As a wife, mother, and local business owner, I know it is crucially important for me to understand how local rules, regulations and legislation will potentially affect me, my family and my business. If a political leader proposes zoning changes, environmental efforts, or tax hikes, I need to understand why the action is needed and who it will benefit.
As a Massachusetts native of Italian decent, I have learned through family stories and local legend that those who don’t pay attention to local politics can suffer devastating consequences. Think of the destruction of the ethnic neighborhoods of the West End of Boston in the 1950s. Think of the Great Molasses Flood in the early 20th century. Those are both great illustrations of what happens when people lack political influence and representation.
Let’s focus on the Molasses Flood, because that story is less well known. In January of 1919, in the North End of Boston, a tank holding more than two million gallons of molasses burst unleashing a 40 foot wave of thick, sticky, smothering goo that smashed buildings, trains, and trestles and killed 21 people. Scores more were wounded.
The tank was the property of the U.S. Industrial Alcohol Company. In his book, Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, Steven Puleo writes that after a six-year investigation, it was determined that basic safety tests, such as filling the tank with water to check for leaks, had been neglected. In fact, the tank leaked so badly, it had been painted brown to hide the goo streaming from the seams. Local residents collected leaked molasses for home consumption.
The North End in the early 20th century rivaled Calcutta, India in terms of population density, and was home to thousands of immigrants, mostly Italian, who were not involved in the politics of Boston and the North End. According to an article by Daily Kos contributor “dsteffen,” “most were not naturalized citizens and, therefore, politically impotent and unable to force much of a challenge against the construction of the tank.”
At the time of the collapse, in fact, many people assumed the tank had been brought down by Italian anarchists. What is documented is the lack of concern the tank owners showed toward the safety of the residents living in the shadow of the tank.
It is hard to imagine the scope of the owners’ indifference and negligence. Out of the Molasses Flood came new engineering safety standards, permitting processes and a new shift of priorities for the North End residents. The community, which had not involved itself in local politics, saw that its isolation tendencies had led to a lack of influence that had profound consequences. Boston’s Italian community began to pursue citizenship and political influence.
Nearly 100 years later, we can still learn the lesson of sitting idly by while others make decisions that affect us and our communities. Our legislators make decisions that, without our input, can impact our families, our neighbors and our businesses. Residents and business owners need to speak up and speak out in favor of policies and regulations when we need them for safety and protection and against them when they are intrusive. Only in this way will we achieve full representation.