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Boston

History

In 1614, English explorer Captain John Smith, at the behest of the future King Charles I, set sail to assess the New World's commercial opportunities. Braving the frigid North Atlantic, the plucky explorer reached the rocky coast of present-day Maine and made his way southward to Cape Cod, making contact with the natives, mapping out the coastline and dubbing the region 'New England.' Smith noted a tricapped hilly peninsula with an excellent harbor fed by three rivers and connected to the mainland by a narrow neck across a shallow back bay. Valued for its freshwater spring, it was known to the natives as Shawmut.

Prior to the 17th century, there were as many as 100,000 native inhabitants in New England, mostly of the Algonquin nation. Organized into small regional tribes, they fished, hunted and gathered. In summer, women raised corn, squash and beans, using primitive slash-and-burn techniques. The tribes cooperated and quarrelled with one another. Their subsistence economy required seasonal migration, following food sources between the coast and the interior, making it seem to the property-conscious English that the land was abandoned.

Before England's religious outcasts showed up, local natives were already acquainted with Portuguese fishermen, French fur traders, Dutch merchants and Jesuit missionaries. The Europeans were welcomed as a source of valued goods, but they were also feared. In the Great Sadness of 1616-17, a smallpox epidemic devastated the native population by three-quarters. As a result, the Shawmut Peninsula was practically uninhabited when the Puritans arrived.

English colonial coastal encampments quickly spread, as seemingly unoccupied lands were claimed for King and commodity. According to John Winthrop, the first governor of the colony, 'God hath hereby cleared our title to this place.'

In 1675 Chief Metacomet, son of the famed Massasoit who befriended the starving Pilgrims, organized a desperate last stand against the ever-encroaching English. He was known as King Philip to the settlers, and his war terrorized the frontier for more than a year before he was finally ambushed and killed. The chief's body was drawn and quartered and his heathen head perched on a pole, while his son was sold into slavery. In less than a hundred years, the indigenous population was reduced by 90% from disease, war and forced migration.

Seventeenth-century England was torn by religious strife. Henry VIII's turn to Protestantism was not enough for some Englishmen, who wanted to purify the Anglican Church of all vestiges of pomp, pope and privilege. These Puritans were austere Calvinists, who believed in the predestination of souls beyond the influence of King or Canterbury. Annoyed by the nonconformists, James I threatened to 'harry them out of the country.'

As the fortunes of the faithful diminished, New England held out hope of renewal. The first trickle of Protestant immigrants came in 1620, when the Pilgrims established a small colony in Plymouth. Ten years later, the flagship Arbella led a flotilla of a thousand Puritans on the treacherous transatlantic crossing. In June 1630, their leader, country squire John Winthrop, gazed out on the Shawmut Peninsula and declared, 'we shall be as a City upon a Hill, with the eyes of all people upon us.'

Winthrop and his Puritan partners were gentlemen of middle social rank and wealth, and like-minded religious temperament. A year earlier, they agreed to pool their assets to become majority shareholders in a recently commissioned royal charter to establish a commercial enterprise in the New World. But their interest as investors was more spiritual than financial.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony reflected the ambitions of Puritan gentry, who sought to build 'a model of Christian clarity, ' where modest personal virtue and industry replaced the smug class hierarchy and decadence of aristocratic England. Instead of tyranny, they would construct a community of devout hardworking freemen. If they should prosper in the endeavor, it signified the Almighty's approval.

They landed first near Salem and settled further south at present-day Charlestown. Across the river, the Shawmut Peninsula was at this time occupied by the Reverend William Blackstone, who survived an earlier failed settlement and now lived comfortably in his apple orchard on the western slope. He invited Winthrop and his scurvy-ridden company closer to fresh water. They named their new home Boston, after the town in Lincolnshire where many had lived.

The challenge of survival in God's country nearly ruined their plans. Low on food and supplies, their ranks were reduced by 200 deaths that first winter and another 200 departures back to England when spring arrived. Winthrop's son drowned, but the driven governor persevered, leading by example and constantly reminding the settlers of their divine mission.

To ensure the colony's decent development, the new settlement was governed by a spiritual elite - a Puritan theocracy. As such, the Church dominated early colonial life. Local congregations were managed by members; church elders bestowed membership on those deemed worthy, as indicated by moral character, religious devotion and economic success. Theirs was a kind of legalistic Calvinism, enforced Old Testament style. Anyone missing church without good cause was apt to catch a whipping. There were no sects in this city: Catholics, Quakers and other heretics were made unwelcome by threat of flogging, banishing and hanging.

Divine Law was above all, and the state was put in service to the Church. The General Court, a select assembly of Church members, became the principal mechanism for lawmaking, while the governor was endowed with extensive powers to enforce the laws. Local affairs were settled at regular meetings, open to the freemen of each town. (Women were allowed to attend if they did not talk.) The tradition of town meetings became a cornerstone of American democracy.

The Puritan theocracy did not go unchallenged. Anne Hutchinson started a women's Bible circle, promoting the idea of salvation through personal revelation. The popularity of this individualist-inspired view threatened the reigning patriarchy, who exiled her to an island. In Salem, Reverend Roger Williams chafed under the General Court's meddling in spiritual matters. He called for separation of church and state, and was soon sent packing south to Rhode Island.

The Puritans valued education. The General Court ordered communities of 50 or more households to hire and fund schoolteachers. To promote literacy, they established America's first public school (on the site of Old City Hall) and public library. In 1636, Harvard College was founded to supply the colony with homegrown enlightened ministers. America's first regularly published newspaper was the Boston News-Letter.

Meanwhile, Boston became a boomtown. The first inhabitants concentrated near the waterfront, behind the town dock. The back side of the hill served as 'common' lands. Newcomers fanned out along the rivers, looking for farmland and founding new settlements. Fortunes were made in the maritime trades - fishing, shipbuilding and commerce with the Old World. Well into the 18th century, Boston was the richest city in the American colonies.

But population and prosperity put pressure on Puritan principles. Modesty gave way to display. Red-brick mansions appeared on Beacon Hill, tables were set with fine china and silk linens, and women's shoulders were fashionably exposed.

Life in Colonial Boston increasingly felt tension between community and individual, piety and profit. The Church lost its monopoly on governing, when the royal charter was revised to make property-holding the basis for political rights. As the old order declined, Puritan preachers railed against vice and hunted for witches. The Puritan experiment fell victim to its own success, as the rise of commercial culture transformed the 'City upon a Hill.'

Massachusetts Bay enjoyed virtual independence at first, as England was consumed by civil war. In 1660 Charles II was restored to the throne. Puritanism was defeated at home and detested abroad. The Stuart kings were no friends of New England's Protestants.

In 1686 King James II appointed his friend Sir Edmund Andros as new colonial governor to curb independence. Andros suspended the General Court, levied new taxes, forbade town meetings and Anglicized the church. When James was deposed in the Glorious Revolution, the colonists rose in rebellion, seizing the obnoxious Andros and shipping him back to England in chains.

The demands of empire kept England at war. Colonists were drawn into the fighting in the French and Indian War. Despite their victory, all the colonists got was a tax bill from the King. Covetous of New England's maritime wealth, the Crown pronounced a series of Navigation Acts, restricting colonial trade. Boston merchants conducted business as usual, except now it was on the sly.

The issue of taxation brought the clash between King and Colony to a head. In 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act. Royal stamps, obtained for a fee, were required to execute wills, purchase property, sell alcohol or just buy a newspaper. Sam Adams, a beer brewer turned political agitator, incited a mob to ransack the Royal Stamp Office. This act of defiance was defended by his more respectable lawyer cousin, John Adams, who cited the Magna Carta's principle of 'no taxation without representation.' When Bostonians joined in a boycott of British imports, the Stamp Act was repealed.

King George III took the matter of colonial insubordination personally. He engaged the upstart Americans in a test of wills, and chose to make an example of Boston.

Royal revenue agents were sent from London to take control of the Boston customs house. They targeted one of the city's richest merchants, John Hancock, impounding his ship, Liberty, which was laden with undeclared cargo. This newfound royal resolve aroused a local riot, triggering the dispatch of two Redcoat regiments to restore order and protect the king's tax collectors. The local legislature was suspended and all political power transferred to Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson

Under siege on the street, unrepentant Bostonians went underground. The Sons of Liberty was a clandestine network of patriots who stirred up public resistance to British policy and harassed the king's loyalists. They were led by some well-known townsmen, including esteemed surgeon Dr Joseph Warren, upper-class merchant John Hancock, skilled silversmith Paul Revere and bankrupt brewer Sam Adams. Branded as treasonous rebels by the king, the Sons of Liberty became more radical and popular as the imperial grip tightened.

The resented Redcoat presence did not extinguish but rather inflamed local passions. In March 1770 a motley street gang provoked British regulars with slurs and snowballs until the troops fired into the crowd, killing five and wounding six. John Adams successfully defended the British troops, who were found at trial to be acting in self-defense. The Sons of Liberty, however, scored a propaganda coup with their depictions of the Boston Massacre.

In 1773 Parliament passed the Tea Act, granting a trade monopoly to the politically influential but financially troubled East India Company. In December three tea-bearing vessels arrived in Boston Harbor, but colonial merchants refused the shipments. When they tried to depart, Governor Hutchinson demanded their cargo be unloaded. At a meeting in the Old South Church, the Sons of Liberty decided to take matters into their own hands. Disguised as Mohawk Indians, they descended on the waterfront, boarded the ships and dumped 90,000 pounds of taxable tea into the harbor.

The king's retribution was swift. Legislation was rushed through Parliament to punish Boston, 'the center of rebellious commotion in America, the ring leader in every riot.' The port was blockaded and the city placed under military rule. The Sons of Liberty spread the news of this latest outrage down the seaboard. The cause of Boston was becoming the cause of all the colonies - American Independence versus British Tyranny.

Until now, all but the most pugnacious of patriots would have been satisfied with colonial economic autonomy and political representation. But the king's coercive tactics aroused indignity and acrimony. Boston had exposed the colonial inner conflict between loyalty and liberty.

Both sides were spoiling for a fight. British General Gage, a veteran of the French and Indian War, was sent over with 4000 troops and a fleet of warships. Local townsfolk and yeoman farmers organized themselves into Minutemen groups, citizen militias that could mobilize in a minute. They drilled on town commons and stockpiled weapons in secret stores.

In April 1775 Gage saw the chance to break colonial resistance. Acting on a tip from a local informant, Gage dispatched 700 troops on the road west to arrest fugitives Sam Adams and John Hancock and to seize a hidden stash of gunpowder. Bostonians had their own informants, including Gage's wife, who tipped off Joseph Warren on the troop movement. Word was passed to the Old North Church sexton to hang two signal lanterns in the steeple. Paul Revere quietly slipped across the river into Charlestown, where he mounted Brown Beauty and galloped into the night to alert the Minutemen.

At daybreak, the confrontation finally occurred. 'Here once the embattled farmer stood, ' Emerson later wrote, 'and fired the shot heard round the world.' Imperial troops skirmished with Minutemen on the Old North Bridge in Concord and the Lexington Green. By mid-morning, more militia had arrived and chased the bloodied Redcoats back to Boston in ignominious defeat. The inevitable had arrived: war for independence.

Boston figured prominently in the early phase of the American Revolution. In June 1775 Bostonians inflicted a hurtful blow to British morale at the Battle of Bunker Hill. The British took the hill after three tries, but their losses were greater than expected. Fighting on the frontline, Dr Warren was killed by a musket shot to the head in the final British charge. A few weeks later, George Washington assumed command of the ragged Continental Army on the Cambridge Common.

Britain's military occupation of the city continued until March 1776, when Washington mounted captured British cannons on Dorchester Heights and trained them on the British fleet in Boston Harbor. Rather than see the king's expensive warships sent to the bottom, the British evacuated the city, trashing and looting as they went. Boston was liberated.

The fighting moved to the mid-Atlantic colonies. In the meantime, merchant-turned-rebel John Hancock was appointed President of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, which ordered the drafting of a Declaration of Independence. On July 18, 1776, Bostonians first heard the declaration read from the balcony of the Old State House, and there was much rejoicing.

The British occupation ravaged the city. During winter, townspeople cut down the great elms on the Common and razed wooden buildings to stay warm. Desperate and hungry, the population fell from 20,000 to 6000.

With victory came the post-revolution sorting out. The war exposed social divisions within the colony. On one side, the well-off Tories remained loyal to the Crown and opposed the rebellion; they included royally connected merchants, manufacturers and financiers. On the opposing side, the Patriots included independent merchants, artisans, yeoman farmers and working poor. Tories became the target of vengeful attacks. Set upon by mobs, they abandoned their posh digs and took flight to Canada.

Among the victors, political divisions arose. John Hancock and Sam Adams, in fact, did not get along. Hancock wanted to replace British rule with an American aristocracy, but Adams favored a Puritan-inspired democracy. The fears of Eastern merchants were roused by Shays' Rebellion, an angry protest movement by western farmers against the new government's tight fiscal policy. The insurrection was put down with cannons, as the new conservative order effectively tamed the revolutionary spirit. In a contentious vote, Massachusetts narrowly approved the new Federal Constitution after John Hancock left his sickbed to argue for its passage. The merchant class consolidated its power and status in independent Boston.

In the early 19th century, Boston emerged as a center of enlightenment in the young republic. The city's second mayor, Josiah Quincy, led an effort to remake the city's underclass into industrious and responsible citizens. He expanded public education and made the streets safer and cleaner. The 'Great Mayor' revitalized the decaying waterfront with a refurbished Faneuil Hall and the new Greek Revival marketplace, which bears his name.

Influenced by the idealistic legacy of Puritanism and revolution, Boston gave rise to the first uniquely American intellectual movement. Led by Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendentalists shocked and challenged the Christian establishment with their belief in the inherent goodness of human nature and emphasis on individual self-reliance to achieve spiritual fulfillment. Transcendental influences are exemplified in the romantic literature of Nathaniel Hawthorne and the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau. Besides philosophy, the city became a vibrant cultural center for poetry, painting, architecture, science and scholarship, earning Boston the reputation as the Athens of America.

Boston thrived during the Age of Sail. In the 17th century the infamous 'triangular trade' route was developed, involving sugar, rum and slaves. Merchants who chose not to traffic in human cargo could still make large profits by illicitly undercutting European trade monopolies in the West Indies. In his East Boston shipyard, Donald McKay perfected the design of the clipper ship.

The advent of the steam engine in the second half of the 19th century marked the decline of Boston seafaring prominence. Early on, Boston industry was related to overseas trading: ship building, fishing and rum. Otherwise, the city had small-scale artisan shops. During the war, the disruption of commerce caused acute shortages of manufactured goods. In response, some merchants shifted their investments into industry, with revolutionary results.

By the middle of the 19th century, steam power and metal machines transformed the city. Boston became the railroad hub of New England. Leather works and shoe-making factories appeared on the edge of the city. Even Paul Revere abandoned his silversmith shop and set up a rolling copper mill and foundry.

Northwest of Boston, a group of wealthy merchants built one of the wonders of the industrial age: a planned city of five-story red-brick factories lining the Merrimack River. Named Lowell for the project's deceased visionary, Francis Cabot Lowell, the city counted over 40 mills and employed over 10,000 workers; machines hummed 12 hours a day, six days a week.

Industrial wealth transformed the city. The tops of hills were cropped and used for landfill to expand its size. Back Bay became a French-style neighborhood of elegant boulevards, and the South End, an English-style quarter of intimate courtyards. The adjacent towns of Roxbury, Dorchester, Brighton and Charlestown were annexed. The Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Symphony Orchestra were established. On Copley Sq, HH Richardson's beautiful Romanesque Trinity Church and the Renaissance-inspired Boston Public Library were unveiled. Frederick Law Olmsted created the 'Emerald Necklace, ' a string of ponds and parks stretching from the Public Garden to Franklin Park. Profits and patronage had its benefits.

For nearly two centuries, the city was ruled by a select group of leading families, the Boston Brahmins. The self-deprecating term was coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr, but was readily adopted by the caste-conscious. Their elite status was claimed through lineage to the colonial founders or through wealth from the merchant heyday. They dominated city politics and business, and mimicked the style and manners of the European aristocracy. They created exclusive clubs for themselves and cultural institutions for the city.

The rapid rise of industry led to social change. The industrial workforce initially was drawn from the region's young farm women, who lived in dormitories under paternalistic supervision. The 'mill girls' were replaced by cheaper immigrant Irish labor in the 1820s. Although their numbers were still modest, the effect of immigration on local attitudes was great. The world of English-descended Whig Protestants was thrown into turmoil.

Disparaged by proper Bostonians, the Irish were considered an inferior race of moral delinquents, whose spoken brogue was not endearing, but rather suggested a shoe in one's mouth. They undercut workers in the job market. Worse yet, the Irish brought the dreaded religion of pomp and popery that the Puritans so detested. In the 1830s, rumors of licentiousness led a Protestant mob to torch the Catholic Ursuline Convent in present-day Somerville. In another incident, an Irish funeral procession met a volunteer fire company along Boston's Broad Street, and a melee ensued, leaving a row of Irish flats burned to the ground.

A potato famine back home spurred an upsurge in Irish immigration. Between 1846 and 1856 more than 1000 new immigrants stepped off the boat every month. It was a human floodtide that the city was not prepared to absorb. Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiments were shrill. The Know Nothing Party sprang up as a political expression of this rabid nativist reaction. Know Nothings swept into political office, promising to reverse the immigration tide, deny newcomers political rights, and mandate Protestant Bible readings in school.

Subsequent groups of Italian, Portuguese and East European Jewish immigrants suffered similar indignities. By the end of the 19th century, the urban landscape resembled a mosaic of clannish ethnic enclaves. Sticking together became an immigrant survival strategy for finding work, housing and like-minded companionship. Neighborhoods took on the feel of the old country with familiar language, cuisine and customs. The Boston melting pot was more stew than purée.

With social change, Brahmin dominance of Boston politics slipped away. By the end of the 19th century, ethnic-based political machines wrested control of local government from the old elite.

The fears of the Yankee old guard led to the formation of a new political party. In the mid-19th century, the Whigs, Know Nothings and anti-slavery movement cobbled together Boston's Republican Party. It eventually became the political vehicle for promotion of the values of the old English-descended elite, envisioning a paternalistic and frugal government, preaching self-help and sobriety.

While the Democratic Party was initially associated with rural and radical interests, it became the political instrument of the working poor. Irish immigrant neighborhoods provided ready-made voting blocs, which empowered a new type of political boss. These flamboyant populists took an activist approach to government and traded in patronage and graft.

No other Boston boss outshone James Michael Curley. He was conniving, corrupt and beloved. The Rascal King had a seemingly endless supply of holiday turkeys and city jobs for constituents, who between 1914 and 1949 elected him mayor four times and governor and congressman once. He built hospitals, bridges, tunnels, bathhouses and parks. He also raised taxes and mired the city in debt.

In the early 20th century, the new political activists started preaching working-class solidarity and inciting the wrath of Yankee capitalists. Labor unrest in factories was blamed on new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, feeding the twin fears of foreigners and socialism.

After more than 125 years, Massachusetts once again took center stage in national politics with John Kennedy's election to the presidency in 1960. The youthful JFK was the pride of Boston's Irish Catholics for being the one who finally made it. A troupe of Boston politicians and Cambridge professors descended on the capital. Kennedy's brief Camelot inspired a new generation of Americans into public service and founded a political family dynasty that rivaled the Adamses. Kennedy's old congressional seat became the property of Thomas 'Tip' O'Neill, who climbed to the top of the legislative ladder as Speaker of the House while sticking to the adage that 'All Politics is Local.'

The legacy of race relations in Boston is marred by contradictions. Abolitionists and segregationists, reformers and racists have all left their mark. Massachusetts was the first colony to recognize slavery as a legal institution in 1641, and the first to abolish slavery in 1783.

The first slaves, delivered to Massachusetts Bay Colony from the West Indies, became the personal property of wealthy Puritans. By 1700, Boston was home to roughly 400 slaves and a few free blacks. A number of black slaves earned their freedom by fighting with the colonists against the British in the revolution. Crispus Attucks, a runaway African-Indian slave, became a martyr by falling victim in the Boston Massacre. Salem Poor, an ex-slave who bought his freedom, was distinguished for heroism in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

By 1800, some 1100 black Bostonians comprised one of the country's largest free African-American communities, mostly on the northern slope of Beacon Hill. They worked as artisans and servants, catering to the wealthy Brahmins that were settling the southern slope. In 1806 they built the African Meeting House. Driven out of segregated white churches, the black populations used the building as the African Baptist Church, but it would also become the site of the first black school, a meeting place for abolitionists and a center for social activism.

Boston emerged as a nucleus of the abolition movement. Newspaper publisher William Lloyd Garrison, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker and aristocratic lawyer Wendell Phillips launched the Anti-Slavery Society to agitate public sentiment. The city provided safe houses for runaway slaves who took the Underground Railroad to freedom in Canada.

In the Civil War, Robert Gould Shaw led the famous 54th Regiment of black troops into battle in South Carolina. Colonel Shaw was killed in action and was buried by the Confederates in a common grave next to the fallen black soldiers as a mark of disrespect, which was said to please his abolitionist parents very much.

After the Civil War, many blacks rose to prominent positions in Boston society, including John S Rock, who became the first African-American to practice in the US Supreme Court; John J Smith, who was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives; Lewis Hayden, who was elected to the Massachusetts General Court; and William DuBois, who was the first African-American to receive a PhD from Harvard.

In the early 20th century manufacturing jobs attracted southern blacks as part of the Great Migration. For newcomers, the north promised refuge from racism and poverty. More than 20,000 strong, Boston's expanding black community relocated to Roxbury and the South End, where a thriving jazz and dance scene enlivened city nights. At one point, both Martin Luther King, a Boston University divinity student, and Malcolm X, a pool-hall-hustling teenager, called the city home.

Boston did not have Jim Crow laws per se, but it did have its own informal patterns of racial segregation with African Americans as an underclass. As the city's economy declined, racial antagonisms increased. In the 1970s, a judge determined that separate was not equal in the public school system. His court order to desegregate the schools through forced busing violated the sanctity of the city's ethnic neighborhoods and exposed underlying racial tensions. The school year was marked by a series of violent incidents involving students and parents, most infamously in South Boston. The experiment in racial integration was eventually abandoned, and the healing was slow.

Boston has experienced booms and busts. The good times of the early 20th century came to a crash in the Great Depression. The foundations of Boston's economy were crumbling: manufacturers moved out, seaport traffic dwindled, defense spending declined. The city languished and fell into disrepair, and the middle class sought suburban sanctuary.

In response, Yankee businessmen began to cooperate with their erstwhile antagonists, the Irish mayors, to bring about urban renewal. Meeting informally in a room next to the underground safe of a local bank, a select group of business leaders known as 'The Vault' fashioned a plan for the city. Mayors John Hynes and John Collins secured federal funding and local support for a modern Boston.

In the mid-20th century, the city underwent a remarkable physical transformation. Two of the city's oldest neighborhoods were targeted: Scollay Sq, which once bustled with theaters and music halls, but had since become a rundown red-light district; and the West End, where working poor immigrants eked out an existence amid a grubby labyrinth of row houses and alleyways. Urban redemption came in the form of the grim bulldozer, which sent both neighborhoods into oblivion. While only the sailors in the old Navy Yard wept for Scollay Sq, a popular outcry was caused by the demolition of homes and flight of refugees from the West End. Ethnic communities in the North End, Charlestown and Southie organized themselves to prevent 'renewal' of their neighborhoods.

Next came the cement mixers that filled the modernist moldings of a new Government Center for Boston's sizable civil-servant sector. The centerpiece was an inverted pyramid, the monumental and cavernous City Hall, which has since become prime evidence in the architectural case against 1960s modernism. The city's skyline reached upwards with luxury condominiums and office buildings. The old customs tower on the waterfront, long the tallest building in town, was overtaken by the proud Prudential Tower and Henry Cobb's elegant John Hancock Tower.

Boston was on the rebound. After the West End disaster, urban planners focused on revitalizing, rather than razing, neglected neighborhoods. Modern Boston came to embody the old and the new, a coexistence of red brick with steel and glass.

In 1976, the city organized a triumphant Bicentennial celebration, capped with spectacular fireworks and a spirited concert by the River Charles. A half-million people attended the patriotic party, including British monarch Queen Elizabeth II, who showed no hard feelings over past misunderstandings in her salute to independent Bostonians from the balcony of the Old State House.

The recent past

History

For all its ties to history, Boston has steadily looked forward. At the turn of the 21st century, the city is in good form, its duck boats all in a row.

Boston would not be Boston without a major redevelopment project underway. In this regard, the Big Dig is an unmatched marvel of civil engineering, urban planning and pork-barrel politics. The project employed the most advanced techniques of urban engineering and environmental science. Within a slurry-lined swath of city, construction workers excavated around building foundations and subway tunnels, through hazardous landfill and solid bedrock, and under the sludgy harbor floor. At its peak in the 1990s, the project employed over 5000 full-time laborers plus 10,000 support staff. The project fell way behind schedule and costs ran way over budget, eventually topping $15 billion. When it finally opened in 2004, the walls leaked; two years later a fallen ceiling panel killed a motorist. The investigations and litigations over mismanagement, misappropriation and malfeasance are likely to last longer than the construction time.

The local economy is sustained by medicine, finance, higher education and tourism, with a big boost now from information and biotechnologies. Entrepreneurial spirit and technological imagination combined to make the 'Massachusetts Miracle' in the 1980s; even with market corrections and burst bubbles, the high-tech revolution continues to invigorate the city. The globalization-induced wave of corporate takeovers, however, means that some of the city's best-known companies, like Gillette Razor and First Boston Bank, are no longer masters of their domain.

Economic change affects social trends, in this case with a real-estate boom. After several generations of retreat, people are moving back into the city. The downtown is being revitalized as abandoned warehouses are converted into living space and retail. Rising property values hastened the break-up of the old working-class ethnic neighborhoods. This trend causes some resentment, hence the city's culture clash between Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks.

While living costs and harsh winters cause some residents to leave, Boston's population is regularly replenished by the annual influx of college students, some of whom remain after graduation, and new waves of immigrants, who now arrive from East Asia, the Caribbean and Brazil.

In 1993 Mayor Thomas Menino (currently in his fourth term) became the city's first mayor of Italian descent, breaking the century-old Irish hold on the office. The politics of Boston, as well as the People's Republic of Cambridge, is left of center. Since colonial times, Boston has been out in front on issues of political equality, civil rights and social reform. In 2003 Boston again became a political battle site, this time for gay and lesbian rights. Massachusetts became the first, and only, state to give legal recognition to same-sex marriages.

Boston's Catholic Church was a strong opponent of gay marriage on moral grounds, but its influence was undermined by its own moral troubles. In a scandal beginning in 2002, the city's sizable Catholic community was rocked by revelations of sexual abuse involving children, and the sin was compounded by the willful cover-up by the hierarchy. The episode had major repercussions on what was one of the country's most prominent Catholic dioceses. Financially, the cost of legal settlements caused bankruptcy, forcing the selling of the bishop's estate and closing of numerous community churches. Politically, the scandal led to the disgraced resignation of the archbishop and a revolt among the laity, who organized the Voice of the Faithful, an activist group seeking to make church leaders more accountable to their followers.

The news of late for the city's other major religion, baseball, is notably better. After more than eight decades of heartbreaking near misses, the Olde Towne Team, the Boston Red Sox, finally finished first in 2004. After dispatching long-time nemesis, the New York Yankees, in dramatic fashion, the Red Sox made short work of the St Louis Cardinals to win the World Series. The party began immediately after the final out and continued through the New Year. The Red Sox shared the sports spotlight with local gridiron gladiators, the New England Patriots, who won an amazing three Super Bowls in four years from 2002 to 2005. Boston was truly a City of Champions.