Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Q&A with Daniel Dain




Daniel Dain is the author of the new book A History of Boston. He is a lawyer in Boston, and he lives in Needham, Massachusetts.


Q: What inspired you to write this history of Boston, and how did you conduct your research for the book?


A: I did not actually start out with a plan to write a book to be published. Initially, I just wanted to learn more about the history of my city.


Two things were going on in my head when I started my research in 2017. First, as a real estate development attorney, when my clients make decisions to build new buildings in the city, they are essentially making a bet that this period we are in where people want to live, work, play, shop, study, and visit Boston will continue into the future.


But I am old enough to remember that before Boston boomed going back to the 1990s, the city was a basket case. In 1950, the population of the city was over 800,000, but in the next three decades, the city lost close to 300,000 people. By the 1980s, the Brookings Institute was calling Boston the most blighted big city in America.


So I wanted to learn more about these urban cycles of boom and bust and try to understand what are those policies and practices that have correlated with city success and failure.


Second, as someone who loves to give people from out of town tours of Boston, I felt I needed to know the city's history better. So I approached this project as if I were a tourist wanting to learn about Boston's history.


I then spent the next four years reading every book I could find on Boston's history, visiting historic houses and museums, taking Boston tours, and taking notes on everything that I learned.


As I typed up my notes during this process, a book started to emerge such that at a certain point I thought it was actually pretty good and I should think about getting it published. 


Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about the city?


A: Well, the most complicated aspect of Boston's history has been in the field of race relations. Massachusetts was the first state to outlaw slavery, it was the home of the nation's first civil rights movement resulting in Boston becoming the first desegregated American city going all the way back to the 1840s, and it was the home of the abolition movement.


Boston was the home of civil rights pioneer William Monroe Trotter, and the first branch of the NAACP. And Martin Luther King met Coretta Scott in Boston.


Yet Boston was also the home of what was called reverse redlining that intentionally created the Black ghetto of Boston and of the trauma of school bussing in the 1970s. It is fascinating that all these things happened in the same city. 


Q: What do you think Peter Vanderwarker’s photography adds to the book?


A: Peter Vanderwarker is one of the best urban photographers in the country. His contemporary photographs make the book. They are magnificent. 


Q: Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung said of the book, “Dain offers up a compendium that spans both old and new Boston, reminding us how urban centers with staying power are hardly static. They rise and they fall, and whether they rise again depends on their ability to adapt to changing times.” What do you think of that assessment, and what do you see looking ahead for Boston?


A: Shirley may be the most influential journalist in Boston today and I am so flattered by her positive assessment of my book.


A History of Boston provides a general history of the city, from its geologic formation, through the arrival of first peoples and later the Puritans in 1630, through the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and the abolition movement, up to decline in the 20th century and flight from the city, and then a Renaissance in the last three decades, and covers everything from the history of Boston sports, music, and film, to the immigrant experience, and the rise and fall of different industries.


Yet Shirley's review captures what ties the book together. I focus on the importance to urban success of embracing principles of good urbanism, which I describe as the three Ds -- density, diversity, and good urban design. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My day job! I am the president and founder of a 27-lawyer boutique law firm in Boston representing commercial real estate owners and developers. So I have a full-time job as a lawyer and also run the business side of my law firm.


I also serve on seven different corporate and nonprofit boards, run a restaurant investment fund, and find time to make all my kids' sports events (I have two kids in high school).


Yet I have loved every minute of working on A History of Boston and have been enjoying promoting the book now that it is coming out on Sept. 19. I could talk for hours with people about Boston history. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: A book on the history of a single city, here Boston, might seem to be of narrow interest to people who live in or visit that city, but my book, as a study on what makes cities successful, should be of interest to anyone who cares about the present urban challenges facing American cities today, from housing affordability, to transportation troubles, to embracing DEI, and the risks cities face from climate change, pandemics, and remote work. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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