Downtown View:Sestercentennial

It is now 2016, only 10 years until America’s 250th birthday. So are we going to celebrate or what?

It’s not only the Declaration of Independence. The 250th anniversary of the Boston Massacre takes place in 2020. The Boston Tea Party’s 250th—2023. The battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, 2025.

What are Boston’s civic leaders planning for a celebration? Nothing so far.

What are Philadelphia’s civic leaders planning? They are building the $150 million Museum of the American Revolution, to be completed in spring 2017. Meanwhile they have a web site. The first picture under the tab “A Revolutionary Experience?” The Liberty Tree. In Boston.

This frustrates the small band of local historians and historic site officials who are trying to figure out how to get Massachusetts going on celebrating the “shot heard round the world” and the events leading up to it.

“The Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, but everything else happened here,” said Martha J. McNamara, director of the New England Arts & Architecture Program at Wellesley College and a member of the Boston 250 group. She points out that although 2020 marks the Pilgrim’s landing and 2030 marks Boston’s founding, those are local events compared to the founding of a nation.

To those who say why celebrate a 250th birthday, when 200- and 300- year celebrations are more important, McNamara is clear. “None of us will be here for the 300th,” she said.

McNamara and her colleagues have started the ball rolling. They celebrated the 250th anniversary of Boston’s resistance to the Stamp Act at the Liberty Tree on Washington Street last August. They held a forum on the topic at Old North Church in early December. They’ve created a web site, a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

Now what they need is a Kathy Kane.  Kane was the dynamic, imaginative, effective member of Mayor Kevin White’s team who, among other achievements, made a name for herself as the creator of Summerthing, a wonderful celebration of arts and crafts and activities in every Boston neighborhood. She planned the Boston 200 celebration held in 1976. She raised the money to make it happen. President Gerald Ford came to Boston to light a third lantern in Old North, the third representing the future, said Harron Ellenson, the marketing maven who ran Boston 200 after Kane became White’s Deputy Mayor. After assuring Bostonians there were no hard feelings, the Queen of England showed up.

Part of Kane’s power came from Mayor White’s strong backing. He wanted everyone to participate, said Ellenson. Boston 200 planned a re-enactment of the Tea Party at the Tea Party Ship. When an anti-war group showed up and demanded to put on their own Tea Party, Mayor White said fine. The disabled war veterans then wanted their re-enactment. So we ended up with three Tea Party re-enactments.

Every neighborhood had an exhibit. Corporations paid the bills. Gillette sponsored a 19th-century exhibit in what we then called the Castle. Smoki Bacon ran that one. Sun Life paid for a game on the top floor of Quincy Market, said Ellenson. Players walked through answering questions. At the end, they received a card telling them, based on their answers, whether they would have been a Tory or a patriot. Cambridge Seven architects put on a delightful funny film at the Pru entitled “Where’s Boston?” It’s on YouTube now.

It was a different time in Boston. The city was not an economic powerhouse. It was contending with white flight and controversy over busing. When Ellenson went to the Beacon Hill Civic Association to describe Boston 200 plans, the directors were aghast. Tourists??? On our sidewalks??? Who’d ever heard of such a thing?

Beacon Hill residents now love the tourists and are grateful to them for enhancing the coffers of the small businesses that neighborhood needs to maintain its quality of life. They enjoy the tourists’ appreciation of the brick sidewalks and gas lamps, which they can’t find elsewhere.

But that new attitude shows how Boston 200 changed Boston. For one thing, new maps, designated trails, directional signs on streets and labels on historic properties made it easier for tourists to get around. These changes actually made a tourist industry for Boston, which had not been recognized as an economic engine prior to that time.

Another lasting benefit, said Ellenson, was that the National Park Service got involved. They established the Boston National Historical Park, 43 acres in downtown Boston, Charlestown and South Boston, and the only urban national park in America. The Park Service brought funding that helped sites along the Freedom Trail repair and maintain their facilities.

Boston’s success has never come from baby steps. Filling in the Back Bay, the nation’s first subway, the Big Dig—the city’s success has always been built on big, bold, scary efforts. With the failure of the Olympics, it looked for awhile as if Bostonians lacked confidence, that they were too scared to tackle big projects.

But Bob Allison, history department chair at Suffolk University, points out that the event we would be celebrating, starting a revolution, is probably the boldest step Bostonians have ever taken.

So let’s get going, people. Let’s be bold. Let’s be creative. We must include all. We can even fold affordable housing and better education into it. Let’s make Boston 250 the most fun, important, meaningful and shall we say it—revolutionary— thing we do over the next 10 years.

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