BOSTON IS A CITY rich in history – but sometimes does a poor job of collecting and sharing all of it with everyone who might be interested.
Oh, Boston is pretty good from 1630 when the Puritans landed (after their first choice, Salem, “didn’t please us” according to John Winthrop) until 1776 when the British fled (lest their ships be destroyed , leaving them with no way to get home). But then, not so much.
The Transcendentalist and “Flowering New England” literary periods are a bit muddled (Concord gets most of the ink). Boston welcomes the abolition era way too much (William Lloyd Garrison was nearly lynched in 1835, just steps from where Ted Landsmark was attacked on City Hall Plaza in 1976). The Civil War, Chinese trade, and the Gilded Age go unnoticed, and when it comes to the 20th century, forget it—Boston’s history certainly did.
This story is jam-packed with regard to the Brahmins (descendants of North Shore traders and pirates) and the Irish (so unwelcome that it has been suggested that they be sent to colonies in Maine, Canada and even of Iowa). But where are all the others?
The original inhabitants, the Massachusets (first converted, then confined to Deer Island in 1675, then enslaved, prompting the Reverend John Eliot to call their treatment “worse than death”)? African-Americans (WEB Du Bois called William Monroe Trotter, who started the 1903 “Boston Riot” at 600 Columbus Avenue, “probably one of the most selfless black leaders in all of our American history”)? The Jews, who arrived and then left in large numbers (Joseph Soloveitchik, installed as Chief Rabbi of Boston in 1932 at Temple Beth El at 94 Fowler Street in Dorchester, was an internationally recognized theologian)?
Abigail Adams implored “remember the ladies”, but for too long Boston history has not (Anne Hutchinson, who lived on the site of the Old Corner Bookstore until her banishment in 1637 , was a real firebrand, just like Maria Stewart, Mary Kenney O’Sullivan, and so many others). Boston history has eschewed the unconventional (it took novelist Henry James to popularize the term “Boston Marriage” in 1886, and Time magazine to send to boston painter Avenue Jack Levine to cover the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968).
Too much of Boston’s history is confined to the original Shawmut Peninsula, and for too many teachers and students, Boston’s history consists of downtown excursions with too many past times. on the T (while they could visit Councilman Israel Muchnick’s former Dorchester home at 43 Hewins Street, where Jackie Robinson dined after his ‘tryout’ with the Red Sox in 1945). Most students leave here knowing a little more about Boston’s history than knowing where the last movie scenes were shot (instead of the impact that professors like Howard Thurman and Howard Zinn have had). had on previous generations of students).
Of course, history can be difficult to collect, condense and make available. But Boston has figured out how to do just that for tourists, who are willing to pay for it (nothing new there, 19th century hotels stocked two books in every room – a Bible to promote morality and the King’s Handbook of Boston History to promote longer stays).
I think I found a way to do all of Boston history available for everyone. It’s called “When and Where in Boston” – and I want to give it away for free.
“When and Where in Boston” combines two elements. The first is a Boston history database that I have been compiling for over 20 years. It contains over 50,000 short (one sentence to one paragraph) descriptions of important things that have happened, was said, done, built, written, Where established in Boston from 1630 until yesterday.
The second is a website, recently created by software engineer and longtime history guide Dennis McCarthy. It adds photographs to the text, allows people to look for for a word, name or phrase, filtered search them by date, group or subject, and brow through various “directories”. These include An Encyclopedia of Boston History, A Biographical Dictionary of Boston, This Day in Boston History, Boston Firsts, and many others. Users can then create slideshows and maps to illustrate what they have discovered. They can also connect by mobile phone and to explore the city to find out what happened, when and where.
Copyright and permission issues prevent me from providing a public link to the prototype website at this time. But the screenshots below give an idea of how it works.
There’s nothing special about using text, photos, links, etc. to provide information about a site. What’s special about “When and Where in Boston” is how much of a city’s history it contains and how easily that history can be explored in so many different ways.
Yes, part of it looks a bit like Wikipedia. But it’s an in-house, curated, reliable, Boston-only wiki with lots of useful and interesting features. His This Day in Boston history repertoire looks a bit like mass moments, a great product from Mass Humanities that offers subscribers a one-page description of an event per day of the year that happened somewhere in the state. But “When and Where in Boston” offers shorter descriptions of 20 or 30 events per day that took place in Boston only, in addition to all of its other features.
What makes me qualified to come up with something like this? Well, I’m compelled here – at least by the dictates of old Boston – to apologize and acknowledge that I was not born in Boston. But I’ve been here for over 50 years – and during that time I’ve been heavily involved in neighborhood issues and city government, kept my eyes and ears open, read everything handy, I took many notes and then organized them in a way that allowed me to share what I learned about Boston with others. I have also written a few books.
The late dean of Boston historians, Thomas O’Connor, called one, When in Boston: A Timeline and Almanac (Northeastern University Press), the first book he turned to on his reference shelf. A People’s History of New Boston (University of Massachusetts Press), which tells stories of modern community activism in city neighborhoods, is used at most local colleges.
The problem with books, however, is that too often the facts they contain remain buried there. “When and Where in Boston” brings together facts from hundreds of books about Boston (the Who, What, when, and or) and place them in the same place. But this is not the case compete with other Boston historic sites, organizations and institutions. Instead, “When and Where in Boston” complements citing them as sources and providing links to them for people who want to know more (the How? ‘Or’ What and Why).
The only thing “When and Where in Boston” doesn’t have is a good home. I am looking to give him up for adoption to a local non-profit institution who will provide one, provided they agree to three conditions.
The first is that it must be allowed to continue to grow. “When and Where in Boston” is not meant to be a finished product, but still a work in progress. It needs to be edited and supplemented by others in the future.
The second condition is that it be overseen by an editorial board made up of people who to know Boston history to keep it accurate, and who reflect the entire Boston community to become representative.
The third condition is that any institution that supports it agrees to allow other institutions, groups, organizations and individuals to help it develop. Boston institutions can be a bit “territory aware”. This will not suffice here.
Everyone I’ve shown “When and Where in Boston” to thinks it’s great. They all think that someone should give him a home – but so far not one of them. Neighborhood historical societies are eager to participate once launched, but lack the capacity to host it. Historical societies and institutions across the city that may have the capacity have yet to come forward, citing concerns about staff time and “resources” (i.e. money).
I think the time it would take to get the website up and running would be akin to publishing a quarterly magazine that never comes out and has no deadline, and I think it will attract many passionate volunteers of history eager to help. I don’t think it will cost that much to operate, and I have reason to believe it will attract funding.
It is estimated that it will take around $25,000 to create the finished website and $10,000 per year to keep it running. A few years ago, a history-loving state official appropriated this amount for the project in the state budget, but the funds could not be spent because there was no house to non-profit. Local and statewide foundations have said they “would like to see the project happen,” when and if it finds such a home.
I showed “When and Where in Boston” to most local colleges. Faculty members strongly agree and see it as an excellent tool not only for teach Boston’s history, but involving students in collection this. Librarians love it for its easy-to-access content. But the university administrators who make the decisions dragged me on for months at a time before finally saying they don’t think this is “the right thing” for them. After showing everything the website prototype can do to a provost (obviously not a history buff), her first question was, “Why should I spend my next dollar on this?”
Now I’m trying to convince the Boston Public Library to become the home of “When and Where in Boston.” I think it would be a perfect fit. What better place to serve as a guardian of all the facts of Boston history than an institution whose motto is “Free to All”?
Boston should be a place that remembers and shares its past – all of this one. After all, it was someone who grew up in Boston who warned of what happens to those who don’t remember their history (George Santayana, who lived at 302 Beacon Street and graduated from the Boston Latin school).
Jim Vrabel is the author of two books on Boston history and the creator of the “When and Where in Boston” database. He can be reached at [email protected]