...which creates and sustains our communities. We know who we are and can share dreams for a common future when our roots in the past are strong."
- Jill Ker Conway, author, historian, and Boston Museum board member.

Monday, October 26, 2009

DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS: Visit to the Atlantic Works Building

Fran Rowan (shown seated at left with Umana students) is a longtime Eastie activist and saviour of the Atlantic Works building, a former shipbuilding facility with an illustrious history as described here (courtesy fo the East Boston Main Streets web site:)

The Atlantic Works on (Noddle's) island had built iron steamships for Russia, Egypt, Paraguay, China, and the East Indies; the monitor warships Nantucket and Casco; the turrets of several other iron clads; the engines for many American frigates; and entire fleets of ferry-boats and tugs. Other neighboring shipyards and works have done their share in creating that famous American marine which once was the wonder of all maritime nations.

Some of the finest ships that ever sailed were constructed here by Donald McKay, vessels beautifully finished and furnished, and built for great speed. The Flying Cloud, 1,700 tons, made the passage to San Francisco in 89 days, being the quickest ever known. The Sovereign of the Seas, 2,400 tons, was the longest and sharpest clipper ever built, and once made a run of 430 geographical miles in 24 hours. The Empress of the Seas held high rank among the famous clippers of the same epoch. The Great Republic was the largest wooden sailing ship ever built. Her 4,556 tons included 1,500,000 feet of hard pine, 336 tons of iron, and an immense amount of white oak. She sometimes made 19 knots an hour, under full sail; and went from New York to San Francisco in 91 days.

Between 1848 and 1858, more than 170 vessels were built at East Boston; of which 99 exceeded 1,000 tons each, and 9 were above 2,000 tons. These were the famous racers, which swept around Cape Horn, and up through the South Seas, crowded with the Argonauts in search of El Dorado [lost treasure]. Others belonged to the Liverpool packet-line, and made regular trips across the Atlantic for many years, exciting the keen and jealous admiration of our British cousins.

Students are facinated by Fran's personal history and marriage to Jim Rowan, longtime aide to Tip O'Neil. Thanks to her divine inspiration and hard work, Atlantic Works was saved from demolition and still stands as a thriving artists' cooperative. Fran has arrange for some of the space with its original wooden walls and beamed ceilings to be used to display student work and artifacts gathered for the East Boston Historical Societylaunch event in January. Thank you Fran!

Sunday, October 18, 2009


K. and I are walking back to the Umana Middle School Academy from the Atlantic Works building. We've just looked at the space inside this old shipbuilding facility-turned-artist-cooperative where the student-led East Boston Historical Society will launch in early 2010. K. is recalling the computer-generated image I'd shown him a few weeks earlier of the Boston Museum (below) proposed for a parcel of land in downtown Boston. Kids in the auditorium had oohed and aahed when they saw this image. In follow-up chats in the different classrooms, I'd told the students that we are working with them to make sure that the exhibits inside the Boston Museum are as exciting as the exterior, and that creating the East Boston Historical Society with them is a first step toward realizing that goal. The museum's development team will learn from students what sort of exhibits and stories really capture their interest.

"You know what you should do?" K. offers, as we walk. "You should put, like, video games in the museum and pay people to come play them."

I acknowledge the appeal of his idea - "You are right, that would REALLY get people to come" - but explain that we will need to get people to do the opposite, to "pay to play" in the museum. Still, I say, the idea of using video games makes sense. People love to play video games.

"Do you think we should create a video game about some part of East Boston history?" I ask him? K. considers this.

"OK but I don't know how."

Neither do I. So I contact a friend at the Harvard School of Education who knows more about digital media than I do, and she offers some good suggestions on how to proceed. K. will be pleased (I hope) and I am happy because this casual conversation may represent the beginning of kids taking ownership of the EBHS, deciding for themselves what a 21st century historical society should be like.

Which is, after all, the whole point of what we're doing...

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Our Eastie explorations continued last week with two 7th grade classes out on a neighborhood tour. Our focus: immigration. First stop: 151 Meridien Street, a plain brick building where Joseph P. Kennedy, father of the Kennedy clan (shown right) was born in 1888. There is no sign that the origins of America's most influential political dynasty could be traced back to this humbled spot where we now stand.

Should we put a marker on this site? asks teacher/tour guide Julia Brasser. There is no definitive response from students, who seem confused as to why we are stalled at this unremarkable location. We need time in the classroom to help kids learn about the Kennedy legacy. Some of them have heard of Ted Kennedy, because of the television coverage of his funeral, but that's about it.

Onward to the waterfront, where we gather around Julia alongside the boarded-up Immigration Intake Building (left.) One in six Americans have an ancestor who came through this building to a new life in America, she tells the kids. I am momentarily stunned by this factoid, imagining the impact of these generations fanning out acro0ss America from this very location, over the course of a long century. And then I recall the lavish renovation of Ellis Island. The contrast between that gleaming facility and this abandoned, forlorn structure is stunning. Boston was second only to New York in the total number of immigrant arrivals around the turn of the 20th century. And yet we appear to have turned our backs on our own history.

We return to the Umana via The Golden Stairs (right), which carried immigrants up from the docks to the streets of East Boston and then back down again to jobs along the waterfront.

"Miss, we should paint these stairs gold," says one of the girls. What a good idea...

Friday, October 16, 2009


J. is fidgeting at her desk, eager for this long afternoon to be over. Her day at the Umana Middle School Academy started at 7:20 AM. Now it's close to 3 PM. She slumps over her desk, arches a brow and blurts out a comment that calls into question everything that we've just begun to do.

"Miss, Eastie is like ghetto. Nobody here is going to come to a history thing."

J. is responding to my cheery announcement that the East Boston Historical Society will officially launch with a community event at the Atlantic Works Building in East Boston sometime near the end of January, 2010. I had just reminded J. and her classmates that almost every Boston neighborhood - Southie, Brighton, Dorchester - has a historical society. Not East Boston. I had talked about this as if it were a crime that must be solved, a wrong that they must right. I had ticked off Eastie history highlights that they had begun to discover:

Fastest clipper ships in the world made right here.

The first generation of Kennedys landed right here.

The nation's first underwater tunnel and first branch library - built right here.

The first naval skirmish of the American Revolution, the Battle of Chelsea Creek, fought right here.

And you are making history right now, I had reminded them, because your families are changing the face and feel of East Boston as immigrants to cities always do.

Then, I had addressed them as civic leaders of the highest caliber:

Your work - your projects exploring your own identity and all this stuff that people don't know about your neighborhood - it's going to be showcased for everybody to see. Your parents will be invited to come, and others in the community, and political leaders. Maybe the Mayor will show up. Others too. Everyone will wear name tags and drink apple juice and Coke and look around and thank you for saving the history of East Boston.

But J. is skeptical.

How do you convince kids that history actually matters? And can we expect 6th, 7th & 8th graders to become stewards of history, by creating "a community of memory" to link their own lives and experiences to what happened in their neighborhood long ago?

This is what we have set out to do, and we have no idea where we will end up. I thank J., because she will force us to keep it real every step along the way.