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Comments 13

Love that Dirty Old Boston

A new Facebook page has been blowing up my Newsfeed lately…Dirty Old Boston.  This community page, which features pictures and images of “Boston before the gentrification of the 1980s,” started just weeks ago on September 22 and has almost 4,000 likes and 8,000 comments.  Last week was its most popular week, with photos of the 1970s stripper Princess Cheyenne (who became a bit of a recurring theme for a moment there), the original Boston Garden, a hit list from WRKO, lots of arson and other historic urban fires…you get the idea.  Many of the images aren’t “dirty,” so much as they are retro: women in vintage swim suits, old nightclubs in Cambridge, dudes in bellbottoms, etc.  These images draw a sense of the city’s bohemian roots. Its rise in interest on Facebook has been rapid, and has been primarily among folks between 35 and 44.  Which means, probably not people who remember a lot of the things in the photos, except as kids and teens.

Photo: There was an arson ring that was burning down the Fenway neighborhood in the mid-70's. This was taken on Symphony Rd. October 1974. It's now a vacant lot. Thanks Larry.Posted 10/18/12: “There was an arson ring that was burning down the Fenway neighborhood in the mid-70’s.
This was taken on Symphony Rd. October 1974. It’s now a vacant lot. Thanks Larry.”

So…what’s going on here?  Let’s talk about the Dirty Old Boston phenomenon for a minute.  Hypotheses please.

1. Childhood nostalgia.  The “likers” and the photos are perfectly in sync to suggest that they could be thinking back to the Boston of their childhood, using social media to create a nostalgia community like Millenials who wanted their childhood television shows back.

2. Love that dirty water.  Gentrification here feels a bit like a dirty word that implies loss of authenticity, commercialization of spaces and experiences (it’s the TD Banknorth Garden now!?), and, perhaps especially important, the incursion of outsiders into the community.  This happens in two ways.  There’s the Starbucks-in-Southie, no-Italians-in-the-North-End narrative of middle class yuppies taking over Boston’s prized working class neighborhoods, but there’s also the corporate high-rise, courting of global pharmaceuticals and displacement of rock clubs, affordable housing, and social service organizations in Cambridge story.  The first is a story about the middle class takeover of working-class, long-established, white-ethnic neighborhoods; the latter is more about triumph of global capitalist interests over local, home-grown activist culture. They are both narratives of fear about cultural and class change; different classes in Boston live more cheek-by-jowl than in many other American cities; it is less income segregated than other metro-areas with similar levels of inequality (about average nationally).  In this context, chronicling their pre-gentrification history, dirty or not, might feel like a way for “real” Bostonian’s to claim ownership over the identity of the city — “you weren’t here then, so you wouldn’t remember how things used to be, but I do.”  Similarly, if newcomers also see themselves as not “real” Bostonians, then they (we) might feel it’s important to identify with and learn about the past and incorporate themselves into Boston’s identity.

3.  All in the family.  Maybe Boston is small enough that everyone feels like they have stories about the images that are portrayed, and connections with the sites represented.  A slight variation: Boston as a “city of neighborhoods” means that people might feel passionate enough about seeing their places represented that anything like this gets folks excited.

4. Everybody <3s ruin porn.  We can’t deny, as I’ve talked about before, that old stuff is just generally of interest now.  And then there’s of course the Mad Men effect, which is still going on.  But seeing as the page’s primary “like” base is Bostonians, I think there’s a strong case to be made that this is not just about that.

5. Working out trauma.  The razing of the West End, the Central Artery, the citizen activism against the expressway, the Big Dig…Boston still has a lot of very present anger, sadness, and pride about the big planning decisions that were implemented or thwarted in the past century.  Maybe Dirty Old Boston is touching that nerve.

Is this a uniquely Boston phenomenon?  What other cities have an idealized sense of a “gritty” past that is still present today?  And for whom do you think this past is more important: the old-timers, or the new transplants?  And what do we want, beneath the ogling — to remember and share our memories with peers, like those ’90s kids, to stop the changes that are going on, or to find a common language for talking about what it means to be From Boston?



  1. I moved here in 1975, when I was 18, and it immediately felt like home. For me, looking at the posts reminds me of the feeling of watching old home movies – both those from when I was little and those from before I was gone. The former remind me of my early memories and the latter connect me to what came before me.

      • baggmann says

        I’d take it beyond the “home movies” Americans have always had a love of history and I think Dirty Old Boston shows this. Look at the sucess the movie Lincoln is having.

  2. susan may says

    Where I live now has the same issues of “new” people who call things by new names because they don’t know the history. I feel responsible for “keeping the record straight”–plus, I love trying to identify old pictures.

  3. I moved to Boston in 1974, I have been a photographer all my life and I love been able to post a lot of my pictures I took of Boston in “Dirty Old Boston”. I also enjoy seeing a lot of other people pictues, especially fron the 1940’s to the 1970’s. I only wish I took more (like the old Playboy club and the Teddy Bear Lounge, where the 4 Seasons Hotel is now.

  4. Mary Morrison says

    I grew up in Boston I’m 79yrs old so it’s like reliving so much of the past and I absolutely love being able to add my two cents to so many memories.Boston had and still has so much to offer its residents. It’s history and neighborhoods reach out to all.i loved this city.

  5. Wendy says

    I grew up in NJ and I love history. But looking at Dirty Old Boston I feel like I missed out on a Boston that was way cooler than when I came up in ’95 for school. I can’t believe the nightlife that was here! As much as NYC has changed there’s still lots to do at anytime. I wish Boston was like that.

  6. History is just cool says

    I’m just fascinated when I can see change. For instance, there were a lot of clubs that I only heard about on the radio (i.e., The Rat) since I was too young & suburban to go in the 70s/80s- so to see pictures and know that I just ate dinner at a somewhat sterile Eastern Standard restaurant in the same spot, give me some appreciation for what’s changed.

    Now I live in one of the gentrified neighborhoods, but believe me, I appreciate hearing the stories, and this is just one more source of stories.

  7. Sara Finley says

    Great Blog – DOB is one of the great sites on FB – lived in Boston for most of my life – living now in Medford – love this small city – but it most surely isn’t BOSTON – where everything was interesting…walkable ….politics were endlessly fascinating – and always something to see and do – thanks for the blog and your take on it !

  8. This is coming up: Larry M
    Hello Dirty Old Bostonians!

    We are beyond thrilled to announce the publication of “Dirty Old Boston,” the photo book based on Jim Botticelli’s Facebook page!

    Thank you so very much for taking the time to find, scan, and submit your photos to The Dirty Old Boston Project. Jim and Union Park Press had our work cut out for us with all the touching, funny, and beautiful images we received. We wish we could have included them all. If you don’t see your photo in the book, look for it on Jim’s Facebook page.

    To show our appreciation, we would like to offer you a discount on the book. It will retail for $30 in stores, but we’d like to offer it to you for $20 (plus tax + shipping). If you would like to skip the shipping costs, we’ll have your name on a list at the Boston Book Festival on October 25 in Copley Square. Jim will be signing books from 12-3; we’d love to see you there!

    Use this paypal link to purchase your copy of Dirty Old Boston at a discount.

    Please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions.

    Many thanks again,

    Union Park Press

    • Diana Limbach Lempel says

      Hi Larry – thanks for sharing! I’m looking forward to the book!

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