Monday, June 4, 2007

Dorchester Days: A Tradition of Change

If Boston has an official rite of neighborhood change, it's Dorchester Day. The first celebrations, in the early 1900's, took place when Dorchester was experiencing rapid growth. That growth meant the loss of open space to housing, increasing numbers of immigrants, not to mention more bars on Dorchester Avenue (a matter of concern to temperance activists). On the day of the parade, people showed neighborhood pride with displays of red, white and blue, but Mayor John F. Fitzgerald, a son of immigrants who lived near Codman Square, displayed the Irish tricolor. For decades, public speakers at these celebrations would pay respects to Dorchester's first European settlers, sometimes even dressing up and re-enacting their arrival. But over years of retelling, the tale of settlement goes adrift, seemingly from one time and group of arrivals to another. Maybe in this way, attachment to history makes a changing neighborhood feel more at home.

In the 21st century, immigrants are still coming to Dorchester, and maybe also still moving on. In general, the bars on Dorchester Avenue are noticeably less seedy. They’re also less cloistered, and patrons at the Blarney Stone--with utmost civility and enthusiasm-- could reach out to Dorchester Avenue and almost touch the parade. As these processions go, there could be better pacing, and maybe more precision displays by marching bands. But it’s hard to compete with the display of diversity, from Irish step dancers to the Cape Verdean youth group from St. Peter’s, the Vietnamese lion dancers, Estrellas Tropicales, and Caribbean contingents in masquerade.

As with carnival, there is an element of dressing up and playing a part—“playing mas.” Cultural and ethnic traditions are dramatized, even celebrated, but there are also closeness and intermingling. And some of the suiting up refers to life in the neighborhood, especially for the local color guards and the highly competitive Pop Warner football team. If the pageantry is too utopian to be true, it’s also a bit unusual. Instead of hearkening back to historical grandeur, there’s almost a nostalgia for the future. And there’s a striking correspondence between the variety of people who pass by a given point and what they see looking back as they go down the avenue.

Parade highlights on multimedia.