The Hub of the Matter

The Hub of the Matter

O'Connor's latest book offers new perspectives on an old subject

By Reid Oslin
Staff Writer

Having reached his own historical milestone, University Historian Thomas H. O'Connor once more offers his inimitable brand of local history with the publication of his latest book, The Hub: Boston Past and Present .

O'Connor, who recently concluded his 50th year of teaching at Boston College, provides an up-to-date look at the 350-year history of the development, problems and peculiarities of a unique American city. His new chronicle spans the city's rise from colonial times through the largest civil engineering-construction undertaking in the nation's history, the Central Artery and Tunnel Project, better known as "the Big Dig."

"I thought it would be a good idea to have a single readable source that went from John Winthrop to Tom Menino; from the Puritans to the Pops," explained O'Connor, a 1949 alumnus who also earned a master's degree from BC in 1950. "I pulled together a lot of things that I had previously done in bits and pieces. I found that to be the way that much of Boston's history had been previously written," he said.

"I was hard put to find another book that tells the whole story," O'Connor said.

Even the book's title suggests the uniqueness of the city. "'The Hub' has always had an association with Boston," O'Connor said. "Oliver Wendell Holmes once described the State House in Boston as 'The Hub of the solar system.'

"The 'hub' is the core," O'Connor added. "It remains stationary, yet it is the center of change. Think of Boston as that city that remains as the core. Core qualities don't change easily," he said.

O'Connor said his latest publication includes a number of perspectives missing from traditional histories of the city. "Women's history, for example, does not appear in most books," he said. "A good deal of work was done by women in colonial times. Beyond one or two women who are usually mentioned, you would think that women did not exist at that time."

O'Connor also follows the politics of Boston that grew from the town meetings of the original Massachusetts Bay Colony, through the partisanship governance of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and into more cooperative strategies that have marked the era of "The New Boston."

University Historian Thomas H. O'Connor. (Photo by Mike Mergen)

"In the 19th century, people became really interested in the way Boston governed itself," O'Connor said. "Largely, it was the members of the elite moving into leadership and assuming the responsibility for the education and care of their 'less fortunate brethren.'"

At that time, according to O'Connor, Boston became a center for public education, public libraries, and major institutions for the handicapped and disadvantaged. "It was the model of how an educated leadership grew," he said. "They wanted to lift the standards of ordinary people, make them good Bostonians, and turn them to 'the Boston way' with values of discipline, hard work and the Puritan ethic."

A heavy influx of immigrants changed the city's population base in the 19th century, O'Connor writes. Following the Civil War, the new technologies of the day - public utilities, subway lines and road construction - provided job opportunities for the city's Irish, Italian and other newcomers. The economic boost gave the new residents a rung on the city's political ladder, but also eventually led to deep-seated rifts between the old Yankee leaders and the newly empowered immigrant groups.

This cultural and political gap widened during the first half of the 20th century, and Boston was a city in physical deterioration at the end of World War II.

A turning point came in 1949, when former City Clerk John Hynes defeated Boston political icon James Michael Curley in a close mayoral election. "Hynes said, 'If we are going to save Boston we must work together,'" according to O'Connor.

"Richard Cardinal Cushing had become a popular leader of the city's Catholics, and he was talking about the same things," O'Connor said, "so you had your political and religious leaders delivering the same message."

O'Connor points out that Boston College played a special advocacy role in the revitalization of the city that began at that time. "One of the key accomplishments of the Hynes era was the creation of the Boston College Citizens' Seminar, which provided a forum for the discussion of problems facing the city and a place where the city's leaders could come up with workable solutions.

"BC was 'neutral territory,'" he said. "You could get labor and management, financiers and politicians all sharing the same conference room and later the same dinner table. It was the first time [these groups] had really ever sat down together."

O'Connor said the summer of 1976, which featured the first Tall Ships celebration, the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the city and Arthur Fiedler's famed Fourth of July concert "put the 'New Boston' on the map."

O'Connor said that there is a new " New Boston " underway. "Not in a physical sense," he said, "but there are 'New Bostonians.'

"The public schools already have a majority of non-white students for the first time in the city's history. How Boston will deal with this new population is the new challenge," he said.

"In my opinion, Boston will be able to take these people and teach them 'the Boston way' using the resources of the city to improve education, raise standards, lift their horizons and create an attachment for them to the city," O'Connor said. "They can hold onto their own traditions, and demonstrate how they fit into the Boston tradition," he said.

"Historically, Boston has been a city with a great deal of change," O'Connor said. "The success was to accomplish those changes without changing the distinctive characteristics of the city.

"Boston is not just another city. We accept change and do it without changing the unique quality of Boston."


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