Not everyone remembers the Mothers of Maverick Street, a group of East Boston housewives who, armed only with signs and baby carriages, blocked a fleet of overloaded trucks from barreling down the neighborhood’s residential streets in 1967. East Boston in those days was a hotbed of community activism, mostly aimed at combating the encroachments of Logan Airport. But as Tuesday’s vote against the Suffolk Downs casino indicates, “people power” in East Boston is still very much alive.
Turnout in the neighborhood was 47 percent, higher than the citywide average and about on par with the last gubernatorial election statewide.
The homegrown group No Eastie Casino, which met in the basement of a Lutheran Church, was outspent by pro-casino forces 50 to 1, and yet the final No vote was resounding. The proposal for a billion-dollar casino at the ailing Suffolk Downs racetrack, supported by everyone from mayor Tom Menino to House Speaker Bob DeLeo to the AFL-CIO, fell in East Boston by a margin of 56 to 44 percent, according to the City of Boston election department’s unofficial results. Turnout in the neighborhood was 47 percent, higher than the citywide average and about on par with the last gubernatorial election statewide.
I lived in East Boston for five years in the 1970s and ‘80s, and ran a shoestring community newspaper that surely would have been covering the casino controversy with vigor today were it still publishing. At the time I thought one of the strengths of the community was its coherence: In the 1980 U.S. census, East Boston was 96 percent white, mostly Irish and Italian first-generation immigrants of working and lower middle-class incomes. They were united by a sense of being under siege from noise, traffic, and pollution associated with Logan Airport, and they suffered the destruction of homes and parks while City Hall and Massport ignored their complaints. They learned the hard way the need to be vigilant, and to organize.
But though these new neighbors may not speak the same language, they are clearly no less committed to having their voices heard.
The demographic changes in the neighborhood over the last 30 years have been swift and stunning: Now an estimated 63 percent is Latino, African-American or Asian. Nearly half the people living in East Boston are not citizens. Brazilian soccer fan clubs have replaced Sons of Italy storefronts. It’s a vibrant, polyglot community winning back its public green space acre by acre. But though these new neighbors may not speak the same language, they are clearly no less committed to having their voices heard.
The No Eastie Casino website, a jumbled, decidedly handmade virtual bulletin board, includes links to flyers, fact sheets and volunteer sign-ups. But it opens with this quote, proving that not even the Mothers of Maverick Street invented community organizing: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” The quote is from Mahatma Gandhi.
This program aired on November 7, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.