Wednesday, March 28, 2007

"Willfully Forgotten" - Historians, Rabblement Tar and Feather Revisionist History

In 1775, the Essex Gazette published this account of a fatal Tory assault on Boston’s Liberty Tree: “Armed with axes, they made a furious attack upon it. After a long spell of laughing and grinning, sweating, swearing, and foaming, with malice diabolical, they cut down a tree because it bore the name of Liberty.”

For years, the tree had served as a flashpoint for all manner of incendiary violence and insurrection, both before and during the Revolutionary War. The mildly terrorist Boston Tea Party was organized in a tavern that stood in its shadow. While the destruction of the infamous elm put an end to the tarring, feathering, effigy-burning ruffianage the Sons of Liberty perpetrated around its massive bole, it only inflamed Boston’s revolutionary fervor.

In 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette stood at the Liberty Tree site and said, "The world should never forget the spot where once stood Liberty Tree, so famous in your annals."

But despite de Lafayette’s injunction, all that now marks the site where the tree once stood is a plaque near a rundown Boylston Street sidewalk, alongside the China Trade Center and the nearby RMV.

A small mob of historians and museum employees wants to change that. Spearheaded by radical historian Alfred Young and the Bostonian Society, the coalition is pushing to revitalize the site of the historic Liberty Tree, and spice up the staid Freedom Trail with some violent egalitarianism.

Young argues that a long period of historical self-sanitizing led the tree, and the extremism it symbolized, to fall out of fashion. "The outdoor events of the American Revolution are too radical,” he says. As such, they were “willfully forgotten" just a few years after the revolution’s completion, as part of a "selective remembering that is tied to our political culture."

By the time of the Freedom Trail Foundation’s inception in 1958, the very premise of radicalism in the American Revolution—never mind in the shade of the Liberty Tree—went unspoken. King’s Chapel got love, and the smoldering effigies at the base of the Liberty Tree got the shaft.

Advocates seeking redress feel that they’re getting close. An invitation-only April 23 meeting between representatives from historic sites, universities and city officials will attempt to cement plans for a proposed Liberty Tree Park.

Still, it’s no surprise that many in Boston’s historical community are guarding their optimism—serious proposals for rehabbing the Liberty Tree site have been flying back and forth for over a decade now. Young recalls hearing about proposals for something commemorating the historic tree back in 1997; Ken Crasco, chief landscape architect for the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, saw an official proposal in 1999, and took part in community meetings to vet the park throughout 2000.

According to Crasco, movement toward establishing Liberty Tree Park came to a halt for a number of reasons—predominantly financial. “The project is now estimated to cost around $800,000,” he says. Only about half a million dollars is currently in the Parks Department’s hands.

Crasco says the remaining funding for the park, as well as “stewardship and maintenance of the park after it’s built,” will be coming from Kensington Place, a new condo development on the opposite side of the China Trade Center. The Boston Redevelopment Authority has yet to sign off on the Kensington money.

Despite the lengthy process, Crasco is confident that the park will get built. “It will happen. I’ve seen the agreements,” he insists. “Like anything downtown, there are a lot of parties involved.” In addition to the BRA, Boston Parks and Recreation, and a slew of historians and historical organizations, the project must also go through Boston Public Works.

The more pressing issue seems to be whether the park, once completed, would be accepted as a Freedom Trail site. Young sees the Liberty Tree’s radical history as a possible deterrent for recognition on the famous trail, but he insists that it must be included. “If you want to recover the popular revolution in Boston that ordinary people were involved in,” he says, “you need to take care of these outdoor sites.”

Brian LeMay, executive director of the Bostonian Society, captures the challenge more succinctly: “The politics of the Freedom Trail—as I understand them—are complicated.”

In its 49-year history, the Freedom Trail has never added a new site. But according to Mimi LaCamera, president of the Freedom Trail Foundation, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. “The decision [to add a site on the trail] is made by the Freedom Trail Commission, which the Foundation does have a seat on,” she says. The commission has half a dozen other members, including the commissioner of the Public Works Department. LaCamera does maintain that the story needs to be told. “We are fully in support of this project,” she says.

This story originally published in The Weekly Dig on March 28, 2007.

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