A new book of essays celebrates Boston without glossing over the citys weaknesses

The Good City: Writers Explore 21st-Century Boston
Edited by Emily Hiestand and Ande Zellman
Boston, Beacon Press, 175 pages.

July’s Democratic National Convention did not, as it turned out, produce most of the consequences predicted in the seemingly endless pre-convention hype. Neither the calamitous prophecies of the Boston Herald—which portrayed the coming DNC as a sort of Siege of Leningrad, waged by godless ward-heelers from the Dakotas—nor the El Doradan fantasies of Mayor Tom Menino came to fruition. For close to a week the city resembled the restaurant of which Yogi Berra famously observed, “Nobody goes there any more. It’s too crowded.”

But in the end, the convention produced what it was supposed to—a campaign kickoff for the Democrats —and several ancillary pleasures, from the eloquence of Barack Obama to the flower boxes arrayed along Boylston Street. In the latter category, be sure to include this nifty little book.

The Good City was conceived as a convention-time ode to Boston, a collection of 15 essays on the Olde Towne by some of the area’s sharpest writers. Copies were distributed to the convention delegates, though this exercise seems akin to casting pearls before—well, before people who couldn’t even figure out that the North End is where we hide all the good food. No, the delegates were not likely to appreciate this piece of work, but the rest of us surely can.

Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, which sponsored The Good City and its distribution to conventioneers, writes in his introduction that Boston is “the Comeback City,” rescued from the mid-’70s slough of urban despond by strong leadership, smart planning, and a heritage of civic activism. He argues forcefully that cities are essential to any well-ordered society: “Only cities create and sustain the great symphonies, museums, theaters, and universities. Only cities are magnets for the creative talent and innovation that talent produces.”

Thomas Jefferson, among others, might beg to differ, but Grogan makes a strong argument for the centrality of the city in American life. The essays that follow all accept that basic premise, and proceed to make the case for Boston’s inclusion in the first rank of the nation’s urban centers.

These essays run the gamut, from Patricia Powell’s autobiographical tale of an immigrant girl’s education and development as a writer to Anita Diamant’s thoughts on Boston as a latter-day Yavneh, a haven for Jewish culture and learning.

Like Boston itself, there is enough good stuff in The Good City to appeal to a broad range of interests; the pieces you like best will reflect who you are and where your heart lies. My own tastes being what they are, I greatly enjoyed Jack Beatty’s holding-forth on James Michael Curley and Boston’s history of ethnic political warfare—familiar territory for Beatty, author of The Rascal King, but always worth revisiting—and Howard Bryant’s shrewd examination of the intersection of sports and race in the city’s popular culture.

Scott Kirsner, too, has a fascinating piece on the city’s place at the forefront of innovation and technology. Journeying through time from a tinkerer’s shop operated by one Charles Williams on Court Street—a shop where Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell both rented lab space, and where the telephone was born—to a drug discovery lab at Genzyme’s main facility in Cambridge, Kirsner does a wonderful job of explicating “Boston’s technology ecosystem.”

For those whose interests range beyond the all-guy nexus of sports, politics, and technology, Alan Chong offers an insightful piece on the history of the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum, where he is curator, and John Hanson Mitchell expounds on the city’s natural history and its relationship to the great outdoors. Also of interest, especially to new parents like myself: Irene Smalls looks at the city through the eyes of a child, and holds forth on the importance of play for children of all ages.

Despite the boosterism inherent in any project of this sort, The Good City also manages to confront the ugliness of Boston’s troubled racial past. The busing crisis of the ’70s receives only brief mention in these pages, but Derrick Z. Jackson recounts more recent outrages against the city’s African-American community, including the Charles Stuart murder investigation and the death, during a police raid, of retired Rev. Accelyne Williams.

While clear-eyed about the problems that continue to confront Boston’s minorities, Jackson also cites examples of real progress—the sharp decline in youth violence, the signal success of many African-American entrepreneurs—before concluding on a cautiously hopeful note: “We never give up thinking that this city can be a solution that helps the rest of the nation cure its ills.”

For that to happen, though, the city must be a home for the people who can make that solution an everyday reality—the middle-class families of all races whose kids go to the same schools, play in the same parks, and walk the same safe streets. Without a thriving middle class, Boston will always be divided by economics as well as by race—and yet the fate of the city’s middle class remains woefully uncertain.

The solution—more, much more, affordable housing—is obvious in theory but, as recent history has shown, damnably difficult to bring about in the real world. Still, the need is urgent; as Jane Holtz Kay notes in her piece on the city’s architectural evolution, we need “to stop the exodus to distant enclaves… Good planning is the agent of good living, history teaches us, and we forget it to our sorrow.”

That’s about as close as The Good City comes to offering anything like a policy prescription. This book is a celebration, not a symposium, and for the most part these essays follow a single, reader-friendly formula: interesting ideas, entertainingly argued, hold the footnotes.

Not all the essays deliver the goods, however. Two of the biggest writerly names, Susan Orlean and Michael Patrick MacDonald, sadly disappoint. Orlean has penned a fluffy little account of returning to Boston after her recent marriage—but a little more Boston, and a lot less Susan, would have been in order. And MacDonald, author of the searing All Souls: A Family Story From Southie, offers up an earnest screed against gentrification, but one that incongruously focuses on the evil yuppie menace lurking in and around Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he is now living.

Of course, no tribute to Boston would be complete without the requisite dose of intellectual snobbery, and James Miller seems happy to oblige. Miller, the editor of Daedalus, writes about his club, the Examiner, an ancient Boston institution that exists to bring together local intellectuals “interested in the enlightenment of society.” Founded in 1863, it has included among its ranks Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry and William James, and William Dean Howells. In recent years, though, as Miller tells it, the club’s influence on the real world has been on the wane:

The future of American politics, I mused, lay not with writers and scholars and talkers like ourselves, but rather with pollsters and unlettered politicians, entrepreneurs unashamed to sell their souls to the rich, leaders anxious to tell people what they want to hear—in short, political operatives profoundly uninterested in the type of upright liberality of spirit and intellectual self-reliance that we Examiners presumably epitomized.

Yikes! To paraphrase legendary Governor’s Councilor Sonny McDonough’s retort to US Sen. Leverett Saltonstall: On behalf of my fellow pollsters, I’d like to thank you for letting us borrow your country, sir.

The sad state of affairs that Miller deplores is, of course, nothing new; it’s the way the world works. America has always had to rely on the unlettered politicians—like the one who, at the time of the Examiner’s founding, was busy ending slavery and saving the Union—to get things done, when the writers and scholars and talkers have packed up their upright liberality of spirit and gone home.

Ray Flynn and Tom Menino, to mention just a couple of recent mayors, might not fit in all that well in the intellectually rarefied atmosphere of the Examiner, but they are two of the reasons Boston has become a world-class city—and worth writing about in the first place.

Meet the Author
In the end, Boston is worth writing about because it truly is a special city, a place that celebrates its past without wallowing in it and looks to the future with confident anticipation. It’s a city where the Bulfinch State House and the Zakim Bridge, symbols of two very different Bostons, look as if they belong together.

As Jane Holtz Kay writes, “Is Boston living on its legacy? Yes, and splendidly…but we need to do more.” And indeed we do, to make sure this good city remains all that it is today —most especially, a place where real people can actually afford to live.

Francis J. Connolly is a senior analyst at Kiley & Co., a Boston-based public opinion research firm.