Boston Strong?

June 25, 2013 § 1 Comment

The Boston Bruins lost the Stanley Cup last night in glorious fashion.  Up 2-1 with 89 seconds to go in Game 6, they were that close to a Game 7 back in Chicago tomorrow night.  Then disaster (or, from my perspective, glory) struck, and the Black Hawks scored twice in 17.7 seconds to win the game 3-2 and capture the Cup in 6 games.  All throughout the playoffs, the Bruins and their fans have rallied behind the slogan “Boston Strong!”  Before every home game, the Bruins brought out victims of the 15 April Boston Marathon Bombings as a sign of solidarity with the city, with the city’s recovery and, of course, to rally the Garden faithful.

On the whole, Boston has rallied behind the “Boston Strong” cry.  Every time I step out the front door, I see it on t-shirts, ball caps, bumper stickers.  It’s in the windows of businesses.  And the Boston sports teams, most notably the Bruins, but also the Celtics and Red Sox (the Patriots aren’t playing now, of course, and no one cares about the Revolution) have harnessed this as well.  The Celtics, during their brief playoff appearance, were selling t-shirts that declared “Boston Stands As One.”  A woman behind the counter at the pro shop in the Garden swore the Celtics were donating to the One Boston Fund with proceeds from the shirts.  The Bruins did the same thing.  And all throughout the Bruins’ run to the Cup final, “Boston Strong!” meant cheering for the Bruins as much as a declaration of strength in the face of terrorism.  This, of course, made it kind of difficult for me, as anyone who knows me knows that the only thing on God’s Green Earth I hate is the fucking Boston Bruins (sorry, Auntie (my great Aunt got mad at me for using foul language in an earlier blog post)).

BJnpdP2CAAEIXhBAnd then in the NHL playoffs, all holy hell broke lose.  Some guy in Toronto, during the first round series, held up a sign that said “Toronto Stronger.”  People in Boston were furious, and within minutes #TorontoStronger was the top trend on Twitter here.  People not in Boston were furious, people in Toronto were furious.

It got worse in the Finals, a t-shirt company in Chicago began selling “Chicago Stronger” shirts.  The response was predictable and it makes you wonder just what the guys at Cubby Tees (the company behind the t-shirts) were thinking? The t-shirts were quickly pulled from sale in response to the firestorm of protest, much of it, to be fair, from Boston. ht_Chicago_Strong_Blackhawks_Stanley_Cup_thg_130614_wgThen the guys at Cubby Tees responded, offering some kind of apology that wasn’t really an apology, just a self-serving attempt to make themselves as the victims of the entire affair.  But they kind of had a point, they argued that this is sports, and in sports, there are rivalries.  And when there are rivalries, there is a competition of wit, idiocy (ok, I said that, they didn’t) and so on.

And yet, the kind of furor that erupted after the sign in Toronto and the t-shirt in Chicago was predictable.  The guy in Toronto should’ve seen it coming, so, too, should have Cubby Tees.  Both were in incredibly bad taste.  The Boston Globe published an editorial comment a week ago decrying the co-opting of the “Boston Strong” slogan by sports fans (amongst others), claiming that it diminished from the slogan’s original point, which was “the victims of the bombing, now rebuilding their lives; the law enforcement efforts during the manhunt; the decision, by athletes and organizers, to run the Marathon in 2014.”

It’s hard to argue with that logic, but it’s also bad logic.  The Boston Strong rallying cry has obviously spread to sports, and it’ll spread to music and festivals all summer long.  And when the Dropkick Murphys play, whether in Boston or anywhere else, there’ll be people in the crowd chanting the slogan or they’ll have it on posters.  Why? Because the Bruins and the Dropkicks are ambassadors of Boston.  Both the punk band and the hockey team market a brand that makes Boston a tough, intimidating place (in reality, it’s nothing of the sort), and that’s an image that Bostonians like, and are proud to project around North America and beyond.  The Bruins represent the city and the fans of the Bruins put their hopes, their energy, their money into supporting the team in cheering them on to victory.  When the Bruins lost last night, Claude Julien, the coach, told reporters that he was disappointed in part because it would’ve been nice to bring the Cup back to Boston to help in the healing from the bombings.

It was always going to be the case that “Boston Strong” would become a rallying cry for Bruins’ fans.  They’re Bostonians, and the Bruins are their team, their representatives.  The Globe missed the point of professional sports; sports are meant as a distraction, as a means of turning our attention from reality.  It’s worth noting that back in September 2001, the NFL season was meant to start the weekend after 9/11.  Paul Tagliabue, the commissioner of the NFL at the time, immediately cancelled the games that weekend out of respect.  It was the obviously correct choice to make.  But then-president George W. Bush inveighed upon Tagliabue to reinstate the games, Americans needed the distraction.

Sports are more about identity as much as anything else for spectators and fans.  And thus, it should be no surprise to anyone, lest of all the Globe that “Boston Strong” became a rallying cry for the Bruins, just as it was for the Celtics, as it is for the Red Sox, and will be for the Patriots when their season starts up in the fall.

On Libertarianism

May 1, 2013 § 4 Comments

Libertarianism is a very appealing political/moral position.  To believe and accept that we are each on our own and we are each able to take care of our own business, without state interference is a nice idea.  To believe that we are each responsible for our own fates and destinies is something I could sign up for.  And, I have to say, the true libertarians I know are amongst the kindest people I know, in terms of giving their time, their money, their care to their neighbours and community, and even macro-communities.

But there are several fundamental problems with libertarianism.  The first problem is what I’d term ‘selfish libertarianism.’  I think this is what drives major facets of the right in the Anglo-Atlantic world, a belief in the protection of the individual’s rights and property and freedom of behaviour, but coupled with attempts to deny others’ rights, property, and freedom.  This, of course, is not real libertarianism. But this is pretty common in political discourse these days in Canada, the US, and the UK.  People demand their rights to live their lives unfettered, but wish to deny others that freedom, especially women, gays/lesbians, and other minority groups (of course, women are NOT a minority, they make up something like 53% of the population in Canada, the US, and UK).  So, ultimately, we can dismiss these selfish libertarians as not being libertarians at all.

My basic problem with true libertarianism is its basic premise.  If we are to presume that we are responsible for our own fates and destinies, then we subscribe to something like the American Dream and that belief we can all get ahead if we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and work hard.  I find that very appealing, because I have worked hard to get to where I am, and I feel the need to keep working hard to fulfill my own dreams.

But therein lies the problem. Behind the libertarian principle is the idea that we’re all on the same level playing field.  We are not.  Racism, classism, homophobia, sexism, misogyny: these all exist on a daily basis in our society.  I see them every day.  I have experienced discrimination myself.  And no, not because I’m Caucasian.  But because I come from the working-classes.  I was told by my high school counsellor that my type of people was not suited for university studies.  I had a hard time getting scholarships in undergrad because I didn’t have all kinds of extra-curricular activities beyond football.  I didn’t volunteer with old people, I didn’t spend my time helping people in hospitals.  I couldn’t.  I had to work.  And I had to work all through undergrad.  And throughout my MA and PhD.  In fact, at this point in my life at the age of 40, I have been unemployed for a grand total of 5 months since I landed my first job when I was 16.  And having to work throughout my education simply meant I didn’t qualify for most scholarships.  So I had to work twice as hard as many of my colleagues all throughout my education.  And that, quite simply, hurt me.  And sometimes my grades suffered.  And within the academy, that is still problematic today, even four years after I finished my PhD.  But that’s just the way it is. I can accept that, I’m not bitter, I don’t dwell on it.  But it happened, and it happened because of class.  Others have to fight through racism or sexism or homophobia.

So, quite simply, we do not all begin from the same starting line.  We don’t all play on a level playing field.  Mine was tilted by class.  And, for that reason, libertarianism, in its true sense, does not work.  If we wish to have a fair and just society, we require ways and means of levelling that playing field, to give the African-American or working class or lesbian or son of immigrant children the chance to get ahead.  Me? I worked hard, but I also relied on student loans, bursaries, and what scholarships I could win based on grades alone.  My parents didn’t pay for a single cent of my education, not because they didn’t care or want to, but because they simply couldn’t afford it.  I got some support from my grandparents each year, to go with the student loans/bursaries/small scholarships.  And thank god I did.  Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to do it.  I’d be flipping burgers at a White Spot in Vancouver at the age of 40.

Diaspora and Terrorism

April 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Scholars studying diaspora and immigrant communities have noticed that there are some very general, very real trends amongst diasporic immigrant communities.  The first generation, the immigrants, arrive in their new home, but find themselves caught between two worlds, struggling to fit into the new home, whilst still maintaining very real and very strong ties to the homeland.  Their children, the second generation, are citizens of the new country by birth, and grow up in that host culture, and generally do not express a lot of interest in the culture of the homeland; they are fully integrated into the new homeland.  It’s their children, the third generation, that begins to cast an eye back to the old homeland, curious about where their grandparents are from and the culture their grandparents carried with them in the new land until they died.  These are trends that have existed in North America since the Irish began coming over here in the mid-19th century, and have been replicated time and again by pretty much every single group that has arrived in the United States and Canada in large numbers since.

Immigrants, their children, and grandchildren, of course, have greatly changed North American culture ever since the Irish.  Take, for example, the city I live in now: Boston.  Boston is the birthplace of the American independence movement in the 1770s, and was a tight-knit Anglo-Protestant city prior to the Irish arriving.  Boston was never the same after the Irish arrived in huge numbers in the mid-19th century.  And as the Irish infiltrated the city’s economy, culture, and politics, they left their mark.  This can still be seen today: at present Stephen Lynch and Ed Markey are both attempting to gain the Democratic nomination for the special election to replace John Kerry in the US Senate.  Both Lynch and Markey are currently Congressmen.  Both are Irish Catholics, Markey’s from Malden and Lynch is from South Boston, aka: Southie.  He grew up in the same housing projects as Whitey Bulger.  The Irish still have their tentacles in the Democratic Party machinery in Boston today, 160-some odd years after they arrived.

Other cities are affected differently.  Take, for example, my hometown of Montréal.  Montréal has long been the recipient of immigrants, dating back to the Irish, who began arriving there in large numbers in the 1840s.  The Irish completely changed the city, adding an Anglophone group that was Catholic to an already divided city.  The Catholic Church was also massively changed in Montréal as the Irish muscled their way in.  Indeed, they are largely to thank for the fact that there is an English-language Catholic Church in the city today.  But Montréal is also being fundamentally changed by immigration from nations in the Francophonie in Africa and the Caribbean today. In the past decade or so, Montréal has undergone a fundamental cultural shift, as new French-speaking communities arrive.  The consequences for French Canadian nationalism and separatism should be obvious.

But this process of acculturation may be now speeding up.  Our cities have become faster, life is lived at a frenetic pace in our cities on this continent.  Last week, two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon, killing 3 people and injuring over 200 more, some very seriously.  The bombs were planted by Tamerlan Tsarneav, 26, and his younger brother Dzhokhar, who is 19.  The Tsarneav brothers are immigrants, they came to the United States from Dagestan just over a decade ago.  Tamerlan was here on a green card, whilst Dzhokhar became a citizen last year.  Their parents have both returned to Russia in recent years, leaving them here.  But they’ve been here a long time, Tamerlan was 14 or 15 when he arrived here, Dzhokhar was 8 or 9.  They were both Americanised, and their brand of terrorism, experts have concluded is of the ‘home-grown’ variety.

Yesterday in the Boston Globe, Farah Stockman commented on this growth in homegrown terrorism, citing forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, who in 2008 predicted that terrorism in the West would increasingly be of this variety.  Of course, by 2008, we had already seen the writing on the walls.  On 7 July 2005, four terrorists detonated bombs during the morning commute in London.  All four were homegrown terrorists, two were the sons of immigrants, a third was an immigrant himself, but had grown up in England.  The bombing of Madrid’s transportation system in March 2004 was also of the homegrown variety.

This new generation of terrorists, the so-called 3rd wave, are younger than the Al Qaeda terrorists of the previous decade.  According to Stockman, the average Al Qaeda terrorist in the 90s and early 00s was in his 30s.  Today, the average age of these 3rd wavers is in his early 20s.  The 2nd wave were devoutly religious and had grown up in devoutly religious homes.  The 3rd wave grew up secular, as the brothers Tsarneav had.  So, why the turn to radicalism and terrorism, she asks:

For some, it was out of a warped romanticism for a homeland they barely knew; an act of rebellion against hardworking immigrant parents who brought them to the West for “a better life.” Others were US-born converts to Islam who found in terrorism a sense of camaraderie and purpose that had eluded them all their lives. A few became terrorists after years of gang-banging and drug dealing. It was an ideology that transformed their violent tendencies into something heroic. It made them feel they were on the side of the angels.

Sagemean concludes that for some of these young men, ‘terrorism is a fad.’  This is an interesting thought.  But if these young men are attracted, in part, by this romantic attachment to their parents’ homeland, or the homeland of their families, or to the religion that sustained their family generations ago, I’m not so sure that this is a fad.  Scholars looking at notions of diaspora note the attachment 3rd generation children and those beyond have to the mythical homeland.  Looking at my own community and what I study (the Irish), I would note that men and women whose families emigrated to North America 160 years ago remain curious and interested in the mythical homeland of Ireland.  Ireland draws them in, they’re curious about the history, the culture, and some even the language.  This becomes a life-long interest.

Maybe Sagemen is correct in that the violence of radicalism and terrorism is a fad of youth and some of these young men will eventually mellow out and choose to focus on aspects of their culture that do not lead to violence.  Certainly there are echoes of this in the Irish diaspora, where many young men (and some young women) have been attracted to the glory of the violence in the North.  This was certainly true when I was younger, before the establishment of peace following the Good Friday Accords in 1998.  Young Irish-American and Irish-Canadian men would hold romanticised images of the IRA and the resistance “back home”.  Most have long since grown out of this fascination with the IRA, of course.  (This did, however, inspire Bono  to go on a legendary rant during a performance of “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” during the 1987 Joshua Tree tour, which was released on the DVD of Rattle & Hum).  

On Humanity and Empathy: Boston and Rehtaeh Parsons

April 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

Monday’s terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon was a little too close to home for my tastes.  A few of my students were there, near the finish line.  A couple had left by the time the bombs went off, a couple had not.  They were unhurt, as they were far enough away from the bombs.  I know Boylston Street well.  A few days before the Marathon, I was there; I had dinner in the Irish pub in the Lenox Hotel, which is across the street from where the second bomb went off.  In my mind’s eye, I can see exactly where those two bombs were.

Like most Canadians and Americans, for me terrorism happens in the abstract.  It’s a news report on TV, it’s on our Twitter timelines, it’s pictures in a newspaper.  Sometimes, it’s a movie.  But we don’t experience it personally, and this is still true even after 9/11.  I have not experienced terrorism personally, and yet, I have never been as close to a terrorism attack as I was on Monday.  Not surprisingly, I feel unsettled.

But I have been shocked and dismayed by some of the responses to the bombs on Boylston Street.  Aside from those on Twitter declaring this to be a “false flag” attack (in other words, a deliberate attack by the US government on its people), which is stupid to start with, there have also been those who have been declaring that this happens all the time in Kabul or Baghdad or Aleppo.  That is very true, it does happen everyday in those places.  Indeed, for far too many people around the world, terrorism is a daily fact of life.  That is wrong.  No one should live in terror.  But by simply declaring that this happens all the time elsewhere, you are also saying that what happened in Boston doesn’t matter.  And that is a response that lacks basic humanity.

This has been a week where I’ve been reminded too often about our lack of humanity.  The inhumanity of the bombers, of the conspiracy theorists, and those who say this doesn’t matter because it happens all the time elsewhere.

News also broke this week about disgusting, inhumane behaviour surrounding the Rehtaeh Parsons case in Halifax.  There, “friends, family, and supporters” (to quote the CBC) have taken to putting up posters in the neighbourhood around Parsons’ mother’s house supporting the boys who sexually assaulted her, declaring that the truth will come out.  I’m sure those boys are living in a world of guilt and shame right now, as they should.  But to continue to terrorise a woman whose daughter was sexually assaulted, and then teased, mocked, and bullied for two years until she took her life is inhumane.  It is inhumane that those boys assaulted Rehteah in the first place. It is inhumane that her classmates harassed, mocked, and bullied her for two years for being a victim.

There has been plenty of positive, especially in response to the Boston bombings.  As I write this, President Obama is at a memorial service in Boston for the victims of the bombing.  There are plenty of stories of the humanity of the response of the runners of the marathon, the bystanders, and the first responders. #BostonStrong is a trending hashtag on Twitter. Jermichael Finley of the Green Bay Packers will be donating $500 for every dropped pass and touchdown to a Boston charity, and New England Patriots receiver will donate  $100 for every reception and $200 for every dropped pass this season.  Last night’s ceremony at the TD Garden before the Bruins game was intense.  And so on and so forth.  This is all very heartening.  It shows that we are humane, that we can treat each other with empathy and sympathy and dignity.

But it doesn’t erase those who lack humanity.  I had a Twitter discussion last night about this.  About how this kind of inhumanity seems to be everywhere.  This morning, I was talking to two students about this inhumanity and how it just makes us depressed and wanting to cry.  I wish I could say that this is a new phenomenon in society.  But it’s not.  This is one of the (dis)advantages to being an historian.  We have the long view of history, quite obviously.  We have always been a vengeful, inhumane lot.  We’ve used torture since we could walk on our hind legs.  The Romans’ favourite past-time was gladiator fighting, where two men fought to the death.  Public executions were big deals, social outings.  All to watch a man (and occasionally a woman) die.  What is different now is the Internet allows people to express their inhumanity so much easier and so much quicker, and to gain further exposure in so doing.  And that is just unfortunate.

Wither the Working Classes?

April 7, 2013 § 3 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.

Ten Thousand Saints and the Nostalgia of the Record Store

March 12, 2013 § 2 Comments

Last week I read Eleanor Henderson‘s excellent début novel, Ten Thousand Saints.  This was a book I randomly came across, and, like most books I randomly come across, I was lucky.  Ten Thousand Saints tells the story of Jude, a disaffected teenager in Burlington, Vermont (disguised as Lintonburg, for reasons I don’t quite understand since the rest of Vermont gets to keep its names), a sad sack little city about two hours from Montréal on Lake Champlain.  Jude, I should also point out, is about a year older than I am.  His best friend, Teddy, dies of an overdose on New Year’s Eve 1987, after he and Jude huff pretty much everything, including freon from an air conditioner, but Teddy also did coke for the first time, introduced to him by Eliza, Jude’s step-sister, who’s in town for a few hours from NYC.  Teddy’s older brother, Johnny, also lives in NYC.

The novel then follows Jude, Johnny, and Eliza through the hardcore scene in the NYC underground in the late 80s (looking at Henderson’s picture on her website, she does not look the sort who would).  Jude transforms from a pothead huffing high school dropout in Burlington to a straight-edge hardcore punk in NYC, frontman of his own band, the Green Mountain Boys (a clever play on their Vermont roots and Ethan Allen during the War of Independence).  Henderson does a great job of illuminating the culture of the hardcore scene of the late 80s, both in NYC and around the rest of the East Coast, as well as issues of gentrification on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan, especially around Tompkins Park in Alphabet City, where Johnny lives, and around St. Mark’s Place, where Jude sometimes lives with his father.

Ten Thousand Saints made me nostalgic.  At the other end of the continent, in Vancouver, I was starting to get into some of this music, if not yet the scene.  Many of the bands Henderson references were in my cassette collection by 1989-90, a couple of years after Jude and Johnny were rocking out in the Green Mountain Boys. Though I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why the standard bearers of the straight edge scene in the late 80s, Fugazi, are not mentioned, though Ian McKaye’s earlier band, Minor Threat, are the gods of Jude, Johnny, and their crowd.  What made me nostalgic was record stores.  This is how Jude got into the scene in NYC in the first place, hanging around the record stores of the Lower East Side.

As I mentioned in my last piece here, on the Minutemen, Track Records in Vancouver was where I began to discover all these punk and hardcore bands in my late teens.  Track stood on Seymour Street, between Pender and Dunsmuir, and as you went up the block, there was an A&A Records and Tapes, then Track, then A&B Sound, and then Sam the Record Man.  Two indies and two corporate stores.  And between the four of them, you could find anything you wanted and at a reasonable price.  Zulu Records also stood on West 4th Avenue in Kitsilano, a short bus ride from downtown on the Number 4 bus.  Of those stores, only Zulu remains.  I’m in Vancouver right now, and I think I’m going to make my way over there today.

But it was in record stores that kids like me learned about this entire universe of punk and alternative music in the late 80s.  In places like Track and Zulu, we heard the likes of Fugazi and the Minutemen, as well as the Wonderstuff and Pop Will Eat Itself and the Stone Roses playing on the hi-fi.  This is where we could find the alternative press and zines, I found out about all these British bands from the NME and Melody Maker.  You’d talk to the guys working in the stores (and it was almost always guys, rarely were there women working in these stores), you’d talk to the older guys browsing the record collections about what was good.  Some of these guys were assholes and too cool to impart their wisdom, but most of them weren’t.  And then you’d rush home to the suburbs and listen to the new music, reading the liner notes and the lyrics as you did.

For the longest time, I held out against digital music.  I liked the physical artefact of music.  I liked the sleeve, the liner notes and the record/cassette/cd.  In part, I liked it because of the act of buying it, of going into the record store, even the corporate ones, listening to what was playing in the store, looking around and finding something.  There’s not many record stores left.  The big Canadian chains are all dead and gone.  Same with the big American ones.  In Boston, the great indie chain, Newbury Comics, isn’t really a record store anymore.  The flagship store on Newbury St. has more clothes, books, movies, and just general knick knacks than music.  Montréal had a bunch of underground stores up rues Saint-Denis and Mont-Royal, but they’re slowly dying, too.  And here in Vancouver, the only one I know of is Zulu (though I’m sure there’s more on the east side, on Main, Broadway or Commercial).

I miss the community of music, it just doesn’t exist anymore.  I suppose if I wanted to, I could find it online, discussion groups and the like.  But it’s not the same.  There’s no physical artefact to compare and share.  There’s just iTunes or Amazon.

Boston’s Architectural Behemothology — UPDATED

February 5, 2013 § 3 Comments

800px-CityHallPlaza_Boston_2009_908Government Center, downtown Boston.  It is rare to see such a massive, overwhelming failure of this sort anywhere.  Standing outside the T station last fall, I looked across the windswept brick City Hall Plaza, amazed that anyone ever thought this kind of brutalist behemethology was a good idea.  Especially in a city like Boston that generally boasts beautiful architecture from the colonial era forward.  Indeed, from Government Center, it’s just a few minutes’ walk to Faneuil Hall and the Old State House, or Beacon Hill, or the Common and Public Gardens.  Boston’s public spaces are always full of people, tourists and Bostonians taking in the sights and the vibe.  The city has even done a great job rehabilitating the old waterfront around Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park.  Hell, even the park space over what was the Big Dig and the buried I-93 is used.  But City Hall Plaza?  There wasn’t a single soul on that desert of hideousness.  Not a one.  And, looking at this image, you can see why.

prisx60r

Government Center is, well, the centre of government in Boston, this perfect amalgam of city, county, and state government on one location.  Government Center looms over downtown Boston like some horrible spaceship from the nightmares you have as a child.  The New England Holocaust Memorial is just across Congress St. from Government Center.  As I walked through the memorial, which is one of the most effective I’ve seen, I couldn’t help but feel the spectre of Government Center on me.  Even as we walked on to Faneuil Hall, Government Center loomed above.  It reminded me of that strange ball that followed No. 6 around in The Prisoner, keeping him from ever finding happiness or freedom.

Yes, Government Center is that bad.  It sucks joy from the air around it.  It stands as an insult against everything that surrounds it.  It is, as a friend (an architect) would call it, an aesthetic insult.  City Hall Plaza is bad, no doubt, but as that name indicates, there is a City Hall that comes with it.  Boston’s City Hall is, not surprisingly, a horrible piece of brutalism, designed to intimidate the poor citizen standing outside of it.  Every time I pass it, I imagine a cartoon of some poor, downtrodden sod standing in front of a faceless bureaucracy.  Brutalist architecture is designed to be imposing and intimidating.  And Boston is certainly not the only city to be marred by this abomination.  University campuses are particularly good examples of brutalism, as I have noted elsewhere on this blog.

479px-City_Hall_and_Volunteer_Monument,_Winnipeg,_MB,_1887Winnipeg is a fine example of this.  Its glorious initial City Hall, constructed in the late 19th century when Winnipeg was a boomtown, the laying of its cornerstone was a momentous occasion and a public holiday.  Looking at the old building, it’s easy to see why Winnipeggers were so proud of it.  It was a striking Victorian presence over the city.  But, by the 1960s, it was antiquated and, like Boston, the ‘Peg choose to replace its City Hall with a new brutalist design.

However, unlike Boston, Winnipeg’s brutalist City Hall at least has greenspace around it.  Interestingly, the introduction of greenery and foliage around brutalist architecture can go a long way to normalising it and reducing its imposition on the landscape.  This is, I would think, why brutalist architecture on university campuses, as ugly as it is, doesn’t impose in the same way that Government Center does. Government Center is devoid of green space, there isn’t a single one anywhere on the massive, sprawling development.  WpgCityhall

What Government Center replaced is Scollay Square, which was created officially in 1838, though the name dates back to the end of the 18th century; it was named for William Scollay, a local businessman.  Scollay Square was the centre of downtown Boston throughout its existence.  The problem was that by the Second World War, Scollay Square was getting seedy.  One of its centrepieces was the Howard Theatre, and by this point, it was starting to slide downscale and attract a sleezy clientèle, mostly sailors on shore leave and, oh heavens!, students.  Scollay Square was on the decline.  And when the Howard was raided by the city’s vice squad in 1953 and shutdown due to a burlesque show, the writing was on the wall.  The Howard eventually burned down in 1961.  By the 1950s, Boston city officials were looking around for excuses to tear apart Scollay Square.  The area was becoming home to too many flophouses and Boston’s rough waterfront had migrated too far inland.  The Howard’s destruction by fire became the excuse to step into action, and it was torn down.  Over 1,000 buildings were torn down and over 20,000 residents, most of whom were low income, were displaced.

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In many ways, Boston is no different than any other North American (or, for that matter, European) city in the 1960s, undergoing urban redevelopment.  Montréal also underwent massive redevelopment in the 1960s and 70s, as a trip through the downtown core shows today.  Place-des-Arts, Place Desjardins, Place Ville-Marie, the Palais de Justice and the Palais de Congrès all date from this period.  It’s not even the scale of Government Center that sets it apart from other redevelopment.  No, it’s simply the massive failure of it, and its horrid imposition on the landscape of downtown Boston.  Certainly, breaking up the monotony of concrete and red brick with trees, grass, and other such things would help.  But, at the end of the day, as ugly as brutalist architecture is elsewhere, nothing can quite touch the size and grandeur of the buildings in Government Center.  Walking up Staniford Street, it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed (or maybe the proper term is underwhelmed) by the Government Service Center.

Boston’s mayor, Thomas Mennino, has mused several times in recent years about doing away with at least City Hall and re-locating to South Boston.  Not surprisingly, this was met with controversy, as a group called “Citizens for City Hall,” professing to love the building, threatened all kinds of hellfire and damnation should Mennino think about destroying it.  Fortunately for them, the recession got in the mayor’s plans.  Citizens City Hall sought to have the location designated as a landmark, and also noted that re-locating the seat of city government to Southie, as Mennino planned, would also lead to the dislocation of thousands of residents (again, just as when Government Center was built).  At any rate, by 2011, cooler heads prevailed and a new group, “Friends of City Hall” sought to improve the present location and do something to make both City Hall and the Plaza more user friendly.  Part of this work will begin this summer, when the MBTA shuts down the Government Center T station to remodel it.  Hopefully something can be done to improve Government Center as a whole, not just City Hall and its Plaza, to make this abomination more user-friendly and more aesthetically appealing.

coliseumUPDATE: From personal friend and Tweep, John P. Fahey. who grew up in New Haven, CT: Agreed, Government Center suffers in comparison with the architecture in the surrounding area.  Urban Renewal was a hot button topic in the 1960s.  The idea was to sweep out the old neighborhoods and replace them with new buildings.   New Haven did the exact same thing in the 1960s as part of the Model Cities initiative.  It knocked down a narrow swathe of a neighborhood that ran from where I-91 starts about 3 miles to Route 34.  The City put up an ugly Coliseum that has since been knocked down.  When I was a kid I used to ask my mother when they were going to finish it because it never looked complete. New Haven ran out of Urban Renewal money and thus there is this long narrow strip of land extending from the center of New Haven that resembles Dresden after the fire bombing.  There was enough Model Cities money to knock down the old neighborhood but not enough to put up the new buildings.  If the New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum was an example of the  type of the architecture that the Elm City would have received, then maybe it was lucky.

The Working-Class and Community, Griffintown and Beyond

February 1, 2013 § 6 Comments

Almost to a person, every former Griffintowner I talked to over a decade of working on the neighbourhood commented on the sense of community they felt in living there, how it was a place where people took care of their neighbours.  David O’Neill, who helped me extensively during the research and who put in me in contact with many former Griffintowners, commented that when he was growing up there in the 1940s and 50s, it was like having a community of parents, everyone watched out for each other’s children on the streets.  And if O’Neill and his friends got up to something they shouldn’t have, by the time they returned home, their parents would be waiting for them with the intelligence, ready to punish the kids.

But Griffintown was never unique for this characteristic, this is a commonality to nearly all former working-class neighbourhoods I’ve ever read about, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.  It is also a way that is lost today.  People who grew up in close-knit working-class communities are almost always nostalgic for what has been lost.  They miss the community and comaraderie they experienced in those communities.  They miss what kept them in line, be it the Church or work, or just the simple existence of real and authentic community.

The universality of this mindset hit home the other day in Salem, MA, at the National Park Service’s Custom House site.  When the Park Service created the site, they removed a set of derelict buildings that had popped up in an alleyway behind the old Customs House on Derby Street.  In the early 20th century, an entire working-class immigrant community existed along Derby Street, and in the alleys behind the Customs House.  Here there were tenement houses of varying quality and shops and services that served, first, Irish immigrants, and then, in the 20th century, Poles and Russians and Ukrainians.  Taking aside the question of the authenticity of the Customs House site given the destruction of the homes of this long-gone working-class community, what struck me the most was the description of what was once there, including a quotation from a former resident, Dorothy Philip, as seen in the photo here.photo-1

On Canadian Anti-Americanism

December 18, 2012 § 7 Comments

Sometimes there are few things as depressing as Canadian anti-Americanism.  We Canadians are a smug lot, we think we’re smarter, more cosmopolitan, less racist, less sexist, more everything that’s good, less everything that’s bad than Americans.  And yet we’re obsessed with Americans.  For many of us, our self-identity as a nation is simple: we’re not American.  Years ago, even the Canadian Football League fell for this with an ad that asked “WHAT’S THE DEFINITION OF CANADIAN?!? NOT AMERICAN!!!” Yeah, great, thanks for that.  I find few things as sad, pathetic, and limiting as we Canadians identifying ourselves in the negative, as in NOT American, NOT British, NOT French.

But it appears that this means of self-definition still appeals to and obsesses too many of my fellow citizens.  And this leads to this sad anti-Americanism.  The kind that leads Canadians to proudly declare we live in a paradise of non-existant crime, racism, homophobia, etc.  And sometimes, it leads to leftist Americans fetishising Canada.  Think, for example, of Michael Moore’s fatuous claim in Bowling for Columbine that Canadians don’t lock their doors at night because there’s no crime.  I have never, ever, ever left my door unlocked living in Vancouver, Ottawa, and Montréal.  Not once.  Ever.  You think I’m nuts?!?

Canadian anti-Americanism is quite the phenomenon in social media right now.  All kinds of Canadians lecturing, hectoring, and badgering Americans (not that they’re paying attention) about guns in the wake of the Newtown massacre (and let’s not forget the mall shooting in Oregon last week) (if you’d really like to depress yourself about mass shootings in the United States over the past thirty years, I have this for you).  The script of this particular anti-Americanism is consistent: “You Americans are dumb. You have guns.  And you shoot each other and yourselves with them.  We Canadians are smart.  We don’t shoot ourselves and each other.” And so and so forth.  To that, my fellow Canadians, I will remind you of the rash of shootings in Toronto last summer.  As for mass shootings, I present École Polytechnique; Concordia University; Taber, AB; Dawson College.  You want a closer look at mass shootings in Canada? Go here. But this kind of anti-Americanism is predictable.  But it’s not like Americans aren’t upset and distressed by these goings-on.  It’s not like Americans aren’t trying to have this very same discussion.

But there’s also the more prosaic kind of anti-Americanism.  Since I re-located to Boston this summer, I’ve had a few choice comments directed my way on Twitter and in real life.  Comments like “I could NEVER live in the States, it’s so violent,” “Ha! Better get a gun!” and “Americans are dumb” (yes, seriously), and so on and so forth.  A couple of weeks ago on Twitter, one numbskull went crazy on me in response to a tweet about the subtle difference I have noticed between the two nations: Canadians have social programmes, Americans have entitlements.  This now-former tweep went on a tirade about Americans and war, suggesting that the American entry into the Second World War had nothing to do with the Allies winning the war.  But it got better.  Apparently the only thing Americans can do is fight, they can’t do diplomacy, and they can’t innovate unless it’s war.  Cars, electricity, nope, none of that comes from the United States.  Certainly, this kind of irrational anti-Americanism is not the norm in Canada, but it is still symptomatic of the larger problem.

I don’t see how this kind of irrational anti-Americanism can square with our self-image as more erudite, more intelligent, etc. than Americans.  For that matter, I can’t see why this comparison even exists in the first place.  I am Canadian.  Full stop.  I am not not-American.  I don’t care what Americans are or do.  That’s for Americans to decide.  As Canadians, we need to get over our inferiority complex.

The “Curation” of Southie and the General Over Use of the Term

December 10, 2012 § 4 Comments

We were in Southie yesterday, the former Irish-Catholic working-class neighbourhood of Boston.  Southie is undergoing massive yuppification these days.  The working classes are being squeezed out, and the yuppies are moving in.  This was clear as we took the #9 Broadway bus from Copley Square into Southie.  The bus is the great equaliser of Boston society; in some parts of the city, it’s the only time one sees large numbers of minorities.  We got off the bus at the corner of West Broadway and A Street, on our way to a yuppified Christmas foodie craft fair at Artists for Humanity on West 2nd Street.  In a lot of ways, Southie looked to me like a combination of parts of the Plateau Mont-Royal and Pointe-Saint-Charles back home in Montréal.  The architecture was Plateau-like in terms of post-industrial spaces and housing, but the people looked like they could be in the Pointe.  There was a curious mixture of the down and out, the working-classes, hipsters, and yuppies of every skin colour.

Gentrification is a creeping problem in pretty much every North American and European city, and much has been written about this, including on this very blog (like, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for starters).  But what struck me the most was Social Wines, a wine and beer emporium in a spanking new building on West Broadway at A Street.  Social Wines offers its clientele “Curated Craft Beer and Spirits.”  Now, I must confess, this is my kind of store: it focuses on smaller, indie breweries and vineyards.  I like giving my money to these kinds of companies, rather than the Molsons, Budweisers, and massive vineyard conglomerates of the world.  But curated?  What the hell does that mean?

According to the Meriam-Webster dictionary on-line, a “curator” is “one who has the care and superintendence of something; especially : one in charge of a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibit.  To “curate” is: “to act as curator of a museum or exhibit curated by the museum’s director.”

Of late, hipsters and academics have abused the term “curate” like it’s nobody’s business.  It is one thing, in the field of Public History and its corollaries, to write of the ways in which museums and the like have “curated” items.  That is the proper use of the term.  But when editors of edited collections of academic papers start referring to themselves as “curators” and not “editors,” well, then we have a problem.  Meanwhile.  Hipsters.  On any given day, one can go to PitchforkMedia and see articles about this or that music festival that has been “curated” by someone.  The most egregious example of this is the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, which takes place in merry olde England, with branches occurring in the US, too.  Each year, ATP is “curated” by a guest musician, one of stature and great fame.  What that means is that someone is in charge of deciding who should play, and the list of artists reflects the curator’s tastes.  Yup, deciding who should play a music festival is curation.

And so now we have a hipster beer and wine store in Southie that offers us “curated” booze.  What, exactly is curated?  The collection of booze on sale.  See, the old ma and pop liquor store down the street just orders in booze that they figure their clientele will enjoy.  But, not hipsters, they lovingly and carefully “curate” the collection of booze on sale at Social Wines.  I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot better knowing that rather than having some old geezer just randomly order wines and beers that may or may not be any good, we have the fine folk at Social Wines to very carefully curate their collection.

My problem with the use of this term?  It’s very simple.  It’s pretentious.  And nothing quite says “I’m a wanker” like declaring that you curated your liquor store.  I applaud Social Wines’ mission.  Hell, next time I’m in Southie, I may even stop in and peruse their collection of wines.  But the use of this term by book editors, musicians, and liquor store owners also seriously devalues the meaning of the word in its true professional sense.

Professional curators, those who work in museums and art galleries, do not just collect stuff they like to display.  They are responsible for the content of exhibits, and they are required to carefully make decisions on what is appropriate and what is not, to carefully arrange the displays, to negotiate with sponsors, and so on and so forth.  There is a reason why curators go to school to learn how to properly curate.  Musicians and liquor store owners do not.

 

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