In the wake of a 1974 school integration plan that led to riots in this city's streets, then-Mayor Kevin White spoke of transforming Boston from a balkanized backwater to a "world-class" city such as New York and London.
Three decades later, as it prepares for the first time to welcome guests to a national political convention, Boston is still fighting its provincial reputation. But this small city retains its outsize aspirations -- as evidenced by its nickname, Hub of the Universe -- and bristles at being labeled America's Athens, a history-obsessed metropolis whose most prominent days are behind it.
As the 1996 Summer Olympics was for Atlanta, the Democratic National Convention, which begins here on Monday, has been touted as an opportunity to showcase the new Boston: a city of world leaders in higher education and health care, business and technology, and a community that its leaders call more diverse and tolerant than it once was.
"Sure, we understand how parochial, how insular things were. But we also know that's not what Boston is now," Mayor Thomas M. Menino (D) told the Boston Herald two years ago when the city was announced as the convention host. "Problem is, that image hasn't really spread nationally. . . . I wanted the opportunity to show people that we're a much different city now, a city where diversity is welcome. I want the country to see that Boston is a city that works for all of its people. It's time for us to reach out."
There's no disputing that by some measures Boston has changed dramatically in recent years. It was 68 percent white in 1980, while today racial minorities make up just over half of its 589,141 residents. Long a hodgepodge of Puritanism and Catholicism, Mayflower Brahmins and interconnected clans of Irish and Italian immigrants, Boston has welcomed a large influx of Haitians and Dominicans, Vietnamese and Cape Verdeans.
Menino's description notwithstanding, racial segregation here is still a fact of life. A report published last September by the Harvard University Civil Rights Project showed that while nationwide about 45 percent of blacks and Hispanics live in suburbs, in the greater Boston area, that number is less than 25 percent.
But neighborhoods such as South Boston and Charlestown, where the school busing crisis was centered, are no longer enclaves of prejudice. And alongside the well-trodden Freedom Trail, an urban footpath that leads tourists past Colonial landmarks such the site of the Boston Massacre and Paul Revere's home, the Black Heritage Trail recognizes the city's contributions to the abolitionist and civil rights movements.
Perhaps the one way in which the city is as homogeneous as ever is in its politics. Democrats occupy virtually every citywide elected office. Massachusetts's entire congressional delegation is Democratic, as are about 85 percent of state legislators. Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, the latest in a string of GOP chief executives here, is left with the lonely task of counterbalancing the Democrats' dominance.
The state has produced viable Democratic candidates in five presidential elections since 1960: John F. Kennedy, Edward M. Kennedy, Michael S. Dukakis, Paul Tsongas and now John F. Kerry, who will be the first candidate nominated in his home state since George H.W. Bush, in Texas, in 1992.
"In many ways, it was an odd choice to have the convention there," said Robert Loevy, a political science professor at Colorado College who has written extensively about political conventions. "It's certainly not a state they need to work at to win. You are really preaching to the choir."
In promoting the convention, organizers have seized on well-known strengths -- Boston's rich political history, its top-notch hospitals and universities, and its innovative and inventive population. But they also sought to counter stereotypes. One print advertisement unveiled last month joked that with so many different languages spoken in the city there are "140 ways to say 'wicked awesome.' "
Organizers also took the almost unprecedented step of hosting most of the traditional state delegation welcome parties away from the gleaming hotels and mansions of tony, and mostly white, districts such as Beacon Hill and the Back Bay. Instead, Democrats will gather in such places as the Jamaica Plain birthplace of Boston's first Irish American mayor, James Michael Curley, and the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Roxbury.
Minority- and women-owned businesses were tapped to coordinate events, cater and provide entertainment. "When big events have come through here in the past, we've been largely invisible," said Roosevelt St. Louis, an African American businessman whose event planning company based in the largely black and Hispanic neighborhood of Hyde Park is organizing parties for the Tennessee and Wisconsin delegations. "People don't usually come to Boston to see Hyde Park, but this is an opportunity to showcase some of the hidden diamonds we have in this city."
The plan partially backfired and old wounds were reopened when New York's delegation wrote a letter last month that said the South Boston bathhouse chosen for their festivities was unacceptable because of the "history of racial turmoil and tension" from neighborhood's role in the busing riots.
Unlike that protracted struggle, the dispute with New Yorkers quickly blew over after pleas from a host of local minority leaders.
For Menino and others who worked to bring the event to Boston, these have been trying weeks, with bad news trickling out in a steady stream. Months before what will be the first political convention since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, organizers warned residents to prepare for a security environment unlike any this city has seen, with 40 miles of road closures and predictions of traffic jams from New Hampshire to Rhode Island.
"It's a shame they have felt it necessary to seal off half the city, when we should be inviting everybody downtown to have a good time and show off the city," said former governor Michael S. Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee who now teaches at Boston's Northeastern University.
Boston's renowned propensity for political in-fighting has also emerged in recent weeks. Two unions angling for a new contract for firefighters and police officers have threatened to target Menino with pickets. The mayor and Kerry fell out when the senator canceled a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors which was meeting in Boston, citing a police union picket.
"The impression is that this city just can't seem to get out of its own way," said Lou DiNatale, head of the center for state and local policy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "Bostonians tend to view the world through Boston eyes, so the presidential election becomes secondary to a labor dispute. It's part of what makes this place entertaining and fun but also why we don't get as much done as we should."
When Los Angeles hosted the Democrats four years ago, some residents said the city was so vast and the populace so blase, that an uninitiated observer might not have known that anything unusual was happening in town at all. New Yorkers have seemed to take planning next month's Republican National Convention in stride.
It will not be that way here.
"Whenever Boston and New York are compared in anything, New Yorkers are like, 'whatever' and we get obsessed with outdoing our neighbors to the south," said Jay Severin, a popular talk radio host in Boston and a former Republican political consultant. "There's so much self-doubt. Sometimes, I think, basically, we're not happy unless we're miserable."
Still, even as residents lament the chaos they expect, they also seem to believe that four days in the national political spotlight is long overdue. After all, locals point out, Massachusetts has produced four presidents -- two Adamses, a Kennedy and the first Bush (he was born in Milton in 1924) -- trailing only Virginia and Ohio, but has never hosted a political convention.
"I have a long week ahead," said Mayor Joseph A. Curatone of Somerville, a city north of Boston that will be inundated by traffic detoured from major highways. He will spend many evenings during the convention manning his city's streets, diverting cars if roadways get too clogged. "It could be a bit of a nightmare, but I'm glad it'll be our nightmare. In the end, we'll be glad we did this."