4. Brookline / Brooklyn

In order to  “publish original scholarly works on a dynamic research platform to scholars worldwide” — because  “the traditional model of scholarly communication has become expensive,  restrictive and increasingly limited in its ability to make information accessible.  . .  the eScholarship program was lauched by the University of California in 2000.”  That digital publishing program  is the model for  BBHs, which focuses on this latest iteration of a column by Shand-Tucci  which  first appeared on Christopher Lydon’s Ten O’Clock News on WGBH,  Channel 2,  Boston’s PBS outlet,  then migrated to print as  ‘Skyline”  (so named by editor Peter Kadzis) in the Boston Phoenix in the 1990s and is now  published  on the  BBH  site.  For more about  the author  see Mission 6,  this site.  Always sourced,  but not afflicted with what poet David McCord used to call  ‘foot and note disease’ —  or the electronic equivalent,  mid-text links —  and never,  ever peer reviewed, this published work is meant to  bridge  academic and popular history. 


Bostonians thwarted by the 1873 Brookline vote against annexation to the core city were likely all unknowing  of what now seems obvious:  far from having suffered a fatal blow to the cause of metropolitan reform,  the Brookline vote was what we’d call today a  “wake-up”  call.  It was  a sign that a political solution was not in the cards, nor,  perhaps,  likely to be,  thus setting the stage for a different metropolitan experience,  one I call the  “Boston / Brookline Model”  as opposed to the  “New York / Brooklyn Model”  discussed here last time.

New York was bolder;  no doubt about it.  And as we’ve seen in the case of the  United Nations World Headquarters complex some seventy five years  later,  when New York was selected over Boston and Philadelphia,  boldness very often pays off.  But not necessarily in the land of the New England Town Meeting (code for democracy), a forum of  localism originally Americans have turned into a kind of universalism,  if not globalism,  and which they stubbornly have always resisted loosing touch with.

Consider the matter of the mailing address in recent years of the president’s office of Northeastern University,  which straddles now two  neighborhoods of the core city,  Back Bay Fens and Roxbury. Consider it as a sort of parable.  When the U. S. Postal Service chose a Fenway rather than a Roxbury zip code,  some in Roxbury, according to a report in the Boston Globe, “saw it as an example of the school trying to distance itself from Roxbury”, a much less fashionable quarter.   Yet Northeastern was founded in the Back Bay,  not Roxbury — in Copley Square actually — and only later moved to the Back Bay Fens area and, over the years,  expanded only through its back yard, so to speak, into Roxbury,  all this a century or more after that no longer independent city had been annexed to the big city.   Thus to see its address today as a case of  “in Boston or Roxbury”  is something of a problem in search of a time machine.

However absurd, the fact is  the president of that university moved his office to the Roxbury side of the  campus, an example,  to be sure,  of how much politically vulnerable elites embarass themselves so as to keep the peace,  but also an example of how little being annexed (as Roxbury was) or not (as Brookline wasn’t) really amounted to and still does  in a culture where localism was and is so pervasive. 

On the other hand,  the history Brookline made by its 1873 vote was, indeed, big history.  As historian David Hackett-Fischer has pointed out,  it was at once very Bostonian history,  and nationally influential,  for all it was just a tad sleazy in the way  Brahmins privileged their own  finances  over  the city’s.   Wrote Hackett-Fischer:  ” The uniqueness of Brookline owed much to its special relationship with Boston.  The little settlement on Muddy River,  arguably,  is America’s first suburb. . . . Brookline is . . . ‘a town within a city’. . . . From the very start,  it functioned as a tax shelter for affluent Bostonians”.

That there might be another metropolitan model less aggressive,  less imperialistic,  than annexation to the core city,  was a question which seems to have taken the passing of a generation to come to the surface  in any explicit way. The immediate aftermath of the Brookline vote was perhaps too bleak a time.  Certainly it is,  even in retrospect,  not a very preety picture.  On one side were the Brahmin ‘ gated communities’,  as it were,  of the bucolic town — neighborhoods like Longwood,  for instance — as exclusionary as they were bucolic.  On the other were the conjested  (and usually Yankee owned, of course)  and very unpleasant tenement districts  of  the inner city,  strictly controlled by their ward bosses.

Yet the fact was that both extremes — the most bigoted  of Boston Brahmin suburbanites and the most  demagogic of  Irish Catholic ward bosses  — had,  in effect,  been allies in  facilitating  this situation.  And in the long run there would be a heavy price to pay for both sides.  The whole claim of an elite ruling class,  that it should enforce an enlightened leadership that transcends self-interest — the old  military rule applied to matters civic that officers eat only after their men —  which in the case of the Boston Brahmin caste  had reached its height in the response to the Civil War of which the Shaw Memorial is ever the great landmark — was nowhere evident in their noticeable retreat to Brookline.

No surprise  that within a generation what the Chinese sometimes called the mandate of  Heaven could no longer be claimed by Boston’s Brahmins,  in full retreat by the 1920s,  when the caste completely lost its nerve in the matter of the Sacco Vanzetti case.  Similarly,  the  Irish Catholic community paid a steep price  for their stubborn Jansenist refusal to fully engage the Brahmin ideal of civic virtue and progressive thought,  a price finally fully paid  in the busing wars of the 1970s,  a matter we will return to next time in this series. 

Meanwhile,  the decision against a larger and more cosmopolitan capital city had been made where most are ever made,  in the short run.  And whatever problem had been left unresolved was seen in the 1870s,  as someone elses.

In the first place, there was a long tradition by the 1870s of Boston satelites of  self-contained entrepreneural  character.  As  Joel Garreau pointed out in 1991 in “Edge City”,  “Boston is the most mature metropolitan area in the U. S. ” As Henry C.  Binford’s important book,  “The First Suburbs:  Residential Communities on the Boston Periphery, 1815-1860”,  which dealt with Cambridge  (the non-academic part!)  and Somerville,   showed,  at least  “initially, suburban growth was not the result of the native Bostonians refusal to mix not the growing Irish population”,  in Oliver Zunzu’s words.  “Binford establishes that the [earliest] suburban communities of Boston preceded commuting”,  notes Eric  Monkkonen;  ” they were independent political and cultural  communities”.  Their purpose,  Binford made clear,  was  entirely of a business nature,  to try and  “exploit opportunities available at the city’s edge “.

Brookline’s issues did,  however,  impact these early satelites.  In Professor Peter Eisinger’s  “Ethnic Political Transition in Boston”,  that scholar notes that ” as early as by mid century there was talk of some such cities proposing themselves for annexation to Boston so as  to dilute Boston’s Democratic electorate with suburban voters”  through  metropolitanization.  Middle class flight from the city, which coincided with the growth of the immigrant population, as already evident by the 1850s.”  But the forces of localism were not yet vanquished.   Especially as the suburban aesthetic at mid century compounded the appeal of such communities quite apart from business interests or ethnic politics.  Brookline was far from the only suburb where Boston Brahmin grandees,  in the spirit of Olmsted’s  suburban ideal, established country seats,  great horticultural estates founded on proto-Green environmental principles.

Not the suburbs,  but the core city,  was where Lewis Mumford,  the urbanologist whose work will come up here more and more in this series,  looked implicitly for the solution.  “It was in the Back Bay”,  Mumford declared,  “that the self-contained provincial town,  with its mainly English ancestry and background,  turned into a multi-national metropolis. . . including within its new metropolitan framework many other historically important communities as distinct as Lexington and Concord”.

The Brahmins,  most of them,  were not,  however,  more wise in town than in the suburbs,  the aesthetic of which they found  more compelling by far,  English-like,   their love of Boston notwithstanding.  (All this Henry Adams  famously documented  when he compared Boston —  Beacon Hill — in the winter with Quincy –the family’s country seat —   in summer, in his “Education”.  But the expansion of the Back Bay was on so much larger a scale than hitherto in Boston,  involving the creation in Copley Square of not only a cultural but a transportation center,  a center that played its part turning old Boston satelites into commuter suburbs,  that Brahmin decision making,  such were the social and economic implications of so rapidly changing an urban dynamic, was within two generations overtaken by broader interests.  (Few realize the extent of Boston’s mid-19th-century growth.  “Bostonians commuted by rail in 1850”,  Garreau notes in “Edge Cities””  “there were three railroads into Boston before the first locomotive puled into London.”)  Indeed,  when a new cadre of metropolitan reformer’s did emerge in the 1890s,  one detects at once not only the larger interests such growth arouses,  but — as was not the case in the 1870s annexionist movement — distictly a leftish,  radical tinge.

Four figures stand out in my research:  a radical Boston labor lawyer,  Louis Brandeis;  a department store tycoon, Edward Filene;  both Jews with Socialist leanings;  a leading Yankee Brahmin banker,  James Jackson Storrow,  certainly conservative but also a political activist and civic philanthropist,  and a utopian Socialist who wrote for distinguished Boston newspapers and lived in suburban Malden,  Sylvester Baxter.

The role of Baxter,  the father of this new metropolitanism of the 1890s and 1900s and 1910s was to engage the public;  something that came easily to him.  A born polemnicist,  Baxter railed against what he called  “the legal fiction” of the political boundaries of Cambridge, say,  or Malden,  of Quincy.  What folly was this,  he demanded,  “an expansion of [the city of] Boston’s limits would place her”,  Baxter trumpeted,  “among the first cities of the world”.

Appeals so framed did not move Brahmins very much,  however, whose civic ideals  were perhaps less easily compromised  than their personal ones.  Boosterism was not Boston’s style,  as their response to the huge Peace Jubilees of the 1860s and ’70s had shown.  To be sure this was more a matter of taste than virtue.  Witness Harvard president Charles Eliot lecturing the brother of the German Kaiser in 1902 on the glories of the Massachusetts constitution he predicted (correctly) would outlast the German Imperial dynasty at a state dinner in Boston in 1902..  But if,  for instance,  Brahmin’s allowed themselves to  pronounce on the subject , the only thing I’ve ever read of this sort that sounded abit to my mind what a Brahmin might have hurrumphed was not Baxter’s Gilded Age boosterism but modern journalists  matter-of-fact  bluntness in baldly pointing out (I am quoting from  a guidebook where twowell known Boston Phoenix writers, Chris Wright and Camille Dodero, introduce Boston to visitors)  that Boston was important because it was  “the founding city of the most powerful country on earth”  and “the chosen home of some of the world’s greatest minds”.  Although he or she would never have admitted it,  a Victorian Yankee Boston Brahmin would have been stopped somewhat by that, and not demurred. It was the way he judged things himself and they way he wanted his city to be judged.  Not by its population! “The tyranny of large numbers” even raised Mumford’s eyebrows.  It was as a center of civilization,  not population,  that Brahmin’s thought of Boston.

The other three metropolitan reformers — Brandeis,  Filene and Storrow — worked not from the journalistic power base of Baxter but from another, an organization of their founding called  “Boston 1915”, the executive committee of which had in  Storrow its best answer to Brahmin’s unimpressed with Baxter’s boosterism and,  indeed, the plans of “Boston 1915”  itself to host a great international exposition in Boston in 1915 modeled after the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Over cigars,  doubtless,  Storrow would surely point out that there was a certain connection between citys — centers of population — and civilization, centers of civilization. 

This was the background of of the developments  “in the early spring of 1909  [when]  Brandeis and Filene lauched the ‘Boston 1915’ movement”,  in the words of Allon  Gal,  Brandeis biographer,  a  “five year plan for civic betterment in which  Brandeis played so dominant a role,  as much as the savings bank life-insurance effort, while making for a general cause — an ideal city conducted in accordance wih the vision of its Yankee founders — Brandeis came to depend more and more upon Jews for support.”  Still,  Gal goes to far when he asserts that  “the project can be said to have been sponsored by the Jewish community [and] did not achieve very much in part because of the indifference of Protestant Boston”,  citing the fact that Storrow,  its most prominent supporter,  dropped out in 1911.

The fact that Storrow was a member of the five  person executive committee for its first two years ought not to be discounted.  Nor that only  two of the five were Jews.  Three were not:  Storrow and George Smith,  president of the Boston Chamber of Commerce,  and Bernard Rothwell, president of the Mercantile Association.  Indeed,  ‘Boston 1915’ attracted prominent Irish-Catholic support;  Rothwell,  Dublin born,  is a case in point.  He was a leader of the Boston Irish-Catholic community.  Also on the directorate of ‘Boston 1915’ was Mary Boyle O’Reilly,  daughter of the poet, herself active in prison reform.  The organizations program was also not narrowly based and embraced more branch libraries and better public health services and an overall emphasis on business and not political methods of efficiency.

That was in fact what brought Brandies and Storrow together in the first place,  though Storrow did support the lawyer’s life insurance project.  Both were concerned above all with reforming the city’s”corrupt politics, on which subject, and not by the way, Brandeis could be scathing: referring once to the “huge leisure class employed by the street department of [the city of Boston] .”

Indeed,  it is hardly surprising that two such hard-headed idealists soon were seen to be advocating what became a distinct political agenda of ‘Boston 1915’.  In 1911 the group allied itself to the Chamber of Commerce’s ‘Real Boston’ Committee  (on which Sylvester Baxter sat)  in sponsoring a Metropolitan Boston Federation bill in the state legislature,  while at the same time working to overhaul the Boston city charter.  All these elements coalesced rather deliberately  in the 1909-1910 Boston mayoral election, in which — against John F.  “Honey Fitz”  Fitzgerald,  seeking his second term –Storrow himself ran.

A turning point  it turned out to be.  But not at all in the way anyone expected.


S  O  U  R  C  E  S

Baxter, Slvester. “Boston at the century’s end”, HARPERS (Nov. 1899)

Binford, Henry C.  THE FIRST SUBURBS,  (Univ. of Chicago Press) 1985

Eisinger, Peter.  “Ethnic Political Transition in Boston”, POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY (Summer 1978

Dodero, Camille.”Boston Today” in TIME OUT/BOSTON (Penguin) 2nd ed 2001

Gal, Allon.  BRANDEIS OF BOSTON  (Harvard Univ. Press) 1980

Garreau, Joel.  EDGE CITY  (Anchor) 1991

[Globe, Boston] Schworm, Peter. “Northeastern” (July 17, 2007)

Hackett-Fischer, David.  BROOKLINE  (Brandeis) 1986

Monkkonen, Eric.  AMERICA BECOMES URBAN  (Univ. of California Press) 1990

Mumford, Lewis.  “The Significence of Back Bay Boston”,  BACK BAY BOSTON  (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) 1969

Wright, Chris.  Introduction,  TIME OUT / BOSTON  (Penguin) 2nd ed. 2001

Zunzu, Oliver.  “On the Fringe”, REVIEWS IN AMERICAN HISTORY (Dec. 1985)

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