5. Where’s Boston?

Was it undue emphasis on ethnicity and religion that misled Allon Gal,  Brandeis’s biographer,  to describe the  “Boston 1915”  movement as  “sponsored by the Jewish community”?   Probably.  Similarly,  I cannot help thinking the same preoccupation  led  astray  Boston College’s university historian  Thomas H.  O’Connor  about an important ally of  “Boston 1915”,  theGood Government Association.

In his discussion of the turn of the 20th-century  “nationwide  ‘progressive’  movement” — note the  skeptical quotes O’Connor places around progressive — he has taken issue with the motivations (always hard to know,  motivations) of some Bostonians dedicated to this organization,  itself dedicated to promoting civic virtue.  Noting that progressives  “called for professional and  efficient approaches to the mechanics of city government,” he asserts that Yankees  “also saw  these institutional reforms  as effective  means of keeping the less desireable elements of the Irish population out of political life in favor of those middle class professionals —  doctors, lawyers, businessmaen, financiers — who were more acceptable to the local advocates of good government”.  

 O’Connor’s  ethnic preoccupation becomes particularly clear when he adds that  “one of the first efforts of old Bostonians to translate their ideas of ‘progressiveism'” — note again the still skeptical quotes around progressive — into a more practical form of controlling the political future of the city came when various business groups banded together in 1903 to form the  G. G. A.,  ” which he describes as  “almost entirely Yankee.”

Was Louis Brandeis a Yankee?   Was that Jewish radical ‘old Boston’?  Of course not!   Yet,  as another historian,  Nelson Dawson,  makes plain,  Brandeis was  “one of the moving spirits behind the [founding of] the Good Government Association,”  which suddenly seems much less  “entirely Yankee”, and,  as Gal writes,  “[Brandeis’s] name was associated with the public drives of the G. G. A., the main organization in Boston pursuing honest and effective local government.”  Indeed,  Dawson insists that  “probably the first thing that attracted [Brandeis’s] attention and that set his feet down the road to progressivism was the discovery of substantial corruption in business,  in government,  and in the relations between them  [that were the heart of the work of]  the G. G. A.”

Never mind that local historian Richard Heath,  perhaps equally preoccupied with ethnicity,  though from the other side,  argues  that  the G. G. A. was  “formed mainly in response to the conviction of State Representitive James Michael Curley for fraud in Federal Court in 1902”,  were there not also  “less desireable”  Yankee’s the G. G. A. disapproved of?   How racist to think not.   The association’s “middle class” orientation could be described as  class bias,  but not ethnic bias.   Moreover,  were Irish Catholics any less eager than any other group to advance their  “best”,  their  “middle class”  professionals ,  to leadership positions in the larger community?  Men  like Harvard law graduate Patrick Collins,  famously an Irish Catholic mayor admired by all sides.  Roman Catholic archbishop John Williams,  poet John Boyle O’Reilly and  another mayor , Hugh O’Brien,  also  come also to mind.

Collins,  in fact,  was Brandeis’s  “prominent ally in some progressive fights”  according to Gal,  who also notes the seldom observed but key fact that  “the Irish community in general played a pivotal role in converting Brandeis to Progressivism” in the first place.  Indeed,  it must be recalled  that although first and foremost  “{Brandeis] adopted both Boston and intellectual Brahminism as his own,  and would remain true to to the Brahminism of Emerson and [Harvard president Charles W.] Eliot for the rest of his life”,  in Phillips Strum’s words,  he was greatly influenced by Boston  Irish-Catholic thought.  Labor leader John O’Sullivan in the 1890s tutored Brandeis in working class views and Boston’s radical Jewish lawyer made common cause with progressive Boston Irish causes more than once.

Gal,  like all scholars, notes that in the era after Collins’s death and Williams death and O’Reilly’s,  there was a noticeable  “decline of the Irish liberal Progressive  trend” — yes, Virginia, there were very high profile Irish progressives —  and that  “the Catholic Boston of [Williams’s successor as archbishop ]  became a veritable font of bigotry”.  He  adds that the increasing racial and ethnic divisiveness of the 1900s,  which saw,  for example,  a significant rise in anti-Semitism,  was the background of why it was Brandeis was less enthusiastic about supporting the Yankee candidate for mayor in 1910 than in 1905.   But support Storrow he did in that historic altercation. 

I call it that because the 1910 mayoral election has always suggested to me — becaue both candidates,  Storrow and John F. “Honey Fitz”  Fitzgerald,  were fundamentally good men  (both keen students since youth of Boston’s history and keen for the city’s reputation) — a politics more like rugby — often said to be a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen,  as opposed to soccer,  said by the same report to be a gentleman’s game played by hooligan’s.  Fitzgerald,   forced to play the hooligan’s game because  though not himself corrupt he had certainly presided over a notoriously corrupt regime,  found he could forget he was a gentleman just long enough to win.  “Fitzgerald managed to simplify the election into a contest between an Irish  boy from the slums and a wealthy,  encrusted Harvard blue-blood” according to his best biographer.  Indeed,  Doris Kearns Goodwin writes:  “Fitzgerald’s was a deliberate plan to  identify the villification against him with a more general predjudice against Irish Catholics.”

Storrow, to his credit (however cold comfort)  couldn’t find it in himself to forget the gentleman he was. As Goodwin observed,  he was “a community benefactor” as well,  and  “believed that a city should be something more than a collection of buildings for the convenience of people engaged in money-making”,  though that was his own occupation. He was,  in fact,  a progressive who gave the lie to the skeptical quotes!  Adds Goodwin:  he also had  “more conscience than most of his background”.

All of which showed in the vote despite the nature of the campaign Storrow lost by less than 1500 votes out of over 100,000 cast.  Boston had come very close indeed to becoming a progressive city.


However,  conservative pundit William F.  Buckley Jr., went too far when he  suggested  that “the men of the great Irish tradition,  men like O’Brien and Collins . . . were followed by the little venal men,  the Honey Fitz’s”  and so on.   Honey Fitz was better than that,  as is attested by his having been a graduate of Boston Latin School and a student as well at Harvard Medical School before the need to support his family forced him into politics.  But he was certainly trapped by the ethnic politics of  a very different era than that of Collins.


Thus his victory in every sense was pyrrhic,  for the truth was , although the election  killed “Boston 1915”  and any real hope of  their  cause prevailing, Fitzgerald again  and again  promoted and advanced progressive ideals only to see them  fall short,  including an early attempt at metropolitan government the failure  for which according to James C. O’Connell,  the new mayor “blamed  [on] the towns of Newton and Brookline” .  Always trapped, as O’Connell points out, “the  ethnic immigrant power which  [Fitzgerald]  represented was the primary reason the suburbs rejected the [Greater Boston] Federation. . . . They wanted no part of [the city of] Boston’s tribal politics’.

Significantly, at the heart of the post mortems  was the question I have taken as my own in this series: who is (and is not) a Bostonian,  now and historically,  the criteria in which discussion can now be seen to be a matter not only of native versus adoptee but also city dweller versus suburbanite.  “Historically, the election may be regarded as a turning point,” Storrow’s biographer wrote: “only about one-half the population of the real Boston,  the metropolitan area,  was to be found within the city limits.  Never had such an opportunity been presented to the voters as in Storrow’s candidacy to build for Boston a foundation of municipal organization  equal to its greatness in other respects  [emphasis added]. ”  As Storrow himself explained:  “the political limits of Boston include a limited section of the whole city [he means in our terms here the metropolis] and . . . in this limited section  [the actual core city of Boston] there is such a racial predominance that it permits a straight appeal to racial ties. . . .Neither in New York, nor in any large city in this country, ” he added,  ” does sixty percent or even one half the population belong to one racial stock,  emphasized by . . . religious sympathy.”

Here,  of course,  however,  it is Storrow who is too much preoccupied by race and ethnicity on the other side.  He is telling,  afterall,  only half the story,  the situation he described having been been only secondarily   the result of Irish inner city  politicians protecting their turf.  The voters in the core city voted to annex Brookline.  It was Brookline that said no,    and as urban historian  Alisa Belinkoff has pointed out,  that happened because  “in the 1870s Brookline became a homogeneous  ‘bedroom suburb”” in an era when Boston Brahmin’s grew more and more keen that any  “municipal boundary manipulations [be] . . . gerrymandered by social class”  so that their prize especially — Brookline — would stay  “insulated from economic,  social,  ethnic and religious rifts.”

If Storrow seemed not to see that Brookline and South Boston were equally homogeneous,  each enabling the other,  he was more perceptive in seeing that the core city of Boston,  in fact,  then as now,  is really  “a limited section of the whole city”.  There Storrow echoed,  moreover,  the progressive thought of the day very well.  Witness the observation of one of Boston’s and America’s outstanding progressives  then,  Robert Woods,  in 1907,  that  “there is no other great city in the world so tragically behind in total  coherent unity of feeling.  The chief failure has been the unwillingness of a million and a half people who make up the real Boston to give even a serious moment of clear,  unprejudiced thought to the . . . indivisible interest of the one metropolitan city which —  for everything but our mental incapacity to see it — it indubitably is.  

Yet Brookline and company could be forgiven,  many felt,  for congratulating themselves,  not just  for  setting a national example,  however wrong-headed many progressives thought it,   but for having been proved right in the main issue when Fitzgerald,  who was  progressive enough and politician enough to be eager to make common cause with Brahmins,  was dethroned by a man very much more hostile to the ruling class,  the man whose fraud conviction has arisen before here,  James Michael Curley, who took the mayor’s chair from Honey Fitz in 1914.  Thereby he ushered in a half century of Yankee-Irish stalemate neither side ever had the slightest desire to overcome.


But  if what I call the balefull bargain about annexation was the beginning of the end for the Brahmin caste,  which was in crisis by the 1920s and in free fall by the 1950s,  so did it exact a fearful price from the Irish Catholic community in the busing wars of the 1970s.

Ronald P. Formisano,  the University of Florida historian,  has detailed very well how this transpired. Calling Boston’s  the  “most violatile reaction”  among all American cities in the busing era,  Formisano,  though he does not ignore the legacy of what he calls the  “peculair group dynamics among Yankee Protestants,  lower-class Irish Catholic immigrants and a small black population”,  all present in 19th-century Boston,  is quick to answer the question as to why Boston did so badly in the busing crisis by concluding that  “in the long view the answer runs back partly to the halting of Boston’s annexation of the near suburbs in the 1870s,  a pivotal event that brought Boston to the mid-twentieth century as one of the smallest cities in the nation in relation to its metropolitan area.  This legacy . . . made any school desegregation applied only to [the city of] Boston rigidly biased in terms of class”.  All of which plays very nicely indeed into J.  Anthony Lucas’s conclusion in “Common Ground”:  “the [Boston] suburbs would be to the inner city what for so long [in the U.S.] the North had been to the South. “Formasino imself writes of the core city being  “ringed by a suburban noose”.

Now, in all fairness,  although Susan Eaton’s  book,  “The Other Boston Busing Story”  What’s Won and Lost Across the Boundary Line”,  details a voluntary city-suburbs busing program that suggests how such a metropolitan solution might have worked,  the truth also is,  unfavorable U. S. Supreme Court cases of the time aside, “the N. A. A. C. P. and the other black plaintiffs in the Boston busing dispute would probably not have sought a metropolitan solution in Boston.” , the reason being that they feared it would  “dilute their meagre influence in a sea of white suburbs.”

More important to us here, however, perhaps, is that  Formisano also noticed a much deeper  issue:  how well Boston had,  in fact,  by the 1970s solved its metropolitan problem in so many other respects despite the many failures traced here through the 1870s and 1910s.  So strongly did this strike Formisano,  he observed:  “the lack of support for a metropolitan approach in Boston was surprising.  Few other cities had depended for so long or so heavily on metropolitan models for solving urban problems:   metro parks . . . water supply,  sewers,  zoos,  and a seperate metropolitan police force.  Boston’s unique georgraphy alone . . . provided a compelling case.”

Thus did this scholar alude not only to a controlling truth of his own thesis in his own study — that he felt the white power structure in both city and suburb during the busing wars was  driven by white racism —  but to a controlling truth of my thesis here in the matter of metropolitanizing  Boston.  Notice Forisano’s emphasis on  “metro parks” —   so innocent sounding!  Not a bit of it. 

 By  the time of the final political failure to deal with city become metropolis in  the 20th century,  it was,  in fact,  exactly things like  “metro parks”  that can now be seen to have saved the day and made the “Boston / Brookline”  model of metropolitan life a success in the way it bypassed all the local politics in order to establish what  the  Israelis like to call  “facts on the ground.”  Facts more and more controlling. Next time.


S  O  U  R  C  E  S

Belinkoff, Alisa.  “From Puritan Village to Yankee Townshp”, BROOKLINE (David Hackett-Fischer,ed) (Brandeis) 1986

Buckley, William F. Jr.,  Introduction to Russell, Francis. THE KNAVE OF BOSTON (Quinlin) 1987


Formisano, Ronald P.  BOSTON AGAINST BOSTON (Univ. of North Carolina) 2004

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

Goodwin,  Doris Kearns.  THE FITZGERALD’S  AND THE KENNEDY’S  (Simon & Schster)  1987

Heath, Richard.  “Woodbourne and the Boston 1915 Movement”, JAMACIA PLAIN HISTORICAL SOCIETY (www.jphs.org/Woodbourne) 23 Feb., 1998

Lucas, J.  Anthony.  COMMON GROUND  (Vintage) 1986

O’Connell, James C.  “Thinking Like a Region”, GOVERNING GREATER BOSTON (Rappaport Institute) 2002

O’Connor, Thomas H.  THE HUB” BOSTON PAST AND PRESENT (Northeastern Univ. Press) 2001

Pearson, H. G. SON OF NEW ENGLAND (Todd) 1931

[Storrow, James Jackson]  see Pearson, H. G.

Strum, Philippa.  BRANDEIS (Univ. Press of Kansas) 1993

[Woods, Robert] see Heath, Richard.

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