I was excited to pick up A People’s History of the New Boston by Jim Vrabel (UMass Press, 2014) at our local branch of the Boston Public Library a few weeks ago; I’d heard about it through the Boston history grapevine and really wanted it to be good. It promised, in its opening pages, “to tell the other half of the story”:
It gives credit to many more people — women as well as men; black, brown, and yellow as well as white; the poor and working class as well as the well off. This story focused on how those people made Boston a more humane and morally better city (1-2).
Vrabel, a journalist and community activist, was involved in the very remaking of Boston that this narrative covers — the postwar struggles of a vacated central business district and “blighted” neighborhoods up through the community organizing of the 1970s and the unsuccessful attempts to desegregate Boston’s public schools. An inside observer, he is in many ways well positioned to write an accounting of grassroots change at the neighborhood level.
However, two major flaws make it difficult for me to recommend this work. The first is his near complete erasure of queer and feminist activism from his narrative (more below). The second, Vrabel’s nostalgia-ridden concluding chapters, a glossing of the present that ignores continued local agitation and sweat equity around affordability, equality, local control, and the role of city and state government in supporting or destroying communities.
While present-day social change organizing and action look very different from the 1950s, the 1970s, or indeed the 1990s, I find it dispiriting that an author with experience in journalism takes this at face value — assuming that difference is simply disappearance. To assume, for example, that anyone with a college or advanced degree is well-off financially is patently false in an era of skyrocketing housing costs and crushing student debt. While not classically “working class,” today’s college graduates nevertheless struggle with a lot of the same survival challenges that Vrabel’s working class protagonists did in the 1950s.
Even more problematic than this latter-day nostalgia, I would argue, the absence of queer and feminist organizations in his narrative. “Homosexuals” appear in passing as agents of gentrification in South Boston; then queer and feminist politics crop up again as examples of issue-driven politics that supposedly eclipsed local community organizing during the 1970s-80s. To view LGBT and feminist politics as non-local politics, of course, conceptualizes us out of the local community — imagines our identities as somehow less homegrown than, say, those of African-American, Puerto Rican, or Irish Bostonians, construction workers, or mothers on welfare, whose organizing was also identity- and issue-based yet merited inclusion in A People’s History of Boston.
Furthermore, the erasure feels more deliberate than simple oversight when, for example, the Fenway/Kenmore neighborhood is discussed without reference to Fenway Community Health Center, and organizations such as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, the Coalition to Take Back the Night, Gay Community News, AIDS Action Committee, and other local groups that may have been hooked into national and international networks or movements but nevertheless had a meaningful local footprint. The absence of any meaningful consideration of these grassroots activists — even an acknowledgement that he was purposefully excluding them due to scope / time / in-depth treatment elsewhere — renders the rest of his work suspect to similar selectivity and shallow assessment. I will be interested to what sort of reception it meets within the community of scholars working in-depth on 20th century Boston history, and how this volume stands the test of time.