3. Movable Boundaries

These online columns,  always sourced,  but never burdened with what poet David McCord used to  call  “foot and note”  disease — or the online equivalent of mid-text links —  and never,  ever,  peer reviewed,  are the latest iteration of DSTs column on WGBH,  Boston’s PBS outlet,  for Christopher Lydon’s Ten O’Clock News.  The column moved in the 1990s to the Boston Phoenix  (as ‘Skyline’,  so named by editor Peter Kadzis)  and today appears on the BBH website,  modeled on the George Mason University Center for History and New Media blogs

If nativism and localism,  the subject of the last two blogs in this series,  have been the gremlins  that  absurdly narrow the definition of  ‘Bostonian’  we have inherited in the 21st century,  our hope of realizing a broader and more historically accurate definition —  key if we are to meet Boston’s urgent need for a new history  (as Professor Tom Brown of U/Mass/Boston used to put it)  is not now promising at all.

Consider,  for example,  the message James Rainey of the Project for Excellence in Journalism sent winging eastward just two years ago  from the columns of the Los Angeles Times to those of the Boston Globe,  for most of its history an undistinguished local newspaper that in the last third of the last century achieved national stature only to  be again now declining  in the face of the crisis today facing all American newspapers.   Writing of  “the current thinking,  hyper-localism”  —  the  cultivation of which many believe is now the only way newspapers can survive —    Rainey declares:  “in an era of globalism how can you suggest that the L A. or Boston market does not need its own specialized foreign reporting that   . . .   is different that what generic wire [services] would cover.”  Yet  hyper-localism is more and more the order of the day everywhere. 

In post-Civil War America  localism  —  as opposed to exceptionalism,  seen as either Bostonian or American  —   was not waxing,  but waning.  Never mind our anecdote of last time about New York City and Chicago fighting over which should annex Texas,  big cities in both Europe and America  in that era grew suddenly very, very  boldly;  first colonizing and then more or less devouring their smaller neighbors .  London,  for example,  the population of which was one million in 1800,  would grow in the wake of its pioneering surface rail and subway system to 6.7 million in 1900 . By 1888 it was a capital of twenty eight burroughs.

Annexation played a large role in  this;  nowhere more than in Philadelphia,  when in the single largest such growth spurt in U. S  history,  that city expanded in 1854 from two to 130 square miles,  quadrupling its population.  Indeed,  untill Paris annexed its outer arrondissements in 1859,  Philadelphia was,  in terms of area,  the largest city in the world.  Chicago, too,  boldly added 133 square miles to its area in 1889.  Then,  in 1898,  by annexing Brooklyn itself,  the fourth latgest American city in its own right,  as well as nearby counties,  New York became the second largest city in the world,  trailing only London.

If New York and Philadelphia seemed to follow London and Paris,  Boston seemed most  akin  to  Berlin,  with which it was compared at some length in a study of 1946 by Martin Wagner,  who pointed out that the success of both cities had been stymied by skewed figures that suggested their decline,  wheras both  had grown in fact  enormously.  The New England and German capitals,  each laggard  in annexing their neighbors, seemed,  wrote Wagner,  “to lose sight of the common sense fact that [poliical] jurisdictional boundary lines cannot seperate what industry and commerce have forged into an ‘economic unit.'”

Pointed out Wagner,  between 1800 and 1900 Berlin officially grew eleven times bigger and Boston 22 times bigger.  However,  if one included  “the satelites of Boston and Berlin”  —  83 cities and towns in Boston’s case,  93 cities, towns and villages in Berlin’s  —  “and follow up their development utill 1938”,  it turned out that the German capital grew, not eleven times bigger,  but 25 times bigger,    and the New England capital grew,  not  22 times bigger, but a  whopping 90 times bigger.

Quoth Wagner:  “this family quarrel [between core cities and satelites] started in Berlin and Boston around 1870 and lasted in Berlin untill 1920,  while it still continues in Boston.”  That was in 1946.  It is still true in 2010.

An American urban historian,  Kenneth Jackson,  saw behind these facts to their politics when he observed that New York actually made its big move,  annexing Brooklyn in 1898,  in no small part because it feared Chicago,  growing rapidly,  would seize the number one  position   and the psychological advantage that came with it.  And from this historian’s Boston studies point of view it might equally be said that those sort of bragging rights were not the sort of thing which impressed Boston Brahmins, who it  should be recalled,  presided as late as 1880 over a City of Boston that was still in the top American five,  having itself annexed in the 1860s and ’70s several sorrounding cities and towns,  including some of the most historic  municipalities in America;  the Town of Dorchester,  for example,  and the Cities of Charlestown and Roxbury/

A century later,  however,  in 1980,   while New York and Chicago still held their positions in the top five,  the City of Boston had dropped entirely out of the middle,  never mind the big leagues,  descending from fifth to 20th largest American city.

In the 1880s this decline would have seemed to Bostonians most unlikely.  So much so Boston’s Brahmin leadership itself sowed the seeds of the decline gladly enough,  turning their backs remorselessly  on the inner city  problems of an increasingly immigrant -populated  capital,  a decision the ward bosses of said immigrant culture were hardly likely to protest, leaving them as it did in more or less complete control.

The decsive move came in 1873.  That year Brghton and West Roxbury and Brookline were all slated to be annexed to the City of Boston,  but only the first two towns voted in favor of the measure.  Suddenly,  everything changed.  Brookline was Boston’s Brooklyn moment,  but in reverse.  And it was not just in Boston that everything changed,   for Americans of one sort will always look to Boston  for a model even as Americans of another sort will always look to New York. “The first really significant defeat for the consolidation [ie,annexationist]  movement came when Brookline spurned Boston in 187[3]    by a vote of 706 to 299.  After Brookline [so voted] virtually every other Eastern and Middle Weastern city was rebuffed”, Jackson writes,  “by wealthy, independent suburbs” ,  each equally willing to leave the  inner city to itself.  The result,  Jackson adds,  was that in the 20th century,  while newer cities like Dallas and Houston and Phoenix would gobble up everything in sight,  America’s older cities [came to be] ringed by unincorporated suburbs that emphasized their differences rather than their relationship with the metropolis.”

These developments and the subsequent influence on our concept of Boston as the place where we live as, or not,  Bostonians,  are hard to exagerate, even in the 21st century. “In contrast to Europe, incorporated suburbs thwarted movements toward metropolitan government. . .    William Barney writes,  “In  Massachusetts,  Brookline in 1873,  Cambridge in 1892 and Sommerville in 1893,  rejectedplans for incorporation into Boston .  Evanston,  Illinois,  did the same [with Chicago] in 1894.”  Chicago,  however,  was big enough to absorb the loss;  Boston not.

In this connection it is worth noticing,  as few do,  that localism triumphant in Boston was reflected at other decision-making levels as well.  Certainly the decade   before  the City of Boston’s several annexations of the 1860s and ’70s witnessed such ruptures as the breaking away and establishment of the Town of Belmont,  which seceded from the larger municipality of Watertown in 1859,  while the decade after the height of the City of Boston’s annexations saw the Town of Wellesley establish itself,  having voted to seperate itself from Needham in 1880.

Interestingly,  this reverse annexation,  one of many such in the post civil war era, was more than a momentary twitch of independence-seeking.  The now seperate towns have perpetuated their  independence of spirit in an annual Thanksgiving Day  football game that has now itself become historic  —  this is,  afterall,  New England  —  and  is said to be the oldest public high school rivalry in the  U. S.

Even more  arresting:  this rivalry has now been christened one of the Top Ten  “Boston Feuds”  in the annual  awards of  Boston Magazine’s  “Best of Boston” awards .  Irony,  thy name (as we now use it),  is independence from Boston.


S  O  U  R  C  E  S

Barney, William L  A COMPANION TO 19TH-CENTURY AMERICA (Blackwell) 2006


Rainey, James.  “Media’s focus narrows”, LOS ANGELES TIMES  (12 March 2007)

Wagner, Martin.  “American versus German City Planning”, THE JOURNA OF LAND AND PUBLIC UTILITY ECONOMICS (Nov. 1946)

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