The Failure of Urban Redevelopment and the Chance at Redemption: Worcester

October 22, 2013 § 3 Comments

Worcester, Massachusetts, is like pretty much every city in New England not named Boston or Providence, and kinda like those Easter Bunnies I used to get when I was a kid: hollow centre.  The downtowns of Hartford, New Haven, Springfield, Worcester, etc. were done in by deindustrialisation and horrid, horrid urban redevelopment schemes.  The urban redevelopments schemes of the 70s, in hindsight, look as though they were especially created to destroy urban centres, not save them.  Boston’s Government Center, for example, is one of the most hideous examples of neo-brutalist architecture I’ve ever seen.

Water/Fire, Providence, RI

Water/Fire, Providence, RI

Government Center, Boston

Government Center, Boston

Worcester’s other problem is that it’s near Boston, less than an hour away.  In fact, before I moved to Massachusetts, I thought Worcester was just a suburb of Boston.  Boston is by far the biggest city in New England, over 5 times as big as the number 2 city, which just so happens to be Worcester (in fact, Worcester is the western boundary of the ridiculous Boston-Worcester-Manchester Combined Statistical Area).  Worcester gets by, it is the home to several universities, including the University of Massachusetts Medical School, plus hospitals.  But the downtown is a disaster.

City Hall Plaza, Boston

City Hall Plaza, Boston

Worcester attempted and failed miserably to redesign its downtown in the 70s.  It made sense at the time, as Paul McMorrow points out in today’s Boston Globe, the city erected a shopping mall downtown to counter the growth of suburban shopping malls.  This was a common tactic.  In some places, usually Canadian cities, this worked.  Vancouver, Toronto, Montréal, Calgary, Ottawa all have shopping malls downtown.  And in those cities, the malls are successful.  Those are also very large cities, Ottawa is the smallest and its urban centre is still over 1 million people.  It is worth noting, however, that I cannot think, off the top of my head, of a large American city with a successful shopping mall at its core.  Boston has a small shopping concourse in the Prudential Center, but that’s it.

Nevertheless, the Worcester Center Galleria was a valiant effort.  But it failed.  Twice.

Worcester Center Galleria

The mall, when it was constructed, obliterated the street grid and landscape of downtown Worcester.  But now, it’s been town down and the old street grid is being restored.  The new CitySquare development is designed to do what most new urban redevelopments do: provide shopping, office space, and urban condos.  All to convince a new, wealthy, demographic to move downtown, and stay downtown.  McMorrow is hopeful for Worcester, as am I.  And as Providence shows, urban redevelopment can be done and can be successful.  But Worcester has the same problems as the rest of Massachusetts outside of Boston: the economy.

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Diaspora and Terrorism: The problem with relativism

July 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

Janet Reitman‘s Rolling Stone feature on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a fascinating read in many ways, as she explores just what might have radicalised him and turned him into a terrorist.  Reitman talked to pretty much everyone in the Boston region who knew him growing up.  He comes across as the pretty stereotypical American urban kid.  As a Bostonian, the article interested me for obvious reasons.  But as an historian, I was struck by questions and notions of diaspora concerning the Tsarnaev family and the youngest son, especially.

Reitman talked to Brian Glyn Williams, who teaches Islamic Studies at UMass-Dartmouth.  UMass-Dartmouth, of course, is where Tsarnaev went to school.  Interestingly, Tsarnaev, who by all accounts was interested in his history as a Chechen and a Muslim, didn’t take a single one of Williams’ classes.  But Williams also comments on the older brother, Tamerlan, who by all accounts was the ring-leader.  Williams, says Reitman,

believes that Tamerlan’s journey – which he calls “jihadification” – was less a young man’s quest to join Al Qaeda than to discover his own identity. “To me, this is classic diasporic reconstruction of identity: ‘I’m a Chechen, and we’re fighting for jihad, and what am I doing? Nothing.’ It’s not unlike the way some Irish-Americans used to link Ireland and the IRA – they’d never been to Northern Ireland in their lives, but you’d go to certain parts of Southie in Boston, and all you see are donation cans for the IRA.

I find this comment interesting.  Being an Irish Canadian, and having spent much of the past decade-and-a-half studying the Irish in North America, I’ve always been struck by the willingness of Irish-Catholics in both Canada and the United States to identify with the IRA.  Usually this identification with the IRA came without complications.  Supporters never thought about where that money in those tins was going, what it was going to be used for.  What happened when the guns and bombs it bought were used, who got hurt, who got killed.  If they had stopped to think about this, if they removed the romanticism of the struggle back “home” (even if Ireland hadn’t been home for several generations), I’m sure support for the IRA would’ve dried up pretty quickly.  Not many Irish Canadians or Irish Americans actually went back to Northern Ireland and got involved in the fight.

And yet, Tamerlan Tsarnaev did.  He went back to Chechnya and Dagestan.  He was, however, told by a cousin in Dagestan that this was not his fight.  So he brought the fight home.  I shudder at the consequences.

But that is exactly what makes Williams’ comparison invalid after a certain point.  All those Irish in Southie who contributed to the IRA’s cause have several degrees of separation from the consequences of their donation.  Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev quite literaly have blood on their hands as a direct result of their actions.

Insta-Memory: Dismantling the Boston Marathon Bombing Memorial

July 10, 2013 § 12 Comments

Over at NCPH’s History@Work, I have a piece up today on the dismantling of the Boston Marathon Bombing Memorial a couple of weeks ago by the City of Boston. In it, I explore the meaning of the memorial and what happens to commemorations and memories once a temporary memorial, like this one, is taken down.  Today, incidentally, is the day that the surviving bomber/terrorist makes his first court appearance.

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.

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