Downtown View:Pockets of Diversity

By Karen Cord Taylor

A few weeks ago I went to “The Dynamic City,” a conference at Boston University sponsored by Historic New England and two BU departments—the Initiative on Cities and the American and New England Studies Program. The presentations were first-rate, the speakers interesting and the topic of how historic preservation fits into contemporary urban life was one this column sometimes addresses.

Soon it became apparent, however, another dynamic was going on, one I hadn’t expected nor rarely experienced.

This conference was the most diverse in presenters and attendees I had ever been to. Black and whites, Latinos and Englishmen, with at least one American whose parents hailed from India. Young and old, men and women. Lesbians, gays and straights. All this diversity in historic preservation, a movement one might have believed was the interest solely of old, traditional white guys.

But no. Officials of all colors and backgrounds from such places as Lawrence and Holyoke, Detroit and Nashville, Liverpool, England and Houston, Texas, discussed how their cities married their old structures with new needs. A major theme was how to correct the ravages of Le Corbusier’s ideas and 1950s and 1960s city planning that destroyed much of what makes cities vibrant.

All that was good, but the take-away was that older cities can claw their way back because they are in good hands with diverse leaders who understand the need to make cities work for everyone no matter what their race, economic situation or culture. If historic preservation can do that, why can’t everyone else?

Are there other industries, places or events in which people of all backgrounds participate? There is the T, Downtown Crossing and The Children’s Museum. Some schools, both public and private.

And television. News shows are diverse. The most diverse, however, is HGTV. For those of you who haven’t viewed “Love It or List It” or “House Hunters,” I’ll introduce you. These programs are reality TV, real people with all their quirks, questionable judgment and unrealistic expectations. They are taking on house renovations or looking for a house to buy. They are assisted by the stars of the shows who are real estate brokers, interior designers or contractors.

The stars and the real people—homeowners or potential buyers—are often multi-racial, two married people of the same sex, mothers and daughters, a single person. All combinations are unremarkable. It feels natural, not forced. Sometimes I wonder when a multi-racial couple buys a home in a neighborhood in, let’s say, Atlanta, is there fall-out afterwards? The program does not say, but the message it sends is that diversity is as natural as living.

While Historic New England and HGTV may have caught up with the times, an appreciation for diversity has not spilled over onto some of our political leaders. The actions that look like racism are not talked about in the press much, but they are often discussed in private gatherings.

We expect such behavior from Donald Trump, who may still promote the idea that Obama was born in Kenya. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, should know better.

McConnell seems offended by having to endure a president whose principal transgression is serving while black in the highest office in the land. Perhaps jealousy also plays a role in McConnell’s insulting treatment of our president. The black man, Obama, is smarter, better looking, better educated and more humane than McConnell. He even has a more attractive family.

Early on McConnell promised not to help Americans prosper, but to make Obama a one-term president. That didn’t work out. Now he is thwarting the appointment of a Supreme Court justice by a president duly elected by the American people. Some columnists claim he is just anti-Democrat, but his extreme, disrespectful behavior smacks of a deeper prejudice.

McConnell’s not the only bigot around. Remember South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson shouting out, “Liar,” during a speech Obama gave to Congress? Or Rand Paul’s description of President Obama as “arrogant.” Sounds like “uppity” to me.

The race-based insults heaved at Obama from McConnell and others are unprecedented since Representative Preston Brooks, also from South Carolina, beat up Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner with his cane. Ted Cruz continues the disrespect, calling the president Barack Obama, not President Obama. It’s all code emphasizing that President Obama is the “other.” Perhaps their disrespect for a black man plays well with their constituency.

It no longer plays well in Boston. The city known for bigotry in the 1970s has changed. I’m writing this column a couple of weeks before it will be published, and it looks as if an anti-discrimination bill will be passed and signed. In 2016, downtown Boston is expensive to live in, and the census still shows little diversity. But the people on the sidewalks of all the downtown neighborhoods come in many colors. If you can afford it, you are welcome here. We don’t care what race, national origin or background you enjoy. If you pick up after your dog and put your trash out responsibly, please move in.

Full Print Edition