Boston is changing drastically. The Boston we came to be in, back 40, 50, 60, 70 years ago, is all but gone. It is becoming a city of highly educated, skills-minded incomers from elsewhere in America. No longer is it the destination of immigrants impoverished and abused, escaping lives barely livable in search of the opportunity and freedom that America offers. That Boston has had its time, served its purpose, just as America, from its beginning served its purpose to immigrants from everywhere.
America is immigrant nation : but as we have seen these past ten years or so, immigrants are no longer the ideal, no longer welcome in the nation their predecessors built.
It isn’t just Boston; it is everywhere in the United States. We see it in assaults against Asian-Americans. We feel it in travel bans. We hear it in the rants of fascist politicians.
The consensus among us, sadly, is that we are full up; that immigration has become a burden, not an opportunity. I happen to disagree completely with this view — to me, immigration is and always will be America — but I recognize that my view is losing custom.
So it is with Boston.
I take you back now to Rome.
Come with me to the ancient city as it changed from the capital of a vast imperial bureaucracy, economy, and learning to the headquarters of an ascendant Christianity. The Rome of 700 A.D. was an entirely different city from Rome in 400 A.D.: different population, different ideals, different elites. Gone were the Senatorial families; gone the libraries; gone the palaces, the marketplaces, the baths, the city prefects. In their place, immigrants from, Greece, pilgrims from the north, refugees from German invaders. Rome in 700 AD was hardly a city at all. it was a last retreat, a Helm’s Deep (to recall The Lord of the Rings movie). It had almost no economy other than what pilgrims visiting Saints’ shrines left as a devotion. The Papal bureaucracy — staffed almost entirely by newcomer families from Greece and beyond — was its only link to a literate, sophisticated past.
It wasn’t really Rome at all.
So it is now with Boston. A city becoming as unlike the Boston we knew as Rome in 700 wasn’t the Rome of 400. Yes, THAT big a change.
What we call the “traditional Bostonian” –working class voters of Irish, Italian, Polish and Jewish origins; many of them city workers; families whose sons became policemen, politicians, and priests — has shrunk in number to less than 20 percent of all voters. For the first time since the 1860s, there is no candidate for Mayor of Irish descent. This should not surprise. The people most confident of tomorrow’s Boston are its recent arrivals : Black citizens, mostly of Caribbean origin; Hispanic voters, the sons and grandsons of immigrants and refugees; highly educated transplants from elsewhere in America, lured here by our educational masterworks, our finance firms, and our hospital employments.
All over Boston these three streams of people have taken command of homes, apartments, turf, shopping tastes, the arts and talk. And of our politics. The politics of the Boston I grew up in were personal and factional. Ideology had very little to do with what we campaigned for. City jobs were a big deal. When I first worked at the School Committee in 15 Beacon Street, the City had 30,000 employees; elections for City of Boston Credit Union board were major campaign efforts. City employees and their extended families made up a good 30 percent of all voters in most city elections. The tradition was that strong. City firemen handed down their jobs to their sons and grandsons; same with the police force. Fire and police were like medieval European guilds.
The descendants of Irish, Italian, Jewish and Polish immigrants dominated every neighborhood except Beacon Hill, Back Bay and the South End and Lower Roxbury, which were the home of Boston’s then smallish African-American citizens. Today, that is all changed. Descendants of Irish immigrants dominate only seaside Dorchester, Charlestown, part of South Boston, and a few portions of West Roxbury and Brighton. The Brahmins who dominated Beacon Hill and Back Bay are almost all gone now. Boston’s African-Americans have mostly moved to the suburbs.
With them have gone the Kennedys. In 2020 a Kennedy lost a Democratic primary race — in Massachusetts !! — for US Senator — lost it by ten points. Unthinkable. I still can’t believe it happened. Well, it di happen. So there’s that.
With the immigrants and the Kennedys have gone incredibly affordable house prices. it is hard to accept that merely 50 years ago, homes in Boston could be bought for $ 20,000 if not less — a whole lot less, in many cases. I was talking to a voter in Roslindale yesterday who recalled 65 years ago paying $ 14,000 for his Garrison-style home, now worth $ 700,000.
With those long-gone house prices has vanished any pretense to a world-class public school system. In 1960, a Boston school teacher earned about $ 5000 a year or less. They were mostly young women pre-marriage or older women after motherhood years. Many were unmarried for life; school kids were their children. Yet these women, underpaid, taught vigorously. They brooked no misbehavior in class; and in this they were firmly backed by their school principal and by the superintendent.
Their students were almost all the children or grandchildren of immigrants. M y Mother and her six siblings — born to an immigrant couple from Ireland and Eastern Europe — were among them. They and their teachers were “the greatest generation.” We should, I hope, remember, as we go about the new Boston, what that greatness was like, even as we tear all of it down to serve the vastly different new.
Today, and probably far into the future, Boston will be something utterly else. it will be a City of transplants from elsewhere in America — and a few from overseas — the highly prosperous and workaholic motivated, skilled to the uttermost, and of managers managing managers who manage the managers of vast pools of money and medical research, of technology labs and glittery retail shops. Supporting this economic meritocracy will be the schools and the politics, the media and the restaurants, the health clinics and the bike repair shops, the sports activists and the arborists, all of whom seek to recreate the environmental idylls they grew up with out there in America’s fly-over country even as they replace my immigrant city with a surfeit of feel good requirements which, if you don’t share them, will cast you as out as the elites of 1950 cast out their black sheep.
TellI hope you, dear reader, are ready for the next Boston. Maybe you will tell us, we who by then will be partying in heaven or getting wasted in hell, what the city of influencer pronouns and climate-justice bicycle veggies is like. Tell us of its music, its movies, its art, if these still exist in a form we can recognize (which I doubt). Myself, I look forward to earing about it even as I worry about my grandkids having to actually live in it.
Please be kind to my grandkids. They were brought up the old ways and will have to undergo loads of mentoring to adjust to your expensively buttered, liberally pronoun’d, smokeless, artificially intelligent version of “Boston.”
Of course it is true that life belongs to the living. Its their environ, not ours. They have to live in it, endure it, spurn it, escape from it, profit in it. I am hoping they will profit and not be profited on. But that we will have to see about.
—- Mi Freedberg / Here and Sphere