A new Facebook page has been blowing up my Newsfeed lately…Dirty Old Boston. This community page, which features pictures and images of “Boston before the gentrification of the 1980s,” started just weeks ago on September 22 and has almost 4,000 likes and 8,000 comments. Last week was its most popular week, with photos of the 1970s stripper Princess Cheyenne (who became a bit of a recurring theme for a moment there), the original Boston Garden, a hit list from WRKO, lots of arson and other historic urban fires…you get the idea. Many of the images aren’t “dirty,” so much as they are retro: women in vintage swim suits, old nightclubs in Cambridge, dudes in bellbottoms, etc. These images draw a sense of the city’s bohemian roots. Its rise in interest on Facebook has been rapid, and has been primarily among folks between 35 and 44. Which means, probably not people who remember a lot of the things in the photos, except as kids and teens.
Posted 10/18/12: “There was an arson ring that was burning down the Fenway neighborhood in the mid-70′s.
This was taken on Symphony Rd. October 1974. It’s now a vacant lot. Thanks Larry.”
So…what’s going on here? Let’s talk about the Dirty Old Boston phenomenon for a minute. Hypotheses please.
1. Childhood nostalgia. The “likers” and the photos are perfectly in sync to suggest that they could be thinking back to the Boston of their childhood, using social media to create a nostalgia community like Millenials who wanted their childhood television shows back.
2. Love that dirty water. Gentrification here feels a bit like a dirty word that implies loss of authenticity, commercialization of spaces and experiences (it’s the TD Banknorth Garden now!?), and, perhaps especially important, the incursion of outsiders into the community. This happens in two ways. There’s the Starbucks-in-Southie, no-Italians-in-the-North-End narrative of middle class yuppies taking over Boston’s prized working class neighborhoods, but there’s also the corporate high-rise, courting of global pharmaceuticals and displacement of rock clubs, affordable housing, and social service organizations in Cambridge story. The first is a story about the middle class takeover of working-class, long-established, white-ethnic neighborhoods; the latter is more about triumph of global capitalist interests over local, home-grown activist culture. They are both narratives of fear about cultural and class change; different classes in Boston live more cheek-by-jowl than in many other American cities; it is less income segregated than other metro-areas with similar levels of inequality (about average nationally). In this context, chronicling their pre-gentrification history, dirty or not, might feel like a way for “real” Bostonian’s to claim ownership over the identity of the city — “you weren’t here then, so you wouldn’t remember how things used to be, but I do.” Similarly, if newcomers also see themselves as not “real” Bostonians, then they (we) might feel it’s important to identify with and learn about the past and incorporate themselves into Boston’s identity.
3. All in the family. Maybe Boston is small enough that everyone feels like they have stories about the images that are portrayed, and connections with the sites represented. A slight variation: Boston as a “city of neighborhoods” means that people might feel passionate enough about seeing their places represented that anything like this gets folks excited.
4. Everybody <3s ruin porn. We can’t deny, as I’ve talked about before, that old stuff is just generally of interest now. And then there’s of course the Mad Men effect, which is still going on. But seeing as the page’s primary “like” base is Bostonians, I think there’s a strong case to be made that this is not just about that.
5. Working out trauma. The razing of the West End, the Central Artery, the citizen activism against the expressway, the Big Dig…Boston still has a lot of very present anger, sadness, and pride about the big planning decisions that were implemented or thwarted in the past century. Maybe Dirty Old Boston is touching that nerve.
Is this a uniquely Boston phenomenon? What other cities have an idealized sense of a “gritty” past that is still present today? And for whom do you think this past is more important: the old-timers, or the new transplants? And what do we want, beneath the ogling — to remember and share our memories with peers, like those ’90s kids, to stop the changes that are going on, or to find a common language for talking about what it means to be From Boston?