Sigh. Yeah. I'm Not Really From Boston.

Sunday, February 18, 2007
Note: This blog was supposed to be about both newspapers and books, but it's easier to write about media. But I've managed a post about a book. It's long, but bear with me. It's a little bit cheating because the author was a NYTimes reporter, won a Pulitzer, and the book is non-fiction. But it is a book.

I've been called out on the fact that actually I live in a suburb outside of Boston, and when I say that I am from Boston I am lying and somehow diminish the experience of all those people who actually live there. I've sort of shrugged it off, because saying "I'm from Boston" and then fielding questions about why I say "Harvard" and "yard" just like everyone else seems easier than saying, "I'm from somewhere outside of Boston. Unless you are from the area, you've probably never heard of it, because though it's a nice town and the Boston Marathon runs through it, nothing actually happens there."

But I started reading Common Ground this week, and it made me really uncomfortable about saying I am from Boston. Or rather, it made me proud to be from Boston and made me realize how little I knew about the city, how much of a suburbs, private school girl I really am.

The book follows three families from MLK's assassination (with plenty of flashbacks to earlier) through 1974 riots that followed the court ordered busing in Boston's public schools. I've found it addictive and fascinating.

I am only a couple of pages in but some things that made me think:

On Martin Luther King Jr.'s visit to Boston and push for integration of Boston public schools from the eyes of one of the black men profiled in the book:

"[W]hen he turned in Copley Square, he saw an awesome stream of determined faces, mixed in nearly equal parts of black and white, some shouldering placards which read: "We Need Better Schools" or "All Men Are Created Equal" or simply "Love" and one group from the Catholic Interracial Council making a particularly dramatic demonstration of their faith in integration, with the black women carrying white babies and the white women carrying black babies."

Excerpting this part seems a little but unfaithful to this part of the book which is through the eyes of a man who--in the wake of MLK's assassination-- reflects on how quickly he became disillusioned by King's belief in non-violence, but the passage gave me shivers. Despite the controversial busing program, (scroll to the time line. It doesn't really do the controversy justice, but hits the important points) Boston's schools, are still not really integrated, and performance rates vary extremely from district to district and can and often are linked to socio-economic disparities. So, in that sense, we might as well be back in the spring of 1965. Except, I wonder what a protest would look like today. Could it be conveyed on the page that eloquently? Would it send shivers up the spine of a Jewish suburban girl? Would people be able to convey how much they cared? I hope so, but I don't know.

On John F. Kennedy's run for a Congressional seat as background for one of of the Irish Catholic Bostonians reflecting on Kennedy's assassination:

"One of the candidates [for a 1944 special Congressional election] was Honey Fitz's grandson--John Fitzgerald Kennedy. At first, the notion seemed preposterous. Kennedy was virtually a stranger to Boston, having sent the best part of this twenty-nine years in New York, Hyannis Post, and the South Pacific. His "residence" in the district was the Bellvue Hotel on Beacon Hill. "You're a carpetbagger," one politician in the district told him bitterly. "You don't belong here." Moreover, his patrician gloss, the elegant ease acquired at Choate and Harvard and cultivated in London and Palm Beach, was not calculated to go down well in the waterfront saloons of Charlestown, the clammy tenements of the North End, or the bleak three-deckers of East Boston, Brighton, Sommerville and Cambridge."

I always thought of JFK as thoroughly Boston, sure I knew that he was the exception that proved the rule about the famous Boston accent often being linked to economic class, and I knew that he was a Harvard grad (he worked for The Crimson at some point), but I also knew that he died with his Massachusetts driver's license in his pocket, having never changed his address.

The pages that follow chronicle his rise to stardom and the way that women fell for his charm and good looks from the very start. But they also chronicle how hard he worked to be counted among Boston's Irish Catholic. He did not walk into a welcoming Boston. (Though his district would re-elect him to Congress and then vote overwhelmingly for him when he moved to the Senate and then to the White House.) Huh. If JFK couldn't call himself a Bostonian, I--who has never been to Fenway-- might need to find a different city. Or get my act together and figure out how to drop my R's.

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Written Pyramids is a blog written by a journalist living and working in Washington D.C.

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