Not so long ago, marking the passage of old year into new on Boston streets was considered an act of some bravery.
“Be not afraid. Come on in,” wrote Globe columnist Ian Menzies on Dec. 29, 1976. He dared citizens to attend Boston’s first First Night celebration and show “New England and the nation that we, the people, are not afraid of our city; the city is ours; a place we will come to assemble and celebrate.”
It was rebuilding time, and Boston wasn’t yet the mecca it is today. Racial unrest associated with court-ordered school desegregation created negative energy that kept people at bay. But over time, large, public events like First Night coaxed in the crowds.
Soon we, the people, flocked eagerly to the city.
Now comes news that after nearly 40 years, First Night Boston will no longer run the city’s signature New Year’s Eve event. Declining donations and corporate sponsorships — not declining attendance — were cited as reasons for shutting down the nonprofit group. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino pledged to make sure some festivities continue this year, but what happens after a new mayor takes over is uncertain.
Some people apparently believe First Night is no longer cool enough for hip, new Boston.
But the event should not be so easily dismissed. It was a vital part of Boston’s renaissance, and it still brings value — especially after the Marathon attack. After last April’s bombings, the willingness to assemble and celebrate in Boston will be tested yet again. Does “Boston Strong” include a continuing commitment to pack the city with life, energy, and people? We will find out today at the July 4 Esplanade concert.
When First Night was launched in 1976, then-Mayor Kevin H. White was focused on revitalizing the city’s waterfront, downtown, and financial districts. That bicentennial year, the Hancock tower opened, as did the new Quincy Market. But it was also the year that news photographer Stanley Forman took what turned out to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of a white teenager about to assault Ted Landsmark, a black lawyer, with a flagpole bearing Old Glory on City Hall Plaza.
White was fighting unpleasant images like that as he tried to sell Boston to tourists and Bostonians. To that end, White’s City Hall sponsored summer concerts and neighborhood festivals and got behind big events like the Tall Ships extravaganza — and First Night.
“He understood the value of big public urban celebrations and the role that plays in the life of the city,” said Micho Spring, a deputy mayor in the White administration.
Artist Clara Wainwright came up with the idea for First Night. It was inspired by a romantic New Year’s Eve she spent ice skating on a New Hampshire lake. After that, the traditional alcohol-soaked party seemed like “a dud,” she said. She assembled a group of artist friends who dreamed up a family-friendly event involving a parade, music, ice sculptures, and fireworks, all presented with Mardi Gras flair. Wainwright connected with Katharine D. Kane, another White deputy mayor who was organizing Boston 200, the city’s bicentennial celebration.
Kane folded Wainwright’s idea into the bicentennial. “It was about creating life and activity in the city’s center,” recalled Kane.
No one was sure how many people would show up for a frosty New Year’s Eve celebration featuring dozens of events in churches, halls, and subway stations near Boston Common. Wainwright remembers going to a dance performance and watching as people poured in. “It was the most thrilling thing in the world,” she said.
Initial attendance was not huge, but it was enough to keep the event going. First Night eventually turned into a beloved Boston tradition that inspired dozens of similar festivals across the country. Wainwright, of course, hopes First Night will somehow live on.
“Boston is where everything started. It would be such a black eye to have it stop,” she said. “I just have great faith that something will happen. Some young group will come along and maybe work it in a slightly different way.”
Keeping the celebration alive is important — especially now, when all who love Boston should embrace the message: Be not afraid. Come on in. The city is ours.