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Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Meet: Robert Allison, Boston Historian

Meet Robert Allison: Boston Historian and President of the South Boston Historical Society

At On the Dot®, we love when people are as obsessed with South Boston as we are. We were thrilled when historian and Southie extraordinaire, Robert Allison, agreed to sit down for a Q&A with us! Robert (Bob) Allison has been a Professor of History at Suffolk University for 30 years teaching U.S. History - American Life and Culture Since the Civil War - among other courses. He is also chair of the department, a published author, and President of the South Boston Historical Society.

We took some time to pick Bob’s brain about his knowledge of South Boston and the deep-rooted history that makes it so great. Read our Q&A Below!

Good afternoon, Bob Allison. Thanks for sitting down with us so we can find out more about the man who has taught us so much history.

So, where were you born?

I was born in East Orange, New Jersey.

And where do you live now?

I live in East Boston, actually. We lived in South Boston for about 30 years and moved to East Boston in 2020. I lived in East Boston when I first moved to the city back in 1984. And my wife and I, she's from Quincy, we got married and lived in East Boston for about seven years and then moved to South Boston. And we were happily there for about 30 years. And then, you know, our kids grew up and moved out. And our mother in law had been with us and she passed away. So we decided to downsize and found a place. It was with mixed feelings that we left South Boston.

My sense is that your historical interest in Boston is Boston-wide but focused mostly, more than on other neighborhoods, on South Boston. Is that correct?

That is correct.

Maybe you're getting more interested in East Boston?

Well, I'm interested in the whole city. I also am President of the South Boston Historical Society, of course, looking for other people interested in South Boston. And I do think the president of the society should be somebody from the neighborhood, as opposed to just being someone who is interested in the neighborhood. We do have a lot of friends in South Boston.

How long have you been President?

About 12 years, I think.

Does that have a lot of members?

It has about 200. And because of the pandemic, we haven't been able to have our regular meetings, which we used to do, but we still do have a lot of members and participate in the Evacuation Day events.

So probably my most important question here is what first got you interested in history?

That's a good question. And I can't remember a time when I wasn't interested in history. And I suspect it's because I liked stories about people. And history is filled with stories about people. And I also remember, I'll give my mother some credit, she wasn't interested in history at all. And in fact, she kind of took it personally that I became interested in history because she apparently had a bad experience with it in high school or in college. But when I was a kid she took me to Morristown, New Jersey, and George Washington's headquarters. And it was just fascinating seeing this place, and it was nearby to where we lived. And near all of these things that had happened. I remember looking at a window at one point. And there was someone wearing a Continental Army uniform in there. And everyone who was outside just kind of gasped, and it probably was part of the show. But it was just that moment. And I think I've been kind of tracking that elusive figure now for many years. But it was just hearing stories about things that people had done. And so that's, I suppose, what happened.

And then I've been fortunate to come to a place like South Boston, where history is an important part of the community, not only the history of the 20th century, where a lot of things happened, but also, you know, the neighborhood that really keeps alive Henry Knox and the cannons and Castle Island. I mean, how many neighborhoods have so many important historical sites in them -- Castle Island, Dorchester Heights, St. Augustine’s Chapel?  Plus, you know, the various groups like not only the Historical Society but the Citizens Association and the various other organizations that really work to commemorate history.

Yes, indeed.

And you can even see this with Core Investments, developing Washington Village. This is an important piece of it. And so that is really I think the thing that makes it makes it a special place, because sometimes you feel it, seeing all the kids who take part in the Poster and Essay Contest every year. And we've done a History Day up at Dorchester Heights, where we bring reenactors and kids from the schools just walk around talking to these various characters. And just imagine, you know, in 40 years, 50 years, hopefully they will continue doing this and realizing that history isn't just something that happened in Washington, or along the Freedom Trail, but it is something that is part of their lives.

Have you been surprised that since the last part of the 20th century Boston has been so economically robust and a place that people want to live and work, especially after those periods of postwar decline? And this is not really a history question, but it's about Boston and its popularity and how Boston has thrived.

Absolutely. That is really an astonishing thing. As you know, in the 1950s, Boston was practically in receivership. And on the other end, Detroit was one of the wealthiest cities in the world. And that is really the great mystery, and what happened to turn Boston around. And I think it is well worth studying and thinking about. Because who would have predicted it? Even when I moved here in the 1980s, who would have predicted this, and you know had we been able to predict it we would have bought more property, I think. So those houses on Farragut Road that were going begging. So it is an astonishing thing. And it's a success story. On the other hand, it's easy to become a victim of your success. I mean, affordability is a problem. But definitely that is a huge story as well as the fact that Boston Harbor is now one of the cleanest in the country. It is an extraordinary turnaround that the city has had. And I suspect there will be a lot of people claiming credit for it. And I'm not about to start giving out awards for who did what.

A few people have written about this…. I’m curious whether you think there is something that causes Boston to reinvent itself.

Well, it has, you know. As I was doing this short book about Boston, I kept coming across New Boston. You know, 1713 was one, after there's a devastating fire, and they rebuilt the central part of the town and widened the streets to ease traffic. And then after the Revolution, too, there's another big decline. In fact, it had been in decline for most of the 18th century. And then of course during the occupation of Boston most of the civilian population left. So why do people come back? But they do, in fact, and more come in. And then the industrial transformation that happens, and we are in the midst of another of these reinventions. And again, I think one thing we're seeing in this is it's not always clear that those who are part of it understand exactly what they're doing. One of my favorite historical markers, by the way, is in front of the Parker House. And it says -- there's a little picture of the spire of Old North Church --  and it says, Look up and see the spire of Old North. And now the MBTA has built a new station on City Hall Plaza, so it's not as visible as it used to be. But it says this view is preserved for you by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. And of course, well, the Redevelopment Authority preserved the view by knocking down everything in Scollay Square, but they put up this marker patting themselves on the back for saving the view of Old North Church. It's as though this was our intention.

What’s your last book, the one people would actually see on Amazon?

I wrote “A Short History of Boston.” And I wrote a biography of Stephen Decatur, who was an American naval hero. I think the book that has sold the most is the short history of Boston. It’s in a lot of college classes on Boston history, but also it's available at various sites around town.

Thank you, Bob!  Lastly, any advice for young people who might consider studying history?

History is rewarding. And history is something that you don't need to be a professional historian in order to appreciate, and in fact we really rely on people who are in all kinds of walks of life and all kinds of fields to have an understanding of history, because you understand what people have tried before and you understand you don't always know the consequences of your actions.

The most important thing is that history does give you an understanding of how the world works, and also gives you a lot of interesting stories to talk about.

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