South End Oral History Project

Description by oral history project organizers:

The South End Oral History Project seeks to capture the oral history of Boston’s South End during a period of rapid social and cultural change from the l960s through 1980s. Supported by the South End Historical Society and the Public History Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, the Project engages in community outreach and publicity, interviewer training, transcriptions, archiving, and community reports and follow up.

The Project identifies and interviews observer/participants at the “person-in-the-street” level in a classic neighborhood case-study of urban change in post-war America and Massachusetts. The term (coined by the sociologist Ruth Glass for 1960s London, UK) often used for this change is “gentrification”—defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses, typically displacing current inhabitants in the process.” While this accurate as far as it goes, it misses the nuances of stages in the timeline and of economic, class, race, ethnicity, and cultural status uniquely involved in neighborhoods like the South End. The Project includes those displaced as well as newcomers, from all social strata. This study illuminates the past leading to the present of Boston, which as the urban center of New England is of importance to the entire country. Note that, while the two are often confused, the South End is not South Boston. The former is an ethnically and racially diverse neighborhood of middle-class row housing contiguous to Back Bay and Copley square; the latter is a more homogenous neighborhood on a peninsula separate from the central city.

There is some urgency because the pool of interviewees is rapidly diminishing as memories fade and individuals die, and the very terminology in which it is discussed becomes forgotten or debased. Of the principal areas in America’s great cities that have undergone gentrification, the South End may be the least studied and understood in detail. Two book-length studies have been produced but both have deficits that this Project addresses: Sylvie Tissot, Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End (2015) depends on tendentious theory, tends to concentrate on a later period, and uses anonymous, unverifiable informants that seem almost like caricatures, while Russ Lopez, Boston’s South End: The Clash of Ideas in a Historic Neighborhood (2015) surveys the entire 150-year history of the South End using aggregated social statistics but includes no significant first-person testimony.

The intent is to help participants better understand their lives and community and to communicate that understanding to others in the community as well as the public at large and posterity. A pilot project conducted in 2018-2019 was greeted with enthusiasm and produced some exceptional interviews with White, African American, Latinex, and Asian students, parents, and teachers in the Bancroft School, a neighborhood public school that represented a cross-section of the community. (Public access to this Bancroft School material is now online at the UMass Boston Archives and Special Collections website.) It is important to note that this Project is not an exercise in nostalgia for the “good old days.” As has often been noted, nostalgia is the enemy of history, but carefully executed oral history can direct the energy of the nostalgic impulse toward valuable contributions to the historical record through thoughtful recollection and reflection on one’s experiences.

All of the oral history material collected, both digital recordings and transcriptions, are professionally acquired, accessioned, cataloged, and held in permanent publicly-accessible storage by the Archives and Special Collections of the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Duplicates of transcriptions are held in the South End Historical Society Archives and the BPL South End Branch Library. It is assumed that historians, journalists, and the general public will make use of these materials. Reports, excerpts, and summaries will be published in the SEHS’s periodical newsletter.

The audience is broadest range of persons interested in the recent history of the South End, the City of Boston, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Ideally the audience is represented in large part by the participants. That is to say, the audience sees itself reflected in the interviews collected. By giving voice to the often voiceless the project could be construed as neighbors talking to neighbors. The SEHS, known for its interest in the neighborhood’s special architectural history and built environment, will be re-expressing its concurrent interest in the rich social and cultural history of the people in this constantly evolving neighborhood.

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