Posts Tagged ‘Boston’

The Site That Isn’t

Some NPS historic sites are magnificent. Some seem mundane but teach very important lessons. Others try but miss the mark. Then there are sites that simply aren’t there at all. The Boston African American National Historic Site fits that last category.

Basically, the site consists of the Black Heritage Trail, an extension of Boston’s famed Freedom Trail. It marks residences, offices, organizations and schools important to the Abolitionist Movement. This is important stuff, indeed. As I’ve said over and over again in this blog so far, black history is American history, and it’s impossible to understand the latter without including the former. Unfortunately, the Black Heritage Trail is simply not the place to do it.

About the only thing the Black Heritage Trail shows is gentrification, that process by which rich, white folks renovate a urban, lower class neighborhood. It’s a very controversial term, the subject of great emotion. Is gentrification good because it cleans up neighborhoods and increases property values? Or is it bad because it displaces poor residents who cannot afford to find better housing? At this time, I’m unprepared to argue one way or another.

What I am prepared to argue is the effect gentrification has had on the Black Heritage Trail. Basically, this trail is valueless. I’m not saying that these sites used to house people, businesses, and organizations vital to the abolitionist movement. I am saying that these sites no longer have that relevancy. They’re all private (white) residences, or other buildings that no longer have anything to do with black history, all in a beautiful, peaceful, serene neighborhood, that, although visually historic & preserved, no longer has any of the character of the times the trail is trying to portray. As such, I call the Boston African American National Historic Site a sham.

The only building that is open to the public, and still relevant, is the last stop on the trail, the African Meeting House. It contains a small museum without much of a permanent collection, but it does host some fascinating rotating displays. When I was there, they had a collection of movie posters from independent black cinema from the 40’s to the 70’s. I love old movie posters, and these were amazing. Unfortunately, photography wasn’t permitted, so no pictures 😦 .

I might get some harsh criticism for this bad review of Boston African American NHS. I think the NPS is correct in trying to capture Boston’s importance in abolition, but with the Black Heritage Trail, it fails.

African Meeting House — © 2008 America In Context

[I am trying to make a point by only having one pic on this post….]


Boston African American National Historic Site

POV’s Essays on Gentrification

The Neighbors Project

Google Map to BAA NHS

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Synergy & History

I love Boston, I really do. Yeah, being from Massachusetts, I’m heavily biased. But Boston is a place that really speaks to me. If I had to live in a city, Boston would be my first choice. I just love the feel of the place.

Col. Prescott — © 2008 America In ContextOne of the things I find endearing about Boston is the clear and present link between the city and American history. It is one of the oldest cities in America (founded in 1630), and was obviously the center of many pivotal events in the American Revolution, including the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s Ride, and the battle of Bunker Hill (really more about Breeds Hill than Bunker, but hey, what’s in a name). Boston also housed some of the greatest patriotic oratory of the age, great speakers such as James Otis, cousins Samuel and John Adams, and John Hancock wove their verbal tapestries from the smallest pub to the halls of the State House. These voices would find resonance with others, North and South, that would eventually become a symphony of vision that led to American Independence.

But I think most of you know all that. So let me talk about the other clear and present link between Boston and history. This is a city that not only understands, but completely embraces, it’s historical importance. Actually, Bostonians revel in their history. They absolutely love it, and it shows nearly everywhere you turn, even in those parts not on the famed Freedom Trail. The surrounding towns, in fact nearly every city and town in Massachusetts, embraces this history. I’d love to see real survey data, but I’d wager historical literacy in Massachusetts is higher than in any other state of the Union. It’s because history is in the blood of the Bay Stater. I know it’s in mine.

Burial Ground — © 2008 America In Context

I’ve been in a lot of cities in this country during my travels. Most old cities don’t really embrace their history. They have token historic districts, small spots in the city with a few important landmarks and strict building codes. Usually they’re smack in the middle of business “dead zones” (where you can’t even find a good spot for lunch), or surrounded by inner city slums (where you’re afraid to park your car). Best case they’re well-maintained, but only to keep property values high. The goal of these cynical districts isn’t to provide educational opportunities or spark interest in history, but to keep smarmy, uptight residents happily self-righteous, and to keep undesirables out. I suppose its beter than paving historical buildings over, a fate which has befallen many over time.

Constitution — © 2008 America In ContextThe problem is most people simply don’t understand the significance of history, nor do they appreciate the incredible chain of events that led to, well, everything. History is that chain of events that, when taken in context, explains why we are where we are at this exact moment in time. Something happened, then something happened, then something else happened, and you end up having some craptastic pasta dish at Applebee’s with people you don’t like. Everything happens for a reason, it happens because a certain sequence of events led to it happening. It’s not fate, it’s historical inertia. Understand that, and you can understand what comes next. It’s why I love the subject so much.

But most people don’t. Most people hate it, because a slew of lousy teachers did a terrible job teaching it. Those who don’t hate it outright see it only as a way to add smugness into their lives. How many antique collectors even understand what it is they own? They just hoard all that junk because it makes them look smart or it goes with their decor. Same with most cities and their historic districts. How many such communities even understand what they have? Very few, I’ll wager, although I’m sure they know exactly what it does for property tax collections.

Boston is an imperfect place. It’s muder to get around, and it’s expensive to park. But it is one of those rarity of American cities: it is a place that fully understands and embraces its place in history, and its citizens are all the better for it.

Old State House — © 2008 America In Context

[All pictures on this post are mine. I have surprisingly few pictures of Boston, I’ve been there so many times, pictures seem moot. However, you’re welcome to see all that I have here].


Boston Hational Historical Park

National Trust for Historic Preservation

Google Map to Boston NHP

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