Boston Latin School to Harvard and then, only months after his graduation in 1971, onto the City Council. At age 22, he be­came the youngest person ever elected to the body.

A policy wonk before the term came into widespread use, DiCara was interested in the workings of city government in a way that immediately set him apart from his council colleagues, an older generation of Boston pols more interested in trading favors and landing jobs for loyal constituents. Any ideas DiCara had about policy and government operations, however, were quickly subordinated to the only thing on anyone’s mind: the looming federal order to desegregate Boston’s schools.

When Judge Arthur Garrity’s order came down in 1974, it tore at the social fabric of Boston in ways still being felt today. Winthrop’s shining city on a hill became a “seething sea of anger, resentment, and violence,” writes DiCara. “There was a real fear that the city was unraveling.”

DiCara found himself the odd man out on the  all-white city council, where he was the only one who didn’t sign on with the antibusing organization ROAR and its leader Louise Day Hicks (a fellow city council member). The busing plan was a horrible solution to a very real injustice, he writes, a view that history has in many ways vindicated.

In determining where a child would go to school, mapmakers far removed from the everyday life of the city reduced sections of neighborhoods to “geocodes,” and they treated school children like black and white chess pieces to be rearranged on the board until some definition of parity was reached. Some of the city’s poorest black and white children were the subjects of this scheme, and the schools in white neighborhoods like Charlestown and South Boston that were integrated were hardly paragons of scholastic wonder.

In speeches, DiCara decried the “polarization” brought on by those “who seek to profit from the divisions among us.” But he voices regret bordering on shame at not being a more forceful voice during the crisis. “In general, I kept my head down. I admit I was not a profile in courage,” he writes.

Notwithstanding such misgivings, there was little middle ground during the crisis, and, to borrow from Hicks’s well-worn antibusing slogan, people knew where DiCara stood. A simple call for law-abiding tolerance and calm was an act of treason to the antibusing forces. It meant his mother got berated at the supermarket. “Many who had always pitched a DiCara sign on their front lawn refused to take my sign for this campaign,” he writes of the 1975 election. “Others, including longtime friends and neighbors, just flatly told me to my face that they could longer vote for me.” One longtime supporter “never spoke to me again.”

This was an era of ill will, much of it better recalled than relived. There was plenty of debate and public engagement, but little of it evoked a high-minded sense of the democratic experience. “Many of the elected ‘leaders’ of Boston pandered to the lowest common denominator,” writes DiCara.

You would make a great mayor, Flynn told him. The turmoil has come to be the defining image of the era. What gets lost are the enormous changes that the period also birthed, transitions that seeded the far more cosmopolitan Boston of today. With its polyglot precincts and more vibrant street life, undergirded by a knowledge economy positioned perfectly for the 21st century, the city is thriving. In many ways, Boston has been engaged in a 40-year battle to have this picture replace the one of big-city bigotry that was so deeply burned into the national consciousness.

DiCara is equally insightful here. The change that was underway had several components. It included a tremendous population churn, with the arrival of more immigrants, a growing gay population, and a burgeoning band of younger, better-educated professionals who started migrating outward from downtown neighborhoods to the South End and Charlestown, then to Jamaica Plain, South Boston, and Dorchester. He points out that the transition to a much more tolerant city was also fueled by the exodus of those who could least abide the changing racial landscape.

Meanwhile, Boston’s longstanding strengths in higher education and medicine, and leading role in the emerging high-tech and finance sectors, gave the region the perfect mix to soar in a global economy that was rewarding brains over brawn. DiCara acknowledges the toll this has also taken. In Jamaica Plain, where he now lives, “the delta bet­ween the haves and have-nots has increased quite dramatically in recent years,” he laments.

Where DiCara fills out this story well is in showing how public sector decision-making was critical to this urban renaissance. He had a hand in the city’s decision to allow a then-novel remake of Faneuil Hall and the derelict Quincy Market buildings. He recounts the battle to halt the South­west Expressway slated to cut through Jamaica Plain and Roxbury. The new Orange Line corridor of transit lines and parkland won out instead, accompanied by a blossoming of the surrounding neighborhoods that would never have occurred alongside an interstate highway. The Big Dig, the Silver Line to the waterfront, the Charlestown Navy Yard, and Post Office Square park are just some of the public infrastructure or private development projects he points to that got their start during this time and which have utterly transformed the city.

DiCara, now a downtown real estate lawyer, has been out of office for more than 30 years, but he’s never left the civic stage, serving on countless nonprofit boards and retaining an energetic level of engagement with the city.

For him, the last hurrah in politics came in 1983, when DiCara was one of nine candidates in the preliminary election to succeed Kevin White as mayor. It was the office he had longed for from the start. He finished far out of the money in fourth place, as Ray Flynn and Mel King advanced to the final. Here is the one place where I think his account briefly falters. “Ray Flynn managed to emerge as the choice of the blue collar conservatives still in the city, just as Mel King became a rallying point for the growing numbers of minority group members. It was enough,” he writes.

Though it’s hard to see today from his return to his hard-right roots, Flynn fashioned a winning coalition that was much broader than blue collar conservatives. Indeed, he also scooped up plenty of left-leaning community activists and policy-oriented housing leaders who, by rational reckoning, could easily have been backers of the issue-driven young liberal councilor from Dorchester.

That Flynn brought them into his fold may look all the more ironic in light of one moment DiCara shares from a 1983 candidate forum on housing issues. He writes that Flynn leaned to him at one point and said, “You know more about this stuff than anybody else. You would probably make a great mayor, but I don’t think anybody’s going to vote for you.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Alas, DiCara has become Boston’s own Adlai Steven­son. As a well-known story goes, during his 1956 presidential campaign, a woman called out to the Democratic nominee, “Senator, you have the vote of every thinking person!” Stevenson shot back, “That’s not enough, madam. I need a majority!”

When the Globe’s Larry Harmon wrote a column recently about DiCara’s book, it was headlined, “The best mayor we didn’t elect.” That may be small consolation to a man who admits he still pines for the job. But it’s a high tribute nonetheless, and one that DiCara only seems more worthy of after reading his honest account of a time of great ferment in the city he so clearly loves.