Wednesday, July 9, 2014

No time like now to live or work in Boston

The last remnant of the elevated highway
that shadowed the North End for 50 years
I learned a new tour for Boston By Foot last year called "The Dark Side of Boston." It's a 90-minute walk through the North End, which, as the oldest neighborhood in Boston that is still a neighborhood, has a history both glorious and, well, not so much. One reason the tour was developed by our volunteer guides was to try to provide some true stories about the bad and the ugly that don't involve dubious claims about ghost sightings. As I've given the tour many times in the past year, I have a few things to reflect on about why this tour is even more important than simply not being "just another ghost tour."

Just like the rest of Boston, or any big city, the North End has had its share of crimes, disasters, inhumanity and less-than-proud moments over nearly 400 years. This isn't a tour that really picks on the North End, though, so I've learned to be careful to point out to tour participants that some of our gruesome stories are about events that took place elsewhere in Boston. I also assure them that today's North End is one of the safest and least crime-ridden places in the city. I boast to them that right now is the best time in all of history to live or work in Boston, and that is how my perspective on this tour started to develop.

I think of this tour as sort of a history of social (in)justice. I lead off by telling people that in spite of all the troubles and tragedies in our modern American society, today really is the best time to be in Boston and in America. It's because 50 years ago, and 100 years ago, and 400 years ago - things were really not all that great. They especially were not great if you were not a wealthy white male of English heritage who worshipped in a mainstream Protestant church. Sure, George Parkman (who was infamously murdered in 1849) was a well-off male WASP (as was his killer), and of course his type was not immune to tragedy. But consider the freedoms and advantages we all have a share in today!

  • Be happy if you are a poor Irish Catholic woman today in Boston instead of in 1688, or you could end up hanged as a witch like Goody Glover. 
  • Be happy if you are an Italian immigrant to Boston today instead of in 1920, or you would be accused of being an anarchist or worse, like Sacco and Vanzetti. 
  • Be happy if you get sick with a contagious disease in Boston today instead of 1721, or you'd be told it's God's will that you have smallpox and that inoculation is poisoning. 
  • Be happy if a major pandemic starts its outbreak in Boston today instead of in 1918, or you might not find out about it in time to protect yourself due to wartime censorship (and no phones, TV or internet). 
  • Be happy if you like to walk through the North End of Boston today instead of in 1850, when you risked being swindled, robbed or attacked. 
  • Be happy if you are an Irish immigrant to Boston today instead of in the 1850s, or you'd be jobless, homeless, or crowded into dirty, dangerous tenements. 

We still have problems today in our city and in our country, but people before us had it worse in many cases. I reflect on this every time I step onto the (much cleaner than in the past) streets of Boston to give my tours. How lucky are we that people before us and people today care enough to try to make things better for all.