Common Ground

by J. Anthony Lukas

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Common Ground

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For most of the past generation, race has been such an intensely emotional issue in the United States that it has been rare to encounter discussions of the subject that are candid or insightful, or that realistically assess the role of race in the decline of modern American cities. In COMMON GROUND, J. Anthony Lukas has succeeded in doing all of this, partly because he writes with unusual sophistication, and partly because his book is so firmly grounded in real human experiences.

Lukas has essentially written the biography of a city, tracing Boston through a decade of turbulence beginning in 1968. The book focuses on three Bostonians: Alice McGoff, a working-class Irish mother living in public housing in the ethnically homogenous neighborhood of Charlestown; Rachel Twymon, a middle-aged black mother living on the fringes of the ghetto but nevertheless having ties to the black middle class; and Colin Diver, a Harvard University Law School graduate who gives up a lucrative position in a law firm to work on pressing social problems for the city of Boston. The book’s chapters expand is concentric circles around these central characters, as the author tries to understand their families, their environment, and their individual perceptions of the racial tensions and conflicts which engulfed Boston during these years. When court-ordered busing arrived in Boston in 1974, the Diver, Twymon, and McGoff children were all affected, and all three families were increasingly caught up in the swirling processes of urban change. By laying before the reader the special world of each of these people and their families, the book gives one a special insight into the broader world they all shared.

Based on more than five hundred interviews and vast historical and social research, COMMON GROUND is one of those rare books that links a sense of individual drama with a solid framework of intellectual analysis. Although Lukas seems far from optimistic about the success of most social reforms and about the future of the city, his book distills the sort of truths that make real progress possible.

Common Ground

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In recent years, a new style of biography has come into fashion, biographies that engage the reader by immersing him in the richly detailed environment of the subject and turn away from their title character for ten or fifteen pages to sketch in anecdotes about an associate, or local history, or a frequented restaurant. This wide-ranging, informal approach is hard to carry off successfully, but it can yield remarkable results.

J. Anthony Lukas’ achievement in Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families is remarkable indeed, for he has sought to apply the techniques of oral history not only to the story of one man but also to the biography of a city. Within this story of a city, he has taken as his theme the enduring problem of racial hostility and discrimination. He has sought to capture both the relentless anonymity of the large city and the fierce ethnicity of some urban neighborhoods. To a surprising degree, he has succeeded in telling readers many things about modern America that they have not heard before.

Lukas begins his story of Boston in April, 1968, the night Martin Luther King was assassinated, by considering the way three different Bostonians reacted. To Colin Diver, a third-year student at Harvard Law School, the killing crystallizes his feeling that America has come only a little way toward resolving the problems facing blacks—despite all the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960’s. Colin shortly thereafter decides that, rather than join a large Washington law firm, he will go to work for...

(This entire section contains 1720 words.)

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the city of Boston to address directly the problems of poverty and opportunity. To Rachel Twymon, a poor black mother of six struggling to keep her small business in the ghetto solvent and who once knew King personally, his death is devastating—and in the midst of her mourning, word comes that her store windows have been smashed by marauding black mobs, striking out in anger at any available target. It is not long before Rachel’s store goes bankrupt and she and her six children are back on welfare. To Alice McGoff, who hears the news as she works at her waitressing job in the heavily Irish, working-class neighborhood of Charlestown in Boston, King’s death is saddening but brings to mind her ambivalent feelings about the civil rights movement. She sympathizes with the efforts of Southern blacks to overcome the obvious, legalized segregation they have faced, but she wonders why King and other black leaders have tried to stir up trouble in the North, where blacks obviously can come and go as they please and certainly do not ride in the back of the bus.

The reader is thus introduced to the three points of Boston’s triangle: Yankees, blacks, and Irish. Lukas, however, has no interest in obvious generalizations; he prefers ironies to categories: Rachel Twymon has black Canadian blood in her veins, the Yankee Diver is actually the son of an immigrant, and the Irish McGoff is a widowed mother rearing her children in public housing. Lukas sets out to make the reader understand the total environment of these people: their past, their neighbors, their aspirations, and their weaknesses. As the story unfolds, the reader begins to sort out the degree to which each embodies some of the larger traits and attitudes of his or her neighborhood and heritage and the degree to which each is a unique individual.

In the process of presenting the context of each family, Lukas manages to present a panorama of Boston itself: its political battles between the Yankee establishments and the increasingly powerful Irish; its newspaper wars; the waning authority of the once-awesome Catholic Church; and the ongoing troubles of Boston’s urban renewal program. Within each larger issue, Lukas introduces memorable ordinary individuals: teachers, social workers, government policymakers, policemen—a range of people engaged in various ways in Boston’s struggle for improvement.

All of this is tied into the separate and evolving stories of the three principal subjects and their families, who are themselves, in turn, caught up in the battle over Boston’s segregation in the public schools. As in most Northern cities, Boston by the 1960’s had a well-defined black ghetto, which included a large majority of all the blacks living in the metropolitan area. Because most school-attendance districts were drawn along neighborhood lines, blacks attended all-black schools and whites attended all-white schools. Many liberals, and most blacks, believed that this de facto segregation in the schools inevitably led to unequal education, and they could point to the poor quality of the schools in Boston’s black ghetto for potent evidence. Increasingly, the courts came to agree with these views, and in the spring of 1974, a federal court in Boston ordered busing in the city to remedy the segregation.

The decision threw Boston into turmoil, perhaps because the city had particularly tightly knit neighborhoods with strong feelings of ethnic identity. In Irish Charlestown, Alice McGoff could not imagine her children transferring from the high school a few blocks away to a potentially dangerous school across the city; she and her friends quickly formed protest groups to fight the busing. The Divers, too, were disappointed by the busing order. They had moved into the heart of a mixed-income Boston neighborhood to demonstrate their commitment to improving the lot of Boston’s poor, had worked to make the local elementary school better, and now, even though the local school was one of the few integrated ones in the city, the abstract racial zoning of the busing plan made it likely that either their children or their children’s teachers would be transferred elsewhere. Rachel Twymon was concerned, too. She believed that her children would learn more in a “white” school, but would they be safe?

Lukas devotes more than half of his book to a portrayal of the Boston busing crisis and powerfully re-creates the tensions and paradoxes that surrounded the process. For the three families, busing was clearly a generally negative experience. As blacks arrived in Charlestown High School, they were greeted not only by racism but also by an anger so intense that education was almost paralyzed. Mothers held daily vigils around the school; white and black students mutually complained of unfair treatment; and occasional eruptions of violence closed the school altogether. Some of the best teachers, regarding their jobs as hopeless, left the teaching profession.

One can fairly ask whether the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of the busing experience in Common Ground is representative even of Boston. Lukas focuses almost entirely on busing in the ethnic enclave of Charlestown, which, along with South Boston, put up the most steadfast resistance to busing in the entire city. In many more heterogeneous areas, busing was a fairly smooth experience—or so one gathers. Lukas’ portrait would have been more well-rounded had he presented more of the spectrum.

Even in Charlestown, however, busing worked better in its second year, as an increasing number of whites realized that none of their tactics had altered the court orders. Interracial friendships began to appear, and calmness returned to the classrooms. It seems clear that busing can work, on certain levels, given enough time, but it is also clear that busing produces a steady flight of white students to suburban and parochial schools, thus undermining the integration it seeks to promote.

The really valuable contribution Common Ground makes to the public’s understanding of busing, however, is not as an analysis on its effects but rather as an in-depth consideration of how different urban constituencies reacted to it. Liberals tend to dismiss opponents of busing as racists; Lukas, though a liberal himself, goes out of his way to make the reader understand the deepest motivations of the most die-hard antibusing activists. Similarly, in chapters that consider the problem of urban crime, Lukas not only portrays the frustrations of the Divers, who find themselves living in almost constant fear from a rash of muggings and burglaries, but also tells the story of one of Rachel Twymon’s sons, who graduates from his street gang into a short career as a street thief.

It is hard to be cast as a bad person in this book. Lukas is a relentless environmentalist, showing how each person is shaped both by the people around him and by much larger social forces. The book is so rich in detail, the environment rendered so forcefully, that one is inclined to agree with the suggested patterns of causation and to empathize with nearly every person and every viewpoint.

Yet this leads to another problem—it is also hard to be an especially good person in this book. A reformist mayor finds that his openness and experimental approach toward social problems is attacked from both the Left and the Right, and he turns increasingly opportunistic. Colin Diver, for his part, finds that his efforts to institute reforms inevitably become mired in petty politics, and he turns to academia for refuge. An innovative bishop is appointed archbishop of Boston but runs head-on into a recalcitrant Irish church bureaucracy. It seems that doing good requires almost superhuman effort, and if those resisting change or causing social problems have a justifiable reason for being the way they are (because of their environment, for example), are the changes themselves good ones?

Thus, Common Ground, which was awarded in 1986, in the category of general nonfiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize, is a book with two very different sides. It is very life affirming, in that it celebrates the richness of the human experience and the value of diversity, helping one to understand a tremendous range of people. At the same time, it is also a profoundly pessimistic book. One is told that society—especially urban society—has great problems and that many of these problems are getting worse. The reader can see that the efforts to deal with those problems in the 1960’s and 1970’s were, at best, inefficient and, at worst, abysmal failures. There is obviously a need for a new generation of solutions, based on a better sense of what is possible and what will work. Lukas, however, does not hint at what those new solutions might be; he only provides a foundation of insight upon which to build.


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The Atlantic. CCLVI, September, 1985, p. 108.

Commonweal. CXII, November 1, 1985, p. 616.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, July 1, 1985, p. 630.

The Nation. CCXL, October 5, 1985, p. 316.

The New Republic. CXCIII, October 14, 1985, p. 29.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, September 15, 1985, p. 1.

Newsweek. CVI, September 23, 1985, p. 70.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, July 26, 1985, p. 160.

Time. CXXVI, September 23, 1985, p. 79.

The Washington Monthly. XVII, September, 1985, p. 50.