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Boston's Renaissance: A Story of Change, Inclusion, and Empowerment

Confronted by a legacy of racism, Boston is trying creative solutions to old problems and turning a new chapter in the history of the city.

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This is a story about Boston that begins in New York at a place called Peak, a restaurant and meeting space 101 stories above the ground in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards development. It was February, and Meet Boston, the city’s destination and marketing agency, was hosting an event to kick off its new marketing campaign, “Boston Never Gets Old.” Not by chance, the room was filled with a strikingly young and racially diverse crowd. While Boston chefs cooked food for the guests, three Boston-area artists were busy painting. A jazz group featuring students from Boston’s Berklee College of Music exited the stage before Martha Sheridan, the president and CEO of Meet Boston, addressed the crowd. 

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“This is our chance to tell you a different story than the one you might think you know about Boston,” Sheridan said. “There was a narrative about Boston that we’re all familiar with.”  

Sheridan mentioned “Your Cousin from Boston,” the ad campaign by beermaker Sam Adams showcasing the moronic escapades of a drunk white guy with a thick Boston accent. “No disparagement to Sam Adams,” Sheridan said, “but that’s not really what Boston’s like anymore.”

The narrative that Sheridan was referring to is simple and painful: Boston is a racist city. It’s a reputation—and a reality—that has plagued Boston for decades. Ask people around the country and they’ll tell you: Boston is one of America’s most racist cities, a place where Black residents are marginalized, and Black visitors feel unwelcome. A place that loves to talk about its history as a birthplace of the American Revolution, that glorious the fight for freedom—but doesn’t live up to those ideals. 

There’s a complicated interplay between perception and reality when it comes to Boston and race. Still, a lot has happened in Boston to create that perception: the anti-bussing riots of the 1970s, or the 1989 murder case in which a white man named Charles Stuart shot and killed his pregnant wife before blaming a mysterious Black assailant for the crime. Only after police arrested a young Black man did Stuart’s story start to crumble. 

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Racism in Boston was systemic. In 2015, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston released a study called “The Color of Wealth in Boston.” The Fed found that the median net worth of white families in Boston was $247,500. What is the average net worth of Black families? Eight dollars. That isn’t a typo.

“The Fed study,” says local developer Richard Taylor, who is Black, “was shocking. And people had to deal with it.”

Then, in 2017, the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team ran a landmark seven-part series on race in Boston. The Globe examined questions of race in neighborhoods, politics, medical care, colleges, athletics, and business. Its conclusion: While Boston was more diverse and equitable than it was given credit for, “we have deluded ourselves into believing that we have made more progress than we have.” Concluded the Globe, “Boston’s complacency with the status quo hobbles the city’s future.”

But give Boston credit: Those analyses, as well as the questions of racial justice prompted by the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020, have sparked meaningful change in the city. By addressing economic inequity, reevaluating its history, and promoting more inclusive tourism, Boston is trying to improve.

It’s hard to say exactly when that change really began to gather momentum. Perhaps it was in June 2020 when Boston mayor Marty Walsh issued an executive order declaring racism a public health crisis. A major boost came in November 2022 when City Council member Michelle Wu was elected mayor. Wu, the first woman and the first person of color to be Boston’s mayor, came to office determined to address questions of social and economic justice. 

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But the truth is, change in Boston has become so widespread and is happening so quickly you are starting to see it everywhere. 

In City Hall, Boston government looks different. Consider the example of Segun Idowu, a former activist who successfully pushed for Boston police officers to start wearing body cameras in 2019. Wu appointed Idowu the city’s chief of economic development, and one of his first acts was to rename the job, calling it “Chief of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion.” For Black people in Boston, Idowu says, the words matter. “When you use the term ‘economic development,’ on the neighborhood level, people have a very visceral reaction. They think about million-dollar condos being built down the street from [them], but [their] neighbor is about to [have to] move because they can’t afford to live in Boston anymore.” 

Now, Idowu says, “We’re going to make sure that Boston is a resilient city that builds generational wealth. And the only way we’re going to do that is by reprioritizing and refocusing on the people who historically never got a slice of the pie.” In 2022, Boston awarded $100 million in contracts to minority-owned businesses—triple the largest amount it had ever done previously.

Not far away, in Boston’s Old South Meeting House, historian Nat Sheidley is trying to enlarge visitors’ understanding of American colonial history so that we don’t only know the oft-told stories of Sam Adams and John Hancock. Sheidley, a professional historian, is the president and CEO of Revolutionary Spaces, a nonprofit that owns the Old South Meeting House—the home of pre-revolutionary protest meetings—and manages the nearby Old State House, the colonial-era seat of government. Both are iconic sites on Boston’s Freedom Trail, connecting historic attractions and shaping how hundreds of thousands of visitors understand American history annually. 

“We all have this mythic narrative of what the Revolution was, and it’s hard for people to understand that it was so much more complex and there were so many participants,” Sheidley explains. “If we only achieve one thing when we send visitors out the doors of these buildings, it’s to be prepared when somebody says, “The Founders thought…’ to respond with the question, ‘Which Founders?’” 

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Down the street from the Old South Meeting House, visitors to Boston will see something new on the famed Boston Common: The Embrace, an abstract sculpture representing the love and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. Formally dedicated in January, The Embrace sparked controversy over its aesthetics. But long after that controversy fades, the larger point will remain: The Common, established in 1634 and the country’s oldest public park, had been profoundly enlarged.

Visitors to Boston may also find themselves strolling through neighborhoods that they might never have before, thanks to Meet Boston’s new emphasis on what it calls “inclusive tourism.” One example: a “Guide to Black Boston,” which sends an important message not just to visitors to Boston but to its locals.  

This new emphasis doesn’t come at anyone’s expense, Sheridan emphasizes. “Boston is a diverse city, and we can’t dismiss any piece of that. We don’t want to offend the Irish white guy who loves the Red Sox and the Celtics.” But Meet Boston’s new campaign “is eye-opening to people. It shows them a side of Boston that maybe they haven’t thought of before.”

Another point on this updated freedom trail is the new Omni Boston Hotel at the Seaport, which was financed in part by Black investors after the Massachusetts agency which owned the land required developers to include minority participation at every level of the project. Since the Seaport, a two-decade-old neighborhood, was developed with no consideration of racial equity, the Omni project marked a new effort to begin addressing the de facto segregation there. “A lot of people have come to this hotel just for what it represents,” Richard Taylor, one of those investors, told me recently. “People say, ‘Give me the name of that hotel again.’ It breaks me down emotionally.” And it has led to more such efforts to include people of color in these wealth-generating projects. “It’s transformative,” Taylor said. 

What’s happening in Boston is late, and it will surely be imperfect. But it’s a new chapter in the history of a venerable city, and a good one.

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