“A People’s Guide to Greater Boston,” out now from the University of California Press, is a very readable text but one that’s hard to define. A guide book with a historical, left-wing perspective, it is both thoroughly well-researched and pleasing to the eye: a high-production-value text and a far-reaching survey of important sites in and around the city.
I interviewed two of the three authors, Joseph Nevins and Suren Moodliar; Eleni Macrakis, the third co-author, did not join. Nevins, raised in Dorchester, is Professor of Geography at Vassar, author of several books including A Not-so-distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor and Suren Moodliar, resident of Chelsea, coordinates the movement-building space encuentro5 in Boston and edits the journal Socialism and Democracy.
The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I’m wondering how you would describe this book because it doesn’t fit a genre that I would be able to easily describe.
JN: Well, the problem you are facing, Max, is a problem we face as well. It doesn’t fit into some sort of easy category. So on one level, it fits within the genre of a guide book, in that it takes you as a visitor or someone who lives in the city to different places, to sites throughout the city of Boston and Greater Boston, and tells you a story about them, and why they’re important or significant.
What distinguishes it as a guide book, obviously, is the perspective that it takes … what we’re calling, of the people, a perspective from the margins: socioeconomic, ideological, political, economic, and geographic. It takes a stance or a position from below, one allied with those who challenge injustice. And so within the guide book genre, it stands out.
Broadly, the book tells a story about how Boston and the larger region came to be, over more than 400 years of time. And does so by pointing to,and illuminating connections and divisions between places, institutions and people, the nature of the relationships between different sites and how those divisions and ties … reflect and give rise to a city of both deep connections and profound socioeconomic and political inequalities.
SM: I just add: what we’ve produced is a text that matches the lived experience of the city. It is a text made for the city.
So when I wake up in the morning and step out of my apartment in Chelsea, I’m leaving a building that was once a Jewish school and targeted by the right because of its ethnic origins. And then I walk across the road and I see an empty parking lot, once home to the labor Lyceum. So I encounter the history of the city in so many diverse ways and not with any particular order, except for the geographical experience of it.
And so this book could be literally opened to any page, and that’s where your city could begin. To be sure there are framing essays and tours, but even those things correspond to the way we experience the city… As such it’s more than a guide book, so I’d want to define it as a text that matches the experience of the city itself.
I’m also wondering if there’s a theoretical apparatus that you use, either implicitly or explicitly that helps determine what you include what you don’t include?
SM:. So perhaps walking back a little bit of what I said earlier, about encountering the city has this mass of unorganized experiences, I do think there’s definitely a perspective in the book, before we get to theory, and that perspective is certainly one that corresponds to prioritizing the oppressed and the exploited. And when we say that, definitely then the affinity with Howard Zinn’s project [A People’s History of the United States] comes through.
I would say that certainly implicitly in the book is that the different forms of agency emerge out of the oppression and exploitation, it’s not something random. There is a definite sense that our world is structured by a certain way of organizing the economy, a certain way of organizing power relations … Work has to be done to organize those facts of history.
JN: I guess the short answer is that we don’t have some sort of simple theoretical framework that we’re applying, but … we see different manifestations of power and different theories of power, if you will, at work throughout the book, that say something about how we’re approaching the subject matter…
But at the same time, even while we see power manifest in … unjust ways, we do not see power, and how it is organized, in a crudely deterministic fashion… It helps shape and limit what people can do, but people have agency and they’re exercising that agency in all sorts of ways over the long course of the region’s history.
Regarding inclusion vs. exclusion, for example, you have a section on Lawrence, but you don’t have a section on Brookline. How did you make those decisions?
SM: I’m a former Brookline resident. I would just say this, I don’t think there was an a priori theory that led to us excluding Brookline. … At the same time, they were very strongly interesting stories that immediately at the outset of the project demanded our attention, such as the Bread and Roses strike at Lawrence. And so that helped a little bit.
We cannot say that we went into it with a theory that allowed us to determine which places. We actually had to work with what people who we spoke with–activists and other people engaging in the city. So there’s a big human element, an un-theorized portion, that allowed us to choose these different towns.
JN: In the case of Brookline, we actually really struggled about that one… We generated about 250 entries and we could only put in about 165… It’s a lengthy book already, especially given well over 150 photos plus a dozen or so maps. As such, we had to make difficult decisions. We had a lot of back-and-forth as co-authors on particular sites and, by extension, municipalities about what to include and not include. The decision to omit Brookline came very late in the project.
I’m interested in the research process because you have those sources at the end of each entry. [Each entry has a brief “To Learn More” section, though there is an even more extensive bibliography.] How did you find and decide what research to include?
JN: We started the research process in 2014 … it really took off in 2015, but we began in summer 2014. None of us are trained as scholars of Boston. I myself had not done any research in a formal sense or publishing on Boston before this project. We’re all people with long associations with Greater Boston and studied it by living here and reading about it over the years. And so we had a lot of digging to do: We had to identify, for example, what the important texts on Boston are (and there are many of them!) And we pooled our knowledge regarding the moments and the movements that matter.
And then we went out and we talked to a lot of people, people that we knew had written about and studied the city, lived through important periods, and helped to shape it as activists and organizers… . In talking with all these people and encountering these different texts, we got new leads, new ideas.
One of the things that we decided very early on is that we couldn’t and didn’t want to write a book that would go through every ethnic group that’s ever resided in Boston. That would be unwieldy. It just wouldn’t be very interesting. At the same time, we knew we couldn’t ignore that type of diversity over time and space.
One of the things that’s striking about the city of Boston: the Jewish population in the city itself is not very large. That’s very different from New York, for instance… but at one time, the population of Jews was quite substantial in Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan. So what happened? And how do you tell that story?
And as someone who grew up in Dorchester … you often encounter former Jewish temples and community buildings. And so we picked one that was very prominent–Temple Beth Hillel on Morton Street– as a way of telling a story of neighborhood transformation and the Jewish community in Boston.
SM: When I first arrived in Boston, many activist friends would tell me about: “Oh, you know that Malcom X used to work at this or that place.” And so a lot of things assumed the status of an urban legend for us…
So part of what we did then was to uncover, almost, but not quite, catalog, these topics we’d encounter which seemed interesting from a left-wing point of view… Then we had to find the facts behind the stories, that is, the historical material that speaks to these stories. And that’s why we could go to the Omni Parker and learn more about Malcolm X’s involvement there, as well as the fact that Ho Chi MInh actually worked there as well as a pastry chef… and more generally, of the rise of a dining-out culture which the restaurant part of that hotel embodied.
So when you talk with people in the city, their sense of Boston as a profoundly historical city comes out.
I’ll add one other anecdote: one project that I worked on from the early 2000s onwards concerns the human right to water in the city of Boston. Studying the question reveals a difficult social fact – if you’re a resident to black Boston, you’re 10 times more likely to have your water threatened with being shut off, than if you’re in white Boston.
So in doing research for that prior to this book, I came to uncover how the MWRA was constructed and then the physical infrastructure associated with that on Deer Island … So in studying struggles over the City’s environment or over its public health infrastructure with an eye to changing things, I came to understand the impact on the city’s race and class structure, as well as to recognize how these have been structured historically…
What is a site that still sticks with you or something exciting that you found?
SM: I think all three of us have our favorites and often they overlap, … a site that I find is a favorite is close to the corner of Bromfield and Washington in downtown Boston. And for me, this was a really interesting site because it embodies in some ways one of the best features of our social movements.
So this was called the Marlborough Hotel and Chapel which operated from 1838 to 1852 and was home to the abolitionist movement, but also it was in some ways the formative place for women who would go on to lead the Suffragette Movement, the first wave of feminism. It was also a place where anti-war activists, often overlapping with the same individuals, opposed the Mexican-American War in 1848. It was a place where the transcendentalist movement sort of re-launched itself when Reverend Theodore Parker returned from his exile in England. And then it was also a place where the Temperance Movement operated out of – indeed it was the first temperance hotel in the United States, and in those days, the Temperance Movement and the left were very much identified with one another.
JN: Another site that stands out is Fenway Park n 1919, you have the biggest gathering in Fenway Park’s history–over 50,000 people–, and it’s one to protest against British colonialism in Ireland.
One of the most interesting things about it is that, the previous year, the Red Sox won the World Series. However, the crowd that showed up in favor of Irish nationalism in 1919 was three times the size of the crowd that saw the World Series victory.
Boston is a city with a real sense of itself. It’s a city that works hard to cultivate its history and make it known. In the city of Lynn, the situation is different. There you don’t [yet] see history memorialized on its streets. Lynn is where Frederick Douglass wrote his famous autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. However, it is not known exactly where he lived when he wrote the book, only that he lived on a particular street. …. that’s sort of tragic. A lot of the important historic sites in Lynn are simply gone. But some are still there.
SM: Yes, there is some historical awareness, but not to the degree you see in Boston. In some ways this sense of history is officially cultivated. There is a political economy of re-development in which cities are forced to discover their “comparative advantage.” Lowell becomes a city that gets the sponsorship of the National Park Service. And so, ironically, it gets to trade on its history of class struggle. Lawrence also gets to do so, but as a State Park rather than as a National Park… whereas I don’t think Lynn has either of those benefits at this stage.
So it does show you that we get to uncover such history to the extent that we actually invest in the study of history. Hopefully, this book makes the case for those cities that we haven’t written about as well, by virtue of their omission: that we want much more investment into the past so that we can understand the present and in order to therefore change the future.
I had a question about the tours at the end. [There are a series of tours at the end that put together the sites in thematic ways.] In the “Nature” tour, you start at a site related to Logan airport, Neptune Road Edge Buffer Park (near Wood Island Station on the Blue Line) , which commemorates a neighborhood that was destroyed to make way for the airport’s expansion. ,. Would you recommend these for somebody who’s lived in Boston for a long time, and how should one approach the tours at the end?
JN: Yes, we would recommend the tours for people who are visiting Boston, or are from Boston. If we look at the Malcolm and Martin tour, for example … it gives you a unique sense of the geography of African-American Boston. Malcolm worked, among other places, in Chinatown at Walker’s Auto Park (near where the Chinatown Gate is located), at South Station, and at the Roseland State Ballroom, a jazz club that stood across the street from the Christian Science Center sits today.
In uncovering these sites, I think one of the things we discovered, rediscovered was the joys of wandering and walking through the city, and the tours facilitate that in various ways.
SM: The other day, I was engaged in a conversation with some friends online about monuments and monuments that must come down, must go up. That kind of thing.
And one topic was how are we to represent the Italian-American experience? And why is it that Columbus is seen as this representative of the Italian-American experience? In our book, among the tours that we suggest is a Sacco and Vanzetti tour. And in some ways, I think the Sacco and Vanzetti, anarchists that they were, better represent the Italian-American experience than, say, Columbus who has at best a fictional relationship to the Italian-American heritage.
And so in that sense, these tours help us uncover an experience of the city that challenges the unreflective acceptance of dominant narratives – these tours allow us to literally, by walking these tours, understand that 200,000 people lined the streets of Tremont Street, for the funeral of Sacco and Vanzetti …in August 1927, likely a very hot day. And that shows you both the sense of solidarity with Sacco and Vanzetti also with the broader Italian-American immigrant and working-class experience.
To purchase A People’s Guide to Greater Boston, go to bostonbook.org.
Max is a PhD student in English and American literature at BU. Previously, he worked at the NGO GiveDirectly, an organization that sends cash transfers, no strings attached, directly to extremely poor families. In 2014, he studied and wrote poetry in Wellington, NZ on a Fulbright scholarship.