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Looking back to the ’60s and ’70s and the protests on Boston’s streets

“I have just returned from Boston. It is the only thing to do if you find yourself up there.”

The year was 1953, and Fred Allen, a native of Savin Hill who had gained national acclaim with a popular weekly radio show that offered up precious wit in pithy doses, was writing to his friend Groucho Marx.
Allen’s two sentences spoke volumes about mid-century Boston, a 325-year-old municipality rich in history but decidedly poor in prospects as the world was busily remaking itself after the wartime horrors of the previous decade. The city, its politics, its industries, and its infrastructure were for the most part from another time, and its middle-class families, the bulwark of any urban community, were looking for the exits.

But even then Boston’s new mayor, John B. Hynes, the electoral conqueror of the legendary James Michael Curley, was all about making reality of his vision for “the new Boston,” a dream that saw a federally supported urban renewal program as the driving force behind the city of the future.

In 1952, the city called for the demolition of 24 acres in a South End neighborhood where some 850 families lived. The next year, the mayor told the public about the city’s plans for the West End: 48 acres to be cleared, 700 buildings to be brought down, and almost 3,000 families to be replaced to make room for a neighborhood of 2,000 high-rise apartments. In 1957, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) was established as the vehicle that would supervise the renewal projects in place and plan for the eventual expansion of the program to the outer neighborhoods.

The reaction of the population at large to urban renewal as practiced in the South End and West End by the city’s powers- who-be – leading politicians, the business establishment, and the press (only newspapers had the clout to make a difference back then) – was a mixture of acceptance, incredulity, and resolve that eventually brought renewal to heel, at least with respect to those who saw only power grabs by the haves and no concern for the integrity of the individual neighborhoods. There would be no more easy roads to the destruction of anything tied to community life.

Jim Vrabel, a historian who dotes on things Boston, an alumnus of the BRA, and a longtime activist in numerous municipal endeavors, has taken up the story of that reaction in his recently released book, “A People’s History of the New Boston.” It’s an account he relates from a perspective of appreciation for what “the people” did in the 1960s and 1970s to make renewal in Boston a matter of inclusion. Writes Vrabel: “The notion that sometimes the people know better appears to have been the common denominator in all the protest that followed.”

The author used a lot of old-fashioned shoe leather to track down and interview individuals who could, from experience, shed light on the times; he spent months in various archives searching for articles that illuminated the strident arguments of the times; and he makes good use of his own powers of observations as a participant and as an appreciator of civic involvement as a virtue that benefits everyone.

The topics that make up the substance of the book are familiar to greater Bostonians of a certain age: Civil rights from the early 1960s, Vietnam throughout mid-decade and beyond, school desegregation, mothers for adequate welfare, Tent City and public housing, rent control, “People Before Highways,” gentrification, the Fair Share approach, to name a few. And the names echo the tenor of the times: Jerome Rappaport and Jim Campano; John Hynes and John Collins and Kevin White; Muriel and Otto Snowden; Bob Coard and Chuck Turner; Michael Dukakis and Fred Salvucci; Hubie Jones and Michael Haynes; Arthur Gartland and Louise Day Hicks and Melnea Cass and Elma Lewis and Ellen Jackson and Paul Parks, and W. Arthur Garriety; Gov. Francis W. Sargent and Alan Altschuler; and many more.

“A People’s History of the New Boston” is granular in the research and broadly revealing in the telling of a recent time past in Boston’s history reminiscent of the revolutionary 1770s and the abolitionist 1850s, when the people insisted they had something important to say about how life should be lived in their city and in their nation.
Editor’s Note: Tom Mulvoy reviewed drafts of Jim Vrable’s book-in-the-making. “A People’s History of the New Boston” – copyright 2014 by Jim Vrabel. Published by the University of Massachusetts Press.