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Showtime for New Boston

Showtime for New Boston

With the Urban League conference coming next week, Boston’s movers and shakers are scrambling to project a progressive racial image

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN |  July 22, 2011


SEA CHANGE With the Urban League conference coming to Boston next week, local leaders are out
to dispel old stereotypes about race in the Hub.

When Boston hosts the American Academy of Pediatrics this October, or the Association for Financial Professionals a month later, nobody will worry too much about how the thousands of convention attendees spend their time. As long as they enjoy themselves, and spend plenty of money, it’s all good.But the Urban League conference, taking place next week, is different. Like it or not, this is a major showcase for Boston.

After years of trying to convince groups with large minority membership that the Hub is now a welcoming, friendly destination for African-Americans, this is the first big organization to test the theory.

Some 5000 people from all over the country, mostly racial minorities, are expected to come to Boston (to be joined by another 5000 from this area). Ideally, they will return home with positive tales of their time here. And for that to happen, some say, those attendees need to get out to see the city for themselves.

“Obviously we’re bringing a lot of skeptics into Boston,” says Darnell Williams, head of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts (ULEM), “so we want to expose them to as much of the city as we can.”

But Williams, who has used his smooth, patrician manner to gain respect and power in Massachusetts and beyond, has his own skeptics here in Boston.

Some community leaders — not wishing to be named criticizing Williams — fault his leadership in the conference preparations. “He was not ready for prime time,” one says.

That critique comes from one of many who could be labeled bitter that Williams has surpassed them in prominence since coming to Boston in 2001, after leading the NAACP chapter in Springfield. But the concern has also been building inside City Hall. And, in the past two months, Mayor Tom Menino has stepped in with his characteristic micromanaging style — demanding meetings, assigning watchdogs, and pulling strings to make sure his city puts its best foot forward. Governor Deval Patrick’s administration is also cracking the whip.

“It’s coming down from both City Hall and the State House, that this has got to be done right, and done well,” says Darryl Settles, long-time Boston restaurant owner and business developer, whose South End site, Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen, is a gathering spot for Boston’s black professional class.

That unusual interest in the nuts-and-bolts planning for a convention — typically left to the national group running the show — indicates how much is riding on this event in the minds of local officials.

Nobody doubts that the conference itself will be as successful for the Urban League as any of its other annual meetings, held most recently in Washington, Orlando, and Chicago.

But that’s not enough for Boston leaders who have been told, repeatedly, for 30 years, that black people won’t come to their city. They need this conference to prove that the old stereotypes no longer hold.

And that means two key things. Will attendees from outside the area get to experience the new Boston? And will black Bostonians participate in and benefit from a conference at the new convention center in South Boston?

“Those two questions are very fair,” Williams concedes. “We have this one high-profile opportunity to change the public perception of Boston, and we have worked very hard to get it right.”

The ULEM’s conference Web site provides a hint of why people have been worried. As of mid-July, the only events or activities listed were either the few official conference events — all in or near the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center — or standard Boston-waterfront recommendations, like the Aquarium and USS Constitution.

“Right now, it’s purely a downtown event,” one City Hall insider lamented earlier this month.

Not that black visitors to Boston need to spend time in “Black Boston.” But, the thinking goes, if they remain isolated in and around the convention center, attendees won’t see the mixture of races and ethnicities now thriving in happy coexistence — at least, in comparison with 20 or 30 years ago.

The conference will try to showcase Boston’s diversity, even at waterfront events. The welcome reception on Wednesday will feature foods representing neighborhoods — pasta for the North End, Caribbean for Dorchester/Mattapan, lobster for Beacon Hill, and so on — amid displays replicating the Strand Theater façade, Chinatown arch, and other landmarks.

And, Williams says, a special send-off reception is in the works, to be hosted by South Boston elected officials — Irish-Americans like State Senator Jack Hart, City Councilor Bill Linehan, and State Representative Nick Collins, who lived through the busing wars. That could be an important gesture. (Massachusetts Convention Center Authority James Rooney, who is playing a critical role in the planning, is also a Southie native.)

But none of that will change the fact that when conference attendees stroll around the convention center and nearby venues, they won’t see many black faces — which, as Settles notes, remains a stark contrast to conventions held in other big cities like Washington, Chicago, or Atlanta.

So, even though it’s not necessarily the national Urban League’s top priority, city leaders want to get these visitors away from the waterfront. That’s why, earlier this month, Menino demanded a meeting with local and national Urban League leaders to hash out the plans for the event. Menino has had Marie St. Fleur, his chief of advocacy and strategic investment, working with ULEM for six months; recently he asked his former director of arts and tourism, Julie Burns, to also get involved. Burns, now a vice-president at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, was Menino’s top organizer for the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Menino has also arranged to sponsor a trolley tour for attendees, focusing on the city’s diversity. Just this week, plans were still being finalized for a Menino-hosted welcome reception at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury’s Dudley Square. And Menino arranged for an exhibit of Haitian art, made by earthquake victims, to be on display at the Hynes Convention Center in the Back Bay — although the exhibit was supposed to return to Haiti several weeks ago.

The Patrick administration has also stepped up its involvement, led by assistant secretary Ron Marlow from the administration and finance department.

Others — including public-relations guru Collette Phillips and community activist Ron Bell — are planning their own events, not unlike the independent activities held around town during the 2004 Democratic Convention, many of which outshone the official offerings.

Urban League Darnell Williams

DARNELL WILLIAMS Will the Urban League
leader be “ready for prime time” by next week’s

Additional events have been made free for the public, thanks to nearly $3 million in sponsorships paid by close to 50 local corporations. That’s a testament to Williams, and the strong relationships forged by ULEM over the years.

But to some, those sponsorships symbolize what they distrust about Williams. Sponsors like CVS Caremark, EMC, State Street, TJX, and Raytheon “want to give the illusion that they’re working on civil rights,” says one veteran black activist. Meanwhile, he says, they do nothing about sky-high black unemployment in Massachusetts.

And there is some evidence that Williams and the ULEM have been either out of touch, overwhelmed, or inexperienced. There are some who say they have had difficulty getting in touch with, or receiving information from, ULEM about potential conference involvement.

Some of that may say more about divisions within Boston’s much-divided and ego-clashing black leadership than about the conference plans.

Ultimately, most people involved — and even some of Williams’s critics — feel that plans are coming together. The bigger question, though, is whether it will be enough to change the city’s national reputation.

To read the Talking Politics blog, go to thePhoenix.com/talkingpolitics. Follow David S. Bernstein on Twitter @dbernstein.
Read more: http://thephoenix.com/boston/news/124172-showtime-for-new-boston/#ixzz1SwfYkMg3

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