Boston Rambles

Boston Rambles

A Rambler Walks and Talks About the Hub of the Universe

West Roxbury: The Arc of the Moral Universe (WTPR#11)

Walking the Post Road.

“ I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

Theodore Parker, Justice and Conscience, 1853

This is another of the entries from my previous project, Walking the Post Road, which I have transferred over to this project for two reasons. The first reason is that it is relevant to this project in that it is a ‘ramble’ about Boston. The second reason is that the previous project was done on Apple’s iweb, which is no longer supported by Apple and, consequently, the website is slowly decaying. I will eventually revisit that project and bring the entire site up to date. In the meantime readers are welcome to comment upon this entry as part of the current project. It has been updated and edited slightly from the original version which was published on June 7, 2010, as entry #11, Mile 8.

   As Centre Street sweeps in a grand arc towards the Theodore Parker Church, I am reminded of the famous quotation by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. about the “arc of the moral universe” bending toward justice. This line was actually a restatement of a similar quotation (see above) by the man whose statue sits in front of the church named for him. The arc I am speaking of starts roughly at the site of the precursor to the current church, which served as the Second Church of Roxbury, then as the First Church of West Roxbury, Unitarian, until it burned down in 1890. From 1837 until 1846 Theodore Parker was the minister of this congregation, and a special congregation it was, for it included among its members the participants in a unique experiment in utopian communal living, Brook Farm. Among the people involved in Brook Farm were Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote a famous novel based on his time at Brook Farm, The Blithedale Romance (1852).

        George Ripley, one of the key figures in the formation of Brook Farm in 1841 had recently resigned as minister of the Purchase Street Unitarian Church in Boston as a result of continuing controversy over his views.1 Ripley, influenced by the English Romantics, as well as Hegel and Kant, preached that religious belief did not require belief in the miracles of Christ but rather should be based on intuition and on a personal relationship with God. Ripley believed that faith that required a belief in the reality of miracles was materialistic and that a closer interaction with nature and working towards the greater good manifested a closer approximation of true faith. Brook Farm was a conscious effort to put these ideas into practice. The experiment was short-lived and was plagued by many problems especially shortages of funds, but the community was widely praised for attempting to create a new form of social interaction less dependent on the pursuit of material gain, and many visited and commented on it.

      Theodore Parker was a perfect match for the ideology of Brook Farm and indeed himself was one of the great Transcendental thinkers of mid-nineteenth-century America. Just as Brook Farm was forming “Parker stepped into the fierce light of controversy in the same year that Ripley resigned from the ministry.”2 In a widely publicized sermon Parker insisted that Christianity did not depend upon the actual existence of Christ at all. Parker encouraged his flock to practice their faith in the present, that is to work towards a more perfect society by maintaining high moral standards and righting the injustices in the world by good works in the present rather than wait for miracles or for a Judgment Day. Parker’s involvement in the antislavery movement was a demonstrable example of his philosophy and attracted many to his “Transcendental” version of Unitarianism. Traditional Unitarians were scandalized, but the events of subsequent years did much to convince many that Parker’s course was preferable, and his ideas eventually came to be considered fundamental tenets of Unitarianism.3

*****

Statue of Theodore Parker in front of the Theodore Parker Church, West Roxbury.

Some of the participants left Brook Farm disenchanted with the experience. Nathaniel Hawthorne walked the very road I have walked in April 1841 on his way to Brook Farm. After only eight months he departed under unhappy circumstances, moving to the Old Manse in Concord with his bride Sophia Peabody and on to greater fame as the author of The Scarlet Letter, Mosses from an Old Manse, and The House of the Seven Gables. In 1852 The Blithedale Romance was published, and many of the characters were understood by the public to be caricatures of many of the participants of Brook Farm, including George Ripley and the most important female contributor to the Transcendental club, Margaret Fuller.

        Henry David Thoreau preferred his utopian community of one at Walden, although he agreed in principle with the concept of Brook Farm, and Ralph Waldo Emerson was a visitor and correspondent with the group, although he too decided against joining the community. Parker himself was not entirely convinced that Brook Farm could work, and by 1846 he had moved on to a bigger stage (The Music Hall in Boston) where his congregation was much larger, and he stirred up more controversy that eventually caused a breach in the Unitarian Church which was only slowly repaired by the gradual acceptance of the Transcendental ideas of Ripley, Emerson, Parker and others of the movement. The lasting legacy of the Transcendental movement is readily apparent in the philosophy of many of the participants in the Civil Rights movements as well as the heightened awareness of the human connection to the environment that lead to the rise of the environmental movement. I think of this walk as a manifestation of the Transcendental philosophy.

          In 1962 the Unitarian Church in West Roxbury was renamed the Theodore Parker Church in honor of the man who had previously been vilified by the leadership of the Unitarian community for his sermons and essays while a minister of this congregation. The “arc of justice” is a long one, and it bends right back around from Dr. King to Reverend Parker.


*****

  Centre Street continues in an arc and is the main commercial center of West Roxbury. Once a remote and quiet farming community, West Roxbury is today firmly in the city of Boston. Ironically in 1846, the year after the main building at Brook Farm burned and the group disbanded its efforts to create a utopian self-sufficient agrarian community in tune with the natural surroundings, West Roxbury began its long march towards its present role as an urban neighborhood. In 1847 the railroad arrived in West Roxbury, and by the 1850s “the realities of industrialization were already replacing the Jeffersonian ideals of the yeoman farmer.”4 Just as real estate began to fill the farmland of Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, families with more modest income began to arrive in West Roxbury to buy houses in the new developments that were replacing the farms. Many of the newcomers were children of immigrants and many desired a more permanent link with the city of Boston in which they were raised and often worked, which resulted in the annexation of West Roxbury to Boston in 1873.

        West Roxbury today is probably best known as the home of many of the city’s politicians and civil servants, especially those of Irish heritage, a group that has played a powerful role in Boston politics for over a century. Indeed the two Catholic churches one encounters in West Roxbury while walking the old road to Dedham, Holy Name and St. Theresa of Avila, are very large and well appointed, dwarfing any other religious edifice in West Roxbury and approaching Holy Cross Cathedral in splendor. West Roxbury routinely has the highest voter turnout at election time, especially for local elections, a testament to the importance of city government to the lives of the residents of the community. Ward 20, which is most of West Roxbury and some of Roslindale has a population of 38,108 according to the 2000 Census, 6.5% of the total population of Boston. In the most recent election, in January of this year to fill the Senate seat of the recently deceased Ted Kennedy (results here), Ward 20 made up 10.5% of the total electorate of Boston. In other words, they vote at almost twice the rate of their fellow Bostonians.

Saint Theresa of Avila, the second of two imposing Catholic churches along Center Street in West Roxbury.

         The voters of West Roxbury are somewhat more conservative than the typical Boston voter. For example, in the aforementioned electoral contest between the Democratic candidate Martha Coakley and the Republican Scott Brown, Ward 20 gave Brown 45% of their votes compared to 30% of the city as a whole, which translates into Brown receiving one of every six of his votes in Boston from a resident of West Roxbury, who constitute only one of every fifteen Boston Residents. John McCain received 35% of the votes of West Roxbury compared to 19% for the city as a whole, again demonstrating the more conservative bent of the neighborhood. However, the dramatic increase in support for Brown compared to McCain in West Roxbury illustrates the manner in which Scott Brown achieved his victory, not by winning outright but by chipping away at the Democratic domination in places like West Roxbury while capitalizing on his popularity in the suburbs, a lesson both Republicans and Democrats in Massachusetts should study with care.

How does the above description of West Roxbury hold up nine years later? In the 2010 census Ward 20 made up 6.3% of the total population of Boston, a slight decline from 2000. In the 2016 election voters in Ward 20 made up 8.1% of the total ballots cast, while in the most recent gubernatorial election in 2018, Ward 20 voters comprised 8.7% of the ballots cast. Thus, although the voters of West Roxbury still outvote their neighbors, the discrepancy is not as large as a few years previously.

As for their political leaning, the neighborhood remains more conservative than most of the city, but less so than at the time this entry was first published. For example, whereas John McCain received 7049 votes in Ward 20 in the 2008 presidential election, Donald Trump received 5805 votes in the 2016 presidential election, a decline of 1244 votes. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, received 15002 votes in Ward 20 compared to 12787 votes for Barack Obama in 2008. Turnout was up from 20,389 ballots cast in 2008 to 22,444 ballots cast in 2016. Trump received 26% of the vote in Ward 20 compared to McCain’s 35% in 2008.

Looking at the results at the level of precincts (there are 20 precincts in Ward 20), in 2008 McCain received more than 40% of the vote in 5 precincts, while Trump failed to capture more than 35% of the vote in any precinct. In other words, Trump got a lower percentage of the vote in every precinct than McCain got in the entire Ward in 2008.

A look at the fate of Scott Brown, the winning candidate in the 2010 special election for Senate, also tells us a lot about the difference between the voters in ‘off year’ or ‘special’ elections and the turnout in ‘presidential’ election years. Brown won 45% of the Ward 20 vote in 2010, winning an outright majority in 6 of the 20 precincts. However, in 2012, as the incumbent Senator, Brown managed only 41.5% and won a majority in only 2 of the 20 precincts; unsurprisingly, he lost his Senate seat to Elizabeth Warren. Brown’s vote total in Ward 20 increased by 1500 votes between 2010 and 2012 but the Democratic candidate’s share increased from 8670 votes (Coakley in 2010) to 12456 in 2012. Higher turnout usually means more liberal voting patterns in Boston as I have shown in previous entries.

*****

  Walking along Centre Street in West Roxbury I pass seventeen restaurants in a span of less than one mile, including two or three that are run by Lebanese or Syrians. Lost in the discussion of the Irish heritage in West Roxbury is the fact that another strong cultural influence here is that of the Arab-American, mostly Orthodox, community. A short distance away from Centre Street on Spring Street is Bay Sweets, a store specializing in Middle Eastern groceries and baked goods, one of my favorites. I step into The King Falafel on Centre Street for a lamb shwarma sandwich with tahini sauce (Now gone, although the restaurant scene in West Roxbury has definitely improved in the intervening years and includes not one but two Thai restaurants as well as various newer and more modern pubs, such as the decent ‘gastropub’ the Porter Cafe). Reenergized I continue along Centre Street. As I pass through the heart of the commercial district I arrive at the Westerly Burying Ground, established in 1683 for the “brethren at Jamaco.”5  The gravestones date back to the late seventeenth century, and once again a quiet gem in the middle of the bustle of the city provides a tranquil respite from the ceaseless traffic that seems to accompany me as I make my way out of the city.

Hand in Hand Cemetery with wrought iron entrance sign

        Just past St. Theresa’s Church the road splits, with Centre Street veering left away from the commercial area, which continues down Spring Street. This part of Centre Street is very residential and was undeveloped into the twentieth century. On maps of West Roxbury the area is often referred to as Germantown, and indeed I pass a senior citizen residential complex called the Deutsches Altenheim. At another fork in the road adjacent to the surprisingly large quarry of a sand and gravel company, Centre Street veers right and becomes even more suburban and even rural for a short time. Tree swallows flit by overhead as I walk, and after a few minutes I come to a cemetery with a beautiful wrought iron entrance sign called the Hand in Hand Cemetery (2019 update: sadly the beautiful gate seems to have rusted away and lies on the ground adjacent to the building in the photo). Another cemetery, the Anshe Dowig Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery, is just beyond this one, and I pass a small granite marker in the wall with a B on one side and a D on the other. I have left Boston and entered the town of Dedham. Ten miles from the starting point I have now left the city in which I live and can officially say I am now “on the road.”

Footnotes

  1. Sidney Ahlstrom. A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 606.
  2. Ibid., 606 and 597-614 passim.
  3. https://www.tparkerchurch.org/about/our-stories/
  4. West Roxbury, Boston 200 Neighborhood Series, 1976, page 6.
  5. Samuel Drake, The Town of Roxbury, 1908, 448.

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