City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Part of ‘Boston/Cambridge Diary’ series: context here

Despite a few strong pieces directly addressing race, one of the better chapters in A Good City [UK|US] is Howard Bryant’s piece on the city’s racial politics and history refracted through the lens of baseball and basketball. The former an arena for a traditional resistance to black players and staff by the Boston Red Sox, and for the latter, the Boston Celtics and their pioneering integration of black players in the 60s then countered by an all-white team of the mid-80s. A complex story, which sport often brings out (cf. Simon Kuper’s ‘Ajax, The War and the Dutch’ and Tobias Jones’s ‘The Dark Heart of Italy’). Sport gets caught up in this – amplifies it, exemplifies it, exaggerates it – but is barely equipped to articulate it. According to Bryant, players heading to a Boston team are generally asked for their opinion on racial politics within their sport – not at all common practice for players in other cities. He talks of a city divided by identification with the Red Sox or the Celtics – “a divide that defines the city as surely as the Longfellow Bridge” – but also of Boston’s “special pedigree”, as compared to all other US cities, to face up to a history of racial discrimination and “harness its expectations”.

“Boston is famous, equally, for abolition and racism, for social justice and busing riots, for vision and inflexibility – interconnected strains that can be felt while walking around town, or in the box seats at Fenway Park, where the Red Sox live, or at the Fleet Center, home of the basketball Celtics and hockey Bruins. The city is famous for its oft-stated desire to confront these stubborn contradictions, and for its only limited success in doing so.” [from ‘Good Sports, Bad Sports’, by Howard Bryant, in A Good City]

Derrick Z. Jackson’s essay homes in on race specifically, relating his own experience as an African American journalist arriving from New York, and detailing a sorry history of early fierce prejudice and latterly more discrete but no less damaging ‘glass ceilings’.

“As recently as August 2003, the highest-ranking African American in state politics, Senator Dianne Wilkerson of Boston, said division remains the rule, not the exception. She has been the only African American in the state senate for the last decade. “I’m tired of hearing people bragging about Boston as a changing city and that we have 50.5 percent people of color when in fact they’re not reflected anywhere in the city’s fabric,” Wilkerson (said). “The resistance to breaking the economic barriers have been incredibly hard. They are as much alive today in Massachusetts as they were fifty years ago in the most segregated part of the South. And I was born in Arkansas.” [From ‘A Racial Lab for the Twenty-First Century’, by Derrick Z. Jackson, in A Good City]

A fairly astonishing statement, albeit from who I understand to be a controversial figure. Makes you think twice about how ‘good’ the city is after all. Jackson’s essay does conclude there is hope, however, after gently questioning Wilkerson’s statement and countering with some more positive examples; some small steps forward. He concludes: “We never give up thinking that this city can be a solution that helps the rest of the nation cure its ills.” There’s that ‘improving spirit’ again; how the very meaning of Boston is built upon an idealised city. This is a powerful force for change, when harnessed correctly, and Boston’s history indicates that immigration can really work here.

For instance, the Irish are part of this city like no other city in America. Which is saying something. (I witnessed Chicago turning its river an entirely vile shade of luminous lime green on St Patrick’s Day once.) There are Oirish bars (fake) and Irish bars (real) – in one of the latter, the excellent River Gods in Cambridge, the Guinness was good, but more importantly the conviviality – hello to new friends at WGBH! – was even better. The hotel I stayed in, Jurys Doyle Boston, was the former Boston Police headquarters in the 1920s, now spruced up into some confection of boutique and snazzy business chain. Reinvented Irish, natch. The names of the coppers who worked there were all Kearneys, Kernaghans, Flynns and Kielys. Bizarrely, there are glass cases in reception proudly displaying the brutal billy clubs and various, surely Inquisition-inspired, handcuffing devices. Actually, perhaps that case was a bit Oirish. Elsewhere, the Irish influence pervades in a more positive sense. It’s odd being an Englishman in such Irish spaces sometimes, though given the differing history of emigration and infusion, it’s hardly like plonking a Belgian in the Congo or something. It was never a problem, though, and the Irishness here seems – as ever – as much part of the city’s marketing strategy – “Welcome!” – as a deep psychogeographic layer. Having said that, this city – as with other modern industrial cities – owes a real debt to the Irish. Whilst the New World offered a way out of a famine-stricken Old World, that New World couldn’t have been built without Irish ingenuity, intellect and effort eventually at every level of the city. For Manchester, Liverpool, New York, see also Boston:

“For the year 1840 fewer than 4000 Irish arrived in Boston. On one April day in 1847, more than 1000 debarked. By 1850 the Irish numbered 35000 in a population of 136900.” [From ‘Whose City, Whose Hill’, by Jack Beatty, in A Good City]

They lived in the rookeries down by the stinking waterfront, in utterly squalid conditions; disease-ridden and working for little or no money – and the reaction from the Protestant Bostonians was fiercely disapproving, brutally vindictive. Ultimately ‘the problem’ caused a secret society to emerge from the old city, linked by passwords, handshakes and called the ‘Know-Nothings’ (named as members responded “I know nothing about it” during 1854 elections. Political branding specialists clearly hadn’t taken hold back then.) They took hold of 379 of the 381 seats in the Massachusetts legislature of 1854, creating a series of laws to deliberately and harshly persecute the Irish. However, despite some near-genocidal actions, history quickly overtook the Know-Nothings. Anti-slavery became a bigger deal than anti-immigration, and the Civil War finally united the city around the Union. There were bigger battles to win at that point. And the Irish went on to effectively dominate local politics until the 1990s. A fascinating rush of change over a couple of hundred years now leaves the city with a fairly rich ethnicity, slowly beginning to emerge in local city government and meaningful local business, despite how it sometimes appears.

Whilst I deliberately focused on the ultimately successful story of the Irish there – as part of a history of immigration within cities which people often overlook due to colour – it would seem, to this outsider at least, that the representation of ‘people of color’ in the city’s fabric feels extremely low, at least in the central areas I wandered around in, echoing Wilkerson’s statement above. The glib line about racial politics in the US, as compared to the UK, is that the organisation of the city on racial lines is far more segregated than in the UK. I’m not too keen on ‘glib lines’, natch, and London – where I live – is hardly a fair comparison, being one of a few ‘world cities’ with a history of immigration and integration going back about, oh, 2000 years. But in Boston and Cambridge, at my cursory and superficial glance – and I’m aware that I’m on the most delicate of grounds to be making cursory and superficial glances – that did seem a fair observation.

Cambridge in particular seemed pretty lilywhite, I have to say. A Canadian colleague whispered her discomfort with the fact that she’d only seen ‘people of color’ (as they say over there) in service roles around the Marriott Cambridge hotel. Or rather, that all service roles were occupied by people of color. The word ’empire’ slipped from her lips … I certainly had to walk a bit, down towards the Charles river (Puttnam Avenue I think), to find African Americans cleaning their own cars.

Equally, I find it odd that A Good City made little mention of a latino/hispanic population in the city – which, having read Mike Davis’s majestic Magical Urbanism, I’m sure must be there, busy reinventing the city – and, in a vaguely related sense, by the fact there was a chapter about being Jewish in Boston but nothing on, say, what it is to be Muslim there – from an Asian, African, African American or indeed any perspective. There isn’t that much talk of the descendants of either the Puritans (whose fairly ugly churches still pepper the city) or the Catholic Irish, nor the Christian Scientist movement, which started here and whose vast complex dominates several blocks of the Back Bay, where the Mary Baker Eddy library features the extraordinary Mapparium [of which more later]. Does this reflect a North Eastern literary hegemonic bent? Or Boston accurately? I don’t know. Of course, much worse to include a few tokenistic chapters to ‘make up the numbers’. But still.

It would seem the issue of race in Boston and Cambridge is at once as complex, problematic, hopeful, depressing, challenging and interesting as anywhere else in the United States.


One response to “Boston/Cambridge Diary: Cities divided”

  1. Justin Avatar

    As a resident of Central Square in Cambridge, I have to comment on the city appearing “lilywhite.” The city does have well-established African-American, Haitian, and Brazilian communities, especially around Putnam Ave, Central Square, and East Cambridge. However, as in Boston, people tend to stick around their own neighborhoods. When I was in college here I made a similar observation, only realizing the diversity of surrounding neighborhoods once I had left Harvard Square.
    For some great reading on race in Boston, look at J. Anthony Lukas’ urban epic “Common Ground.” And for a (thankfully updated) look, check out the Boston Globe’s series on race in the metro area:


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