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.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Boston Area Activists Unite Across Neighborhoods To Protest War

Activist organizations from across Massachusetts have united under the umbrella March 24 Coalition to organize a demonstration against the war in Iraq this Saturday.

In addition to protesting the Iraq War, organizers intend to spread awareness on the war in Afghanistan and the possibly pending invasion of Iran.

Featuring prominent speakers such as nationally recognized anti-war activist and military mother Cindy Sheehan, best-selling author and Boston University Professor Emeritus Howard Zinn, as well as Eljeer Hawkins, Klare Allen, and Rostam Pourzalt, the demonstration also promises an eclectic mix of musical acts and a “peace and justice fair,” which organizers claim will provide children with entertainment as well as anti-war education through puppet shows, games, drum circles and literature.

The March 24 Coalition formed following a call to action by the Greater Boston Stop the Wars Coalition, and the March 24 demonstration has since been endorsed by over 40 activist groups, including United for Justice with Peace, Boston ANSWER, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and SEIU Local 1199. Organizers of all stripes and ages have signed up for the cause.

Stop the Wars co-founder and demonstration organizer John Harris of Chelsea intends to keep the momentum going.

Veteran activist and organizer Elisabeth Leonard of East Boston concurred. Having marched on the Pentagon during Vietnam, Leonard said she sees light at the end of the tunnel.

“I think more and more people are opposed to this war,” she said, “and it’s building. People I never would have thought would oppose it are doing 180 degree turns - my family, people I’ve known for years.”

Leonard expects an excellent turnout at the event.

“We’re hoping for 5,000,” she said, “and I think we can do it.”

How? The protest itself has changed, Leonard said.

“I’ve been with Stop the Wars and we’ve put on three or four of different demonstrations like this, and it was usually young people and lots of noisy bands,” she said. “There weren’t as many older people. This one is a lot more integrated.”

The integration comes from the difference in theme. Unlike the usually politicized speeches, followed by a march, this rally will include a plethora of events within itself, some of which Leonard insists will be “pure entertainment.”

Elaborating on how they intend to draw new faces into the process, Leonard said, “I think the fact that we’re having a good program and that we are having a peace and justice carnival kind of thing is going to be very exciting - including kids for the first time. I think that’s really exciting.”

And if the turnout isn’t what they hope for, Leonard and her colleagues insist that the very process of organizing is a victory for the cause. Throughout the entire meeting, everything was ultimately agreed upon by consensus.

“That all of us are working together is very good,” she said. “We haven’t even voted on anything.”

In addition to the protest, the Coalition has schedules a fundraise for on March 23 at the Central Congregational Church in Jamaica Plain, which will feature speeches by Cindy Sheehan, City Councilor Felix Arroyo, and 2006 Green-Rainbow Candidate for Governor Grace Ross.

The fundraiser starts at 8 p.m. and costs $10. The subsequent protest will take place on Boston Common the following day, March 24, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

This story was originally published in The Boston Bulletin on March 22, 2007.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Easton's "Anderson" Makes Splash in Boston Comedy

The city of Boston, at present, is not known for its comedy. Although at least a temporary home to comedic icons such as Denis Leary, Andy Kaufman, Dane Cook, and David Cross, the Hub’s roll in entertainment virtually begins and ends in the city blocks that Emerson College and its surrounding theaters occupy. But a few Easton natives and their friends are looking to change all that. They do video, they do live, and they’ll do any room that will have them. They are Anderson.

Founded in 2003 by Eastonians Rob Crean, Shakir Shibli, Rachel Berman, and Nick Lymberopoulos, along with Walpole native Jaffney Roode and Connecticut-born Adam Haut, the Anderson Comedy group has been making a splash in the greater Boston comedy scene for years now. And if any of them tell you anything different, “it’s because they’re wrong and have bad memories,” insists Shibli.

Although the first meeting occurred in a kitchen in Jamaica Plain, MA in 2003, members hailing from Easton have known and worked with each other for many years. Crean and Lymberopoulos, old school friends, have been making comedy shorts since 1997, when they filmed the never screened “Weeksville” short fresh out of Oliver Ames High School.

“It was free-form – mostly improv,” recollected Crean about their first project. “The basic idea was that it was a kid that was really privileged, but thought his life was really hard. It was a character we were really familiar with because, you know, we’re from Easton,” implying how common such a juvenile plight is in the community.

With comedy germinating in their hearts and in their futures, the troupe formally came together years later with the intention of making “honest” comedy. Says Shibli about Anderson’s motivation, “I would love to be huge but I don’t think that any of us as artists are concentrating more on fame than art. If you lose sight of the art and concentrate on things like getting huge, you have to water yourself down and cater to certain people. Something I will say about Anderson is that we are very honest with ourselves as artists. We do what we think is funny.”

The comedy troupe’s honesty has won them applause citywide, from an almost sold out performance at Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theater last year to a regular monthly show at the Middle East Corner in Cambridge, which is in its second month now. And how’d they get there? Hard work and ambition, it would seem. “We’ve played a lot of bad shows,” testified Crean, with Shibli’s approval. He recalled one show at a sports bar in the Fenway district that the headliner had cancelled, where they performed in front of about twelve people, and botched the performance pretty badly. “It was one of those shows,” he joked, “where very few people showed up, but you wished fewer had.” They recalled an equally bad experience at the Lucy Parsons Center, a radical bookstore in Boston’s South End, where some of their more offensive material made for an uncomfortable climate. “After our performance, we just stood there in the room and everyone avoided us,” recollected Crean. “It was awkward.”

But it is just that awkwardness that has also gained them ground. At their landmark Coolidge Corner performance, a skit featuring an anti-Semitic can of spray cheese almost caused a riot when an angry Jewish man caused a scene mid-show – standing up and yelling at the group about how unfunny he thought it was. His outburst prompted many from the packed theater to respond that if he didn’t like it, that he should just leave. Crean, holding Lymberopoulos away from the man, frantically searched for a solution, and offered to let the can of cheese defend itself. After a heartfelt speech riddled with the troupe’s trademark saying “y’follow” throughout, the man was ultimately appeased and led in the can’s standing ovation.

The joke? The man responsible for the outburst was a plant – and the father of half-Jewish member Rachel Berman. This Kaufman-worthy moment of turning the crowd on itself is just the sort of thing that the group aimed for.

With five out of six original members still in the group (Roode departed a few months ago), and the recent additions of Gretchen Gavett and Katie McCarthy, Anderson is still moving forward. They have produced, according to Crean, over four hours of video skits, and have performed comedy clubs, theaters, and rock venues, with stand-up groups, improv groups, and musical acts from across the spectrum. And though they don’t necessarily see Anderson as a career for themselves (Crean, when asked whether his parents foresaw his making a living in comedy as a child testified, “I don’t think that they foresee it now) it is hard to imagine them going anywhere but up.

Anderson performs monthly at the Middle East Corner, 480 Mass Ave, Cambridge, MA, on the last Tuesday of the month. More information about them, along with their DVD, is available at

This article was originally published in The Easton Buzz on March 2, 2007