Boston's continuing search for `common ground'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AFTER years of research, of wading through reams of notebooks and piles of taped interviews, J. Anthony Lukas finally arrived at ``Common Ground,'' his new book on the school desegregation era in Boston. But the lead character of the book -- the city of Boston -- is still searching for the metaphor in that title, scrambling up the steep slope from a no man's land of racial strife.

The book has taken the city by storm, selling faster than baked beans on a cold winter day. The 659-page epic details the attitudes, hopes, and failures that led up to the school desegregation case, and, through the eyes of three local families, it chronicles the limited successes and unexpected shortcomings of busing.

On a recent Indian-summer day, author Lukas, a journalist by training and a tall, commanding figure who confesses he ``became obsessed'' with this project, maintained in an interview that his work is not much different from the writing of other journalists. Critics, though, have rated the book outstanding.

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Since its publication a few weeks ago, ``Common Ground'' has been called the ``best book on an American city ever published'' and ``an American classic -- a book that will find a place not merely in the shelves where our national history is recorded but also in those where our literature is kept.''

Nonetheless, after his 71/2 years of investigation, Mr. Lukas provides no ``sweeping answers,'' as he puts it, to problems that confront Boston and other American cities involved in school desegregation. His quest was to understand what happened and why. It started in the Irish neighborhood of Charlestown, where anti-busing sentiment was virulent. ``If people beat up little black children, or stoned buses, I don't want to excuse that,'' he says. ``I don't condone that. But I try to understand it. Ther e's a difference.''

Speaking before a local gathering recently, he said, ``When people ask me whether my research has carried me from left to right or right to left, I say, neither. I have moved from the party of simplicity to the party of complexity. I have plenty of questions, very few answers.''

Nonetheless, Lukas says he has come to understand that, although media attention during the busing crisis focused on racial tension, ``class struggle'' is just as important. ``Americans don't like to talk about . . . class conflict, because it sounds so Marxist,'' he told the Monitor, hastening to add that he is ``not a Marxist.'' But because so much of Boston comprises working-class neighborhoods -- and because ``the privileged, the powerful, and the wealthy'' live outside the city -- ``the burden of i ntegration'' has fallen upon the poor.

This issue was a key source of the rage that swept through white neighborhoods like South Boston and Charlestown in the mid-1970s, Lukas says. ``One of the things that drove [people] to do what they did in opposing busing was their knowledge that they were being asked to do something that people a few miles away in the suburbs were not being asked to do. They were being ordered to do it . . . . by a federal judge who himself was Irish, who lived in [suburban] Wellesley, and to whose own children and nei ghbors none of this applied.''

Although Lukas is critical of the way the federal desegregation order was applied, he says the judge had no choice but to require busing. ``That it did not turn out perfectly is not [Judge W.] Arthur Garrity's fault, and it certainly is not to be used as an attack on school desegregation. However, I do think we have to be realistic as to what we've achieved,'' he says. ``It may be constitutional justice, but I don't think it's social justice.''

Lukas also notes, ``We're a society infatuated with solving things in the law courts. It may be that isn't always [as] productive as it might be. . . . For one thing, the law can't deal with the class question. There is no 14th Amendment for the poor.''

From the start, Lukas had high hopes for the new book. His first three were ``outgrowths'' of work he had done for the New York Times. ``They were nicely received; they sold moderately well. But I wasn't overly happy with them,'' he says. ``They were clearly books which were just sort of afterthoughts.'' By contrast, ``Common Ground'' was conceived as a book, and it represents his determination ``to go for broke, to do the biggest and best book of which I am capable.''

Although the book was researched with the diligence of a top-notch reporter, it is concerned not only with events but also with the thought processes that impelled them. It's not a novel, but it's not conventional nonfiction, either. Lukas compares his book to C. D. Bryan's ``Friendly Fire.''

For Boston, the book couldn't have been more timely. Judge Garrity, who ordered and started carrying out desegregation in 1974, finally closed the case in September. Laval S. Wilson, Boston's new school superintendent and himself a black, is pushing for quality in the system. In addition, Boston has been hearing a new cadence from City Hall, where for the past two years Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, who succeeded 16-year veteran Kevin White, has pounded out his theme that ``this city is coming together.'' Lu kas, too, has said that Boston today is more united than at any time in the past 10 years.

But the search for a complete healing of the polarization has proved elusive in this turf-conscious city. Though the frequency of racial incidents in the headlines has lessened since the mid-'70s, it's clear that common ground has not yet been found in Charlestown, where two local men were arrested recently for throwing rocks at a van in which a black youth was riding, injuring the driver. Nor in ``Southie'' or Dorchester, where some school bus drivers turn off their buses' interior lights when transpor ting black children through neighborhood streets, to protect the youngsters from any hurtled rocks. Nor in Roxbury, a mostly black neighborhood where many whites fear to drive, much less walk.

Lukas had hoped to bring together the book's three families -- the McGoffs, Irish Roman Catholics from Charlestown; the Twymons, a black family living in the South End; and the Divers, Yankee idealists who moved from a suburb into the city and eventually back out again. The occasion Lukas had hoped might unite these families was a recent ``town meeting'' in neutral territory at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. When the McGoff family and fellow anti-busing representatives failed to attend, commo n ground again appeared to slip from under foot.

But one participant at the meeting, history Prof. Thomas N. Brown of the University of Massachusetts in Boston, was looking elsewhere for common ground. ``What I'm suggesting is that Tony's book is itself common ground,'' he said. ``It is a book immensely rich in its character. It approximates life itself. . . , a deeply, deeply loving book that can move one, repeatedly, to tears as one proceeds through it. Now there, I think -- there, `Common Ground' provides us, in fact, with common ground.''

It's a sentiment echoed by Joan Diver, one of the ``characters'' in ``Common Ground.'' The book ``gives us an understanding,'' she says, by enabling readers to ``look into the heads of the different families. She adds, ``If we read it, and if we read about the experiences from these different points of view with understanding and openness, then, perhaps, we will be able to arrive at that higher ground which is the common ground that Tony has drawn out for us.''

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