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When Harmony Was Banned in Boston

October 16, 1985|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

When J. Anthony Lukas says Boston is a battleground, he isn't talking about the American Revolution and the Battle of Bunker Hill. He's talking about the here and now, about the conflicts of race and class that threaten to mortally wound the urban body politic. He's describing a city that he sees as a microcosm of national metropolitan woes.

In "Common Ground" (Knopf: $19.95), Lukas has presented his report on this conflict. The book is a novelistic narrative of three real families--black, Irish, Yankee--and a few of the public figures whose lives were swept up in the desegregation of Boston schools during the 1970s.

While the protracted and turbulent battle over Boston's schools is the book's focal point, "Common Ground" also is a broad, naturalistic portrait of modern urban life. The wrecking of good intentions, the demolition of hope and the hardening of divisions between rich and poor, black and white, give the book's title an ironic touch.

And Lukas, 52, a former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, is finding that the book is making at least a few readers uncomfortable because it presents such a bleak landscape.

"People have asked me, 'What is this book?' They say, 'It doesn't have a conclusion, doesn't have an introduction, doesn't have footnotes, doesn't have an index. What is it that you have given us?' " Lukas said in an interview here. "For a while I struggled to come up with a term and the term I've finally adopted is that it's a yarn. It's a yarn, but I hope that it's an instructive yarn."

By book's end, when liberal, white Colin Diver and his family have retreated from their home in the inner city to a suburban house guarded by a white picket fence, Lukas wants "the reader to be as confounded by the complexity of a large American city as I was," he said.

When he began working on the book eight years ago, Lukas was a fairly traditional liberal who believed "that there were some reasonably simple solutions, at least clear-cut solutions, to the problems of racial discrimination, cities, poverty, that whole agenda," he said.

'A Chastened Liberal'

Today, Lukas describes himself as "a chastened liberal" but also notes that he isn't quite sure what kind of political animal he has become in practical terms.

"More than anything else I shifted from the party of simplicity to the party of complexity. . . . I now no longer believe that there are any simple solutions to the problems of the cities," he said. "I think what the book did was make me feel that these problems are very complex and we don't fully understand the ecology of cities."

Lukas also observed that "this book is in part a book about what happened to the liberal agenda of the '60s and '70s, the whole liberal orthodoxy of which I was a part and in some sense am still a part."

To Lukas that agenda was a failure because liberals put too much faith in superficial solutions.

"It seems to me that one of the ways in which it (the liberal agenda) didn't work and one of the things this book is about is how much faith liberals had in legal solutions," he said. "We believed that if rights were violated, you went to court, you sued, you got a judge to order that you be granted those rights and frequently that was the end of it."

But often legal remedies only addressed one symptom. "It would be my view of Boston during these years that although the black plaintiffs in the busing case got legal justice, the city did not get social justice because of the class issue," Lukas said.

The Function of Class

"Common Ground" has received a good deal of attention, in reviews and elsewhere, because it addresses the function of class--as well as race--in the making of today's cities.

"I think we as a society simply have to decide how much we care about equality," Lukas said. "It may be that this society really doesn't care very much, that we pay lip-service to it. It may be that most middle-class Americans are very comfortable with the notion of living in the suburbs, of having their children go to predominantly white schools . . . of having blacks and poor whites and poor Hispanics living in the core city and sending their children to integrated but probably somewhat inferior schools."

Ultimately, Lukas said, the lines between class and race could become as hardened as those in South Africa.

'Not Really Surprised'

"The term apartheid, I think, is thrown around too much," he said. " . . . but I do think that if this continues that there will be a kind of American apartheid."

Lukas said this jaundiced view is reinforced even at moments of hope. Late last month a conference centered on the book was held at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston, Lukas said, adding that it was a time for "self-congratulation" over the progress that the city has made since the mid-1970s.

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