Globe's ‘68 Blocks’ series was well worth the effort

The Boston Globe’s recent in-depth series that focused on Dorchester’s Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood was, in most ways, outstanding. The package of stories and multi-media presentations on the newspaper’s website— titled “68 Blocks: Life, Death, Hope” was published over a five-day period between Dec. 16 and Dec. 20. 
The full series remains prominently featured on the newspaper’s website. If you haven’t read it, we encourage you to do so and to form your own opinions (perhaps even before reading this sampling of ours.)

To summarize briefly: A five-person Globe reporting team— often augmented by additional Globe resources— saturated the Bowdoin-Geneva area last summer to assemble this project. Two members of the team moved onto Mt. Ida Road during the summer months to become fully immersed in the day-to-day life there. The Globe sensibly elected to tell the community’s story by tracking and telling the stories of select individuals.

The reporters and photographers sought out people who were representative of the most compelling elements of neighborhood life in 2012: the parents of a murdered 16-year-old boy struggling with the aftermath of his death while dealing with the problems of a second son who was incarcerated on gun charges; an overburdened parish priest ministering to his flock’s routine spiritual needs while being consumed with keeping wayward teenagers from a violent death; a single-mom juggling the pressures of raising her own kids and a day job as a school secretary; an idealistic community organizer who runs into resistance, but ultimately wins favor as she resurrects a distressed public garden.

Each of these stories on its own is interesting, but as a whole they are not easily or often told in such a sweeping arc. Harder still is the one that Globe reporter Maria Cramer picked: telling the story of Tal, the “impact player” who could be the next murder victim, or murder suspect, depending on the day.  His tale is a revealing and disturbing reminder of just how much of our daily industry and energy in this community is expended in “fitful efforts,” as the Globe terms it, to keep young people alive, unarmed, and out of harm’s way or a prison cell.

One of the shortfalls of the package is that it doesn’t quite capture the deceptively complex and costly array of services, programs, and organizations that have been working on these problems for decades, a package of initiatives overall that demands both more attention and scrutiny. Some of these groups and involved individuals are understandably annoyed by the lack of notice of their efforts because “68 Blocks” is likely to be considered the definitive story on Bowdoin-Geneva for years to come.

One of the Globe reporters, Akilah Johnson, reinforces this concern in a video in which she explained how she framed her work to interview subjects: “I’d tell people, this is your one chance to tell people what you want them to know about your neighborhood.”

That would be an unsettling proposition, were it truly the case. The story of any neighborhood can’t ever be truly told in one essay, an editorial, a documentary, a book, or a newspaper series.  The Globe and other media can and must stay focused on our neighborhoods for the long run. We expect that they will.

The Globe series is best read and digested with its finest qualities in mind: For starters, it is a beautifully composed work of reporting and writing that records a moment in time in the lives of these select individuals and, in doing so, comes as close to capturing what it was like to be on these streets last summer as any medium could. Taken together with a collection of remarkable images assembled both by Globe photojournalists and some residents, the entire work— taken as a whole— is a welcome and truly extraordinary contribution to our community at large.

What critics and fans of the series should do— if they feel so compelled— is write to the Globe and offer feedback. (Adela Margules, the longtime director of the Bowdoin Street Health Center, has already done this— and the paper published her reaction last week.) And the Globe should make all of these responses part of its permanent presentation of the series online.

One thing that should not happen: The “68 Blocks” package should not be hailed or condemned or hung up in a debate about motive. The very act of devoting many months of sustained, sensitive, and probing coverage to a sub-neighborhood with a widely known but little understood history of poverty, violence, and disinvestment is a praiseworthy endeavor. We encourage more journalism of this nature from our friends at Boston’s larger news organizations.



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