One of our favorite books of 2020 is the People’s Guide to Greater Boston, a tour guide that goes beyond the usual listing of tourist attractions.
The authors — Joseph Nevins, Suren Moodliar and Eleni Macrakis — take readers to sites of “oppression, resistance, organization or transformation.” Stops include the homes of wealthy opium smugglers, slaveowners, mill owners and imperialists.
Published by University of California Press People’s Guides series, it also presents themed tours, such as a One Percent Tour of Greater Boston, a Malcolm and Martin Tour and a Sacco and Vanzetti Tour.
The One Percent Tour, for example, features the home of the Immigration Restriction League in Boston, the home of 18th-century millionaire Elias Hasket Derby in Salem and Elmwood, where British lieutenant governor Thomas Oliver lived in Cambridge.
To give you an idea of the places to which the book takes the reader, we bring you six stops from the People’s Guide to Greater Boston.
1. Noah Worcester House, Brighton
The U.S. Postal Department erected a small monument between 437 and 439 Washington St. in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston. It looks like a headstone, but it marks the home of Noah Worcester, Brighton’s first postmaster.
Worcester was more than a postmaster, however. He worked as a writer, a minister and a pioneer in the American peace movement.
Born in Hollis, N.H., in 1758, he marched to Boston with his father’s militia company at 16. He narrowly escaped imprisonment during the Battle of Bunker Hill. He later fought in the Battle of Bennington. The carnage he saw on the battlefield helped persuade him to give peace a chance.
Worcester married, had children and entered the Unitarian ministry in New Hampshire. He published arguments defending the Unitarian creed, which brought him to the attention of prominent clergymen William Ellery Channing and John Lowell. They invited him to come to Boston to edit a new publication, The Christian Disciple. He accepted, and then he started the Massachusetts Peace Society.
In 1814, he wrote a treatise, A Solemn Review of the Custom of War, considered a classic of antiwar writing. He also received an appointment as Brighton’s postmaster, but his daughter Sally apparently did all the work.
Channing, in a tribute to him, wrote,
He was struck, as no other man within my acquaintance has been, with the monstrous incongruity between the spirit of Christianity and the spirit of Christian communities; between Christ’s teaching of peace, mercy, forgiveness, and the wars which divide and desolate the church and the world.
437-439 Washington St., Brighton
2. Parmenter Street Chapel, North End, Boston
The Parmenter Street Chapel used to be across from the North End branch of the Boston Public Library. In its courtyard was a sand garden. Not just any sand garden (we’d call it a sand box) but the sand garden that launched a thousand playgrounds across the country.
It began with a doctor who saw children playing in sand gardens in Berlin’s public parks. She brought the idea back in 1885 to the Massachusetts Emergency and Hygiene Association, a reformist group of upper-class women. Poor immigrants had flooded into Boston, and the ladies didn’t think the children had enough open space for play. They believed structured, supervised play in and around sand gardens would teach working-class, immigrant children morality and manners. It would also improve health and hygiene and turn the children into good U.S. citizens.
Neighborhood mothers supervised the children at first, but then MEHA hired “matrons” to take over. Within five years they supervised 21 sand gardens in Boston, augmenting the sandbox play by leading singing and dancing. Ten years after the first pile of sand was dumped on Parmenter Street, 39 cities had at least one playground.
The Parmenter Street Chapel is gone, replaced by a large brick building that houses a theater and apartments.
20 Parmenter Street, North End
3. United Fruit Co. Headquarters, Boston
You know it as Chiquita Brands International, now in North Carolina, but it started out on Long Wharf as the Boston Fruit Company in 1870. In 1899, the company merged with its rival, the Tropical Trading and Transport Company. They named themselves the United Fruit Company. From about 1900 to 1903, the multinational also known as ‘the Octopus’ had its headquarters at 60 State St. A plaque marks the site, now a skyscraper.
Within a decade of the merger, United Fruit grew into a banana empire, the largest agricultural enterprise in the world. At its height in the mid-1950s it had 100,000 employees, a fleet of merchant ships and 1,500 miles of railroad in Latin America. It also had few scruples.
In 1954, United Fruit worked with the Central Intelligence Agency to overthrow the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. Arbenz had had the temerity to redistribute land to the people of Guatemala. United Fruit owned 70 percent of Guatemala’s private land in 1942, according to the People’s Guide. Arbenz’ overthrow led to three decades of military dictatorship and war in which U.S.-backed forces killed 200,000 Guatemalans.
Another legacy of the United Fruit Company: the many Afro-Caribbean immigrants who came to Boston on United Fruit ships.
The company then moved to 131 State Street in 1903, then to 1 Federal Street and finally to 80 Federal Street.
60 State Street, Boston
4. Walter E. Fernald State School, Waltham
Samuel Gridley Howe, Julia Ward’s husband, founded the school in Boston in 1848 to care for people with developmental disabilities. Political correctness hadn’t entered the lexicon yet, so Howe called it the Experimental School for Teaching and Training Idiotic Children.
The school moved to Waltham in 1887 under the leadership of Walter E. Fernald, a proponent of eugenics. Later it took his name. The school began to conduct scientific experiments, and to take children who had no developmental disabilities. They just came from poor families.
In 1946, the school started The Science Club, run by scientists from MIT. They enticed boys to join the club with promises of trips to the beach, Red Sox games and gifts. The boys ate a special diet that included cereal with milk. They didn’t know, nor did their parents, that the scientists had laced their food with radioactive tracers.
Quaker Oats Co. sponsored the experiment on the boys – without their parents’ knowledge or permission. The National Institutes of Health and the Atomic Energy Commission also paid for the project.
In 1993, former Fernald students sued Quaker Oats and MIT. They settled out of court for $1.85 million in 1998. The Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments reported the studies were morally troubling though the doses involved were low and the children probably weren’t harmed. It also questioned the fairness of selecting institutionalized children.
The Fernald School closed in 2014.
200 Trapelo Rd., Waltham
5. Wamesit, Lowell
Middlesex Community College sits at the place where the Merrimack and Concord rivers meet. The land, once called Wamesit, belonged to a village of praying Indians from the Pennacook tribe. The Pennacook came to Wamesit to gather and to trade before English missionaries converted them to Christianity in the 1640s.
Passaconaway, the Pennacook leader, may have agreed to let missionaries establish the praying village as a way to curtail land grabs by the English. It didn’t work, of course. During King Philip’s War, neighbors murdered several of the Indians despite their peaceful and friendly attitudes toward the English. Wamesit disappeared after the war, its people either killed, captured or fled.
33 Walkway, Middlesex Community College, Lowell
6. Maypole Hill Park, Quincy
A marker on Maypole Hill memorializes Thomas Morton, an English colonist who infuriated the Puritans who lived nearby at Plimoth Plantation. Morton, a lawyer, established a trading post and settlement he called Merrymount and invited his friends, including Native Americans, to party there. Morton had no problem with same sex relationships, which also angered the Puritans.
On May 1, 1627, Morton and his pals put up an 80-foot maypole, which the Puritans viewed as pagan. When he did it again a year later, they marched over, chopped it down and sent Morton back to England.
He returned, and they arrested him again, seized his property and deported him a second time to England.
Morton returned again 10 years later. The Puritans imprisoned him again, and he died in 1647.
A marker indicates where Morton’s Maypole once stood, and the seal of the City of Quincy marks the site of his trading post.
90 Samoset Ave., Quincy
End Notes to the People’s Guide
Images: Middlesex Community College, By Emw – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16292989; 60 State St. By Frankg – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2542027. Derby House By Daderot at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18002977.
This story last updated in 2022.