Wither the Working Classes?

April 7, 2013 § 2 Comments

South Boston is undergoing massive redevelopment these days, something I’ve already noted on this blog.  Every North American city has a Southie, a former industrial working-class neighbourhood that is undergoing redevelopment in the wake of deindustrialisation and the gentrification of inner cities across the continent.  In Montréal, the sud-ouest is ground zero of this process, something I got to watch from front-row seats.  In Vancouver, it was Yaletown.  Cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh have done brilliant jobs in re-claiming these post-industrial sites.  In Boston, however, Southie’s redevelopment has attracted the usual controversy and digging in by those working-class folk who remain there.  It’s even the locale of a “reality” TV show that is more like working-class porn than anything else.

The same discourse always emerges around these post-industrial neighbourhoods under redevelopment, something I first noticed in my work on Griffintown in Montréal.  Today, in the Boston Globe there is a big spread ostensibly about a sweet deal given to a Boston developer by City Hall, but is really more an examination of the redevelopment of Southie’s waterfront.  In in, James Doolin, the chief development officer of the Port Authority of Massachusetts, one of the players in this redevelopment, reflects on the ‘new buzz’ surrounding the area, going to to talk about how this ‘speaks to a demographic that is young, employed, and looking for social spaces.”  

Right. Because the Irish who lived and worked in Southie during its life as an industrial neighbourhood were really just bums, always unemployed and so on.  And, of course, those unemployed yobs would never look for social spaces, all those little cretins hung out in back alleys and under expressways.  This attitude is unfortunate and is part and parcel when it comes to the redevelopment of these neighbourhoods: the belief that the working classes never had jobs, had no social lives and were just drones.  I’ve seen it in literature from developers in Griffintown and other parts of Montréal’s sud-ouest, so it’s no surprise to find this attitude in Boston.  But it doesn’t make it right.  In one sweeping, gross over-generalisation, Doolin (and the Boston Globe) sweep away centuries of history, of life in Southie, and the day-to-day struggles of the working classes in the neighbourhood to survive and live their lives on their terms.

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§ 2 Responses to Wither the Working Classes?

  • E A M Harris says:

    Thank you for a stimulating post, though I’m not sure I agree with all of it. To read into Mr Doolin’s short statement that he thinks of the working class as drones seems to me a little far fetched. Perhaps he just means they’re the same people as before but are now making their wants heard. Nevertheless, gentrification can bring problems with it as it raises prices and makes the old areas less affordable for the lower paid.

  • John Matthew Barlow says:

    Whatever Doolin meant, it is clear he’s drawing on what historians have called the “slum discourse”, which is a theme that exists in North American culture since the mid-19th century that stereotypes the people of slums and the poor in general in certain ways. When Doolin starts talking about the new people in Southie being “employed” and looking for social spaces, it’s clear to me he’s drawing on this discourse in trying to explain the difference between the old and the new in Southie.

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