Peter S. Canellos

The legacy of Boston’s Sandinistas

Mayor Raymond Flynn was the counterpoint to Reagan. Mayor Raymond Flynn was the counterpoint to Reagan. (File 1987/
The Boston Globe)
By Peter S. Canellos
Globe Columnist / November 2, 2010

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IT MAY be only 20 years since they ended, but in Boston, the ’80s are a distant memory. The city’s improvement has been such that the dividing points of the decade — black and white, downtown and neighborhood — feel like remnants of a long-ago past, more likely to be subjects of scholarly research than current-day analysis.

On Thursday, the era will be officially consigned to history when Boston University hosts a panel examining the times when radical reformers tried to put together a badly fractured city. The event is built around a new book by Cornell Professor Pierre Clavel called “Activists in City Hall: The Progressive Response to the Reagan Era in Boston and Chicago.’’

Clavel will speak, as will the central figure in Boston politics of the ’80s, former Mayor Raymond Flynn. While much of the discussion will focus on the Boston of the Reagan era, it will surely be measured against what the city is today. Is this Boston, with its thriving storefronts and rising real estate values, a product of the politics of the ’80s, or its refutation?

It may be a little of both.

From the moment he replaced Kevin White in 1984, Flynn attempted to extract funds from businesses, teaching hospitals, universities, and other institutions to assist struggling neighborhoods. He would be the mayor of the neighborhoods in precisely the way that James Michael Curley had been mayor of the poor; his form of redistribution was called linkage, and it sought to seize a portion of the economic spoils of the ’80s for people in need — at that time, just about everyone who lived outside of Back Bay and Beacon Hill.

Flynn’s politics grew out of the busing crisis of the ’70s, which left Boston wounded and bitterly divided. Flynn believed that White’s policies had created a downtown fortress of office buildings surrounding a festival marketplace. People visited, but anyone with means was assumed either to be living outside the city, or to have made a courageous but quixotic decision to stay and fight. Out of the latter group came a new brand of activist including politicians like Flynn, organizers such as Neil Sullivan and the late Ray Dooley, advocates such as Lew Finfer and Peter Dreier, and journalists such as the late Kirk Scharfenberg and Al Lupo.

All were white men, and, other than Flynn, sprang from Boston’s university-bred counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s. Though well-educated, they identified with the working class and rejected the Reagan ethos of upward mobility. In their minds, virtue meant being true to one’s roots.

While many of their contemporaries had recoiled at the sight of white people in South Boston, Charlestown, and East Boston taking out their anger on blacks from Dorchester and Roxbury, these progressives saw two economically distressed communities being pitted against each other. They dreamed of finding a way to convince poor whites and poor blacks that their interests were identical.

Reagan, taking office in 1981, provided a perfect foil. His conservative policies weren’t much aimed at the downtrodden urban areas of the Northeast and Midwest. Reagan was, in the eyes of Flynn’s supporters, the personification of the disinvestment that had turned cities into wastelands.

What followed was a 10-year social experiment. Desegregation of the Boston Housing Authority was achieved with patience and sensitivity. There was new attention to everyday citizens, conferring a sense of desperately needed pride and dignity. Though crime surged, the mayor and police commissioner made symbolically important if not entirely effective efforts to reach out to the black community. But when Flynn left office, at the start of the Clinton administration, Boston was still a tough place to live.

The 17 years since then have marked a renaissance. Crime dropped sharply. Thanks in part to federal dollars from the Clinton administration, once-troubled housing projects became comfortable mixed-income communities, and spurred a flood of private investment. The new mayor, Tom Menino, also focused on the neighborhoods, but was far less confrontational with the business community. Some people who had fled to the suburbs came back as middle-age empty nesters.

But the goal of Flynn’s Sandinistas — so named for the leftists who were running Nicaragua at the time — wasn’t simply to improve the city. It was to promote those low-income people who had suffered in the busing crisis. And on that score the record is less clear. South Boston and Charlestown, along with parts of East Boston, Roxbury, and Dorchester, have all gentrified. Some families stayed and came out ahead; others are long gone, pushed to places like Brockton, Lawrence, or Fitchburg.

The revival begun by Flynn’s Sandinistas ended up serving many of the people they disdained. Those people are making Boston rich again. Now it’s a city of the middle and upper classes, and no one is talking back to them.

Peter S. Canellos is editor of the Globe’s editorial page.

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