Books

the story behind the bo0k

Jim Vrabel’s ‘A People’s History of the New Boston’

david wilson for the boston globe

More than names and dates, history is about narrative — debunking myths, uncovering untold stories, and celebrating the unsung. For local historian Jim Vrabel, one especially persistent myth is “the story of the new Boston,” which holds that the city, struggling after World War II, was revitalized by the actions of “a small group of men, all of them white and mostly well-off,” who turned Boston from “a hopeless backwater” to a thriving metropolis.

In reality, HE SAID IN A TELEPHONE INTERVIEW, “the city was also rebuilt by a lot of neighborhood people, who got together, often resisting the ideas the elected officials and businesspeople were trying to promote.” Their actions, which included activism and protest, were “what made the city a better place to live,” Vrabel said.

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Vrabel’s new book, “A People’s History of the New Boston,” draws from more than a hundred interviews with community leaders, politicians, businesspeople, and others. He profiles activists who worked for school desegregation, tenants’ rights, and better employment opportunities, a diverse group of citizens “who engaged in a period of activism that was unlike anything seen in this city for possibly 200 years.”

Due to their efforts, Vrabel said, Boston “became a fairer and more humane place.” Still, he says, work remains to be done. “The New Boston was built to bring back the middle class and well off. But Boston today has lost people in the working class and the lower-middle class. To me, the challenge today is to put those rungs back in the ladder of opportunity, so people at the bottom can climb up to a better place. That’s what American cities have always been about, and that’s what Boston needs to do today.”

Vrabel reads Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the West End Museum, 150 Staniford St., a place that commemorates a neighborhood “completely wiped out to promote an urban renewal plan,” a loss that still haunts the city. “It’s the perfect place,” he said, to launch the book and “tell people of that part of the city’s history and to give credit, long overdue credit, to all of these neighborhood activists.”

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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