Monday Aug 02

Winter 2020

"Redlined" Creatively Combines Historical Fact with Literary Fiction

Redlined: A Novel of Boston

Richard W. Wise, New York: Adelaide Books 2019, 337 pages, $16 paper

Reviewed by Lee Staples

Most readers of this journal are all too familiar with the discriminatory lending practices and disinvestment patterns known as “redlining.” Policies originally developed under FDR’s administration in order to reduce Depression era foreclosures were incorporated into guidelines for the newly formed Federal Housing Administration (FHA) during the mid-thirties. Low-income neighborhoods where home mortgages were deemed to be risky, literally were circled and shaded in red ink on municipal maps. Financial investment was cut off like a water spigot. Banks, other lending institutions and insurance companies were quick to extend FHA redlining into the private market, as neighborhood decline in these affected areas became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Homeowners, landlords and small businesses alike routinely were denied loans to improve their property and adequate insurance to protect it, while prospective buyers were unable to secure the mortgages necessary for new purchases. 

Not surprisingly, institutional racism has been a huge factor in this disinvestment, dating back to the policies developed during the Roosevelt administration. Since its inception, redlining disproportionately has targeted neighborhoods populated by large numbers of African Americans and other people of color who arbitrarily and unfairly have been designated as credit risks. In fact, as this phenomenon has continued and intensified through the years, the racial composition of a neighborhood has become a better predictor of these discriminatory practices than income levels. While redlining became illegal with passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, it continues to this day largely unabated, as financial institutions have developed an array of sophisticated methods to skirt the law and regulators have often turned a blind eye.

Richard Wise’s novel draws on an actual grassroots community organizing effort to fight redlining and disinvestment in a Boston neighborhood during the 1970’s. Set in Jamaica Plain (JP), Redlining creatively combines historical fact with literary fiction, mixing a number of actual events and real people with fictitious characters and imaginary episodes. Wise certainly knows that history especially well, since he played a key role in shaping it. Hired by a federation of neighborhood churches in 1974, he organized an array of block clubs, which he subsequently brought together to form a powerful coalition. The Jamaica Plain Mortgage Committee launched an impressive campaign to defend the area, not only from redlining, but also from high-end development plans that would have displaced most low-income and working-class residents. At that time, the neighborhood’s demography was primarily working class and white. However, this J P coalition joined with multiple racially diverse Boston organizations to push for systemic changes. Ultimately, these forces successfully won an historic agreement from newly elected Governor Michael Dukakis to require state-chartered savings banks to disclose their lending patterns.

Building from this foundation of personal knowledge and direct experience, Wise has written a thrilling tale that weaves in a murder investigation, organized crime, romance, Massachusetts politics, top Catholic officials, and even international financial intrigue. Readers familiar with the era’s political scene will recognize narrative material referencing former Boston Mayor Kevin White’s Little City Halls, plus Boston’s notoriously parochial City Council and its infamously racist School Committee. Consistent with real events, Wise’s novel incorporates both the 1974 Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign and the workings of the perennially corrupt state legislature. He even alludes to media coverage from well-known sources such as the Globe, the Herald, local newspapers (Jamaica Plain Citizen and the defunct Boston Phoenix), as well as familiar television outlets in the process. Anyone knowledgeable about the neighborhood also will recognize references to many well-traveled JP streets, plus events occurring at or near landmarks, such as the old Orange Line El, Egleston Station, the Southwest Corridor, the Curley School, and Our Lady of Lourdes parish hall.

This authentic JP backdrop and the actual historical context are central elements of Wise’s semi-autobiographical fictional novel. He develops his story from this stock of knowledge, spinning a narrative that grabs the reader’s attention from the outset, as young neighborhood organizer Sandy Morgan dramatically perishes in a 2 am fire, after reluctantly deciding to keep watch on an abandoned JP property. The blaze is no product of a deranged pyromaniac’s pathological compulsions. Indeed, this is a clear case of arson for profit, literally designed to clear the way for future real estate development. Enraged, distraught and somewhat guilt-ridden, Sandy’s supervisor, Jedediah Flynt, who subtly encouraged her to stand watch, sets out to discover the perpetrators and avenge her death.

Even as this thrilling crime story unfolds, Wise remains true to his underlying focus on a grassroots organizing campaign to combat redlining, neighborhood decline and potential gentrification. Certainly, he recounts the organizing process itself in both lively and accurate fashion. This is true because Wise has been there, done that, and fully understands of what he speaks. However, the compelling murder mystery also helps keep readers engaged as he describes complexities of housing policies, banking practices, international finance and economic development that otherwise might not make this a page-turner. Likewise, this sinister criminal drama helps link multiple interlocking storylines involving heroic neighborhood leaders, corrupt politicians, Chinese gangsters, international money launderers, venal clergy, unscrupulous developers, and Vietnam veterans coping with post-traumatic stress.

In fact, Wise knits these interconnected subplots together through relatively short stand-alone chapters that ultimately hang together quite well. He accomplishes this by introducing an array of intriguing characters who bring this saga to life. First and foremost, is protagonist, Jed Flynt, the lead organizer who recently has split with his wife, feels little connection to his young son, is frequently late with his monthly child support check, and is fundamentally unhappy, as he struggles to reintegrate into society after returning from a difficult stint as a marine in Vietnam. Flynt emerges as a more sympathetic and complex character as the story moves forward, although he certainly exhibits his share of flaws and challenges throughout. Regardless, readers apprehend much of what transpires through this community organizer’s eyes, ears, perceptions, thoughts and words, as Flynt works to build a coalition capable of contesting powerful institutional players bent on reshaping the neighborhood to serve their own economic and political interests. Lest anyone lose sight of this orientation, Wise frequently refers to Flynt interchangeably as “the organizer” – even when the plot or dialogue might not otherwise call for this designation.

Wise introduces other characters who help illustrate basic community organizing methods that include drawing out self-interests through door-to-door recruitment, motivating participation by “rubbing raw the sores of resentment” (Alinsky), conducting action research, developing grassroots leaders, holding planning meetings, establishing goals and specific demands, identifying decision-maker targets, formulating action plans, selecting strategies and tactics, prepping for action, confronting decision-makers, and debriefing to assess and evaluate outcomes.   Neighborhood leaders such as Mary Kavanaugh, Willie-Joe Patrizzi and Molly Regan step up to the plate in realistic scenarios like the confrontation with the Massachusetts State Banking Commissioner, the “greenlining” pledge rally, and the militant direct action “bank-in” at the downtown headquarters of the Boston Five Cents Savings Bank. Debriefing sessions, informal planning gatherings and celebrations regularly take place at JP’s iconic Doyle’s Café (sadly, recently closed after 137 years in business).

Sandy Morgan’s replacement on the organizing staff is Alexis Jordan – brilliant, determined, beautiful and a strong feminist, but also upper class, privileged, somewhat sheltered and not yet street-smart. Flynt already has concluded that high-level research is required to unravel both the murder mystery and the root causes of redlining in Jamaica Plain. Realizing that Alexis might be more valuable in an investigative role than as a street organizer, he hires her for a newly created position as Action Researcher. Alex’s talents and indirect connections through previous internships and her father’s high-powered New York law firm enable her to uncover more layers of a massive and secret redevelopment plan. The arson for profit does not occur randomly; instead, there is a pattern, as it consistently is located along the edges of the Southwest Corridor, the land previously cleared for the site of a subsequently cancelled eight-lane highway project through the middle of the city. Indeed, there is an ominous scheme to purchase the new vacant parcels inexpensively and then combine them with land in the Corridor to create sufficient acreage for a casino, as well as high-end residential and business properties. Additional research reveals involvement by co-conspirators that include prospective developers, international financiers, the Archdiocese of Boston, gambling interests, crooked politicians, and a Hong Kong criminal organization that launders money through casinos.

            Wise adds a romantic angle between Flynt and Alex, which plays out for the remainder of the novel. Additionally, he utilizes Alex’s character as a vehicle to expound on some basic community organizing principles, along with a solid explanation of what redlining is and how financial institutions apply it.  He accomplishes this when Alex learns on the job as she does get some basic door-knocking experience, at the point where she debates some of Alinsky’s organizing principles with Flynt, when she learns the difference between a strategy and a tactic, and while she is schooled on redlining by none other than the very real and legendary National People’s Action lead organizer, Shel Trapp. In fact, Trapp was an important advisor and mentor during the actual JP organizing campaign; and Wise skillfully employs his character to make observations and give advice in a similar role throughout this book, bringing the reader up to speed in the process. References to organizing luminaries Tom Gaudette, Gale Cincotta and Stan Holt are a nice additional touch.

I won’t divulge the suspenseful and dramatic ending of this thriller, but suffice it to say there are many unexpected twists and turns along the way. Wise enlivens the story as he fleshes out an array of colorful characters, including Lenny Klausmeyer, Mary Kavanaugh, Monsignor Michael Benedetti, Commissioner Louise Winthrop Gray, Johnny Lowboy, Andy Tate, Archbishop Timothy Doherty, Jean-Luc Farge, and Mr. Yang. He describes the settings and scenes where key events take place in rich detail, painted with vivid language.  Readers easily   can visualize the abandoned building where Sandy Morgan loses her life, short order breakfasts in Lenny’s Diner, an expensive Szechaun meal on Boston’s stylish Newbury Street, the furnishings of the archbishop’s bedchambers, and community activists downing pints of Guinness at Doyle’s. Wise also displays a remarkable breadth and depth of knowledge about topics as diverse as Victorian architecture, expensive French wines, international tax shelters, Chinese pottery, the state legislative process, martial arts and military weaponry.

Most important, he writes from the stance of a community organizer. We see this at a philosophical level in Flynt’s debates about Alinsky’s principles with both Alex and Monsignor Benedetti. Wise lifts up a host of other topics when he incorporates imaginary discussions and planning sessions involving Shel Trapp. This literary device enables him to examine grassroots leadership development, methods to handle internal group disagreements (see Don Gaffner’s reluctance to challenge the “powers that be”), the role of the organizer (including issues regarding manipulation), disinvestment patterns, and the evolution of the innovative greenlining tactic to pool savings accounts in local banks that agree to invest in the neighborhood.  At the nuts-and-bolts level, Wise devotes an entire chapter to door-knocking (including how to cut your losses), describes how to set up the room to maximize tactical advantages for a meeting to confront a decision-maker, and examines the logistical challenges for carrying out the “bank-in” direct action. At other points, he utilizes Flynt’s character to depict an organizer’s angst immediately before participants turn out for a meeting or action, the sinking feeling when a key speaker fails to show up, and the need to scramble when community leaders start to fold under pressure when they lock horns with a powerful adversary.

Overall, I appreciated Wise’s multi-layered plot, as well as his character development, eye for detail, engaging writing style and colorful prose. His knowledge about community organizing and actual experience doing it in the same Jamaica Plain neighborhood where this story is set is a major plus. This enables him to mix in elements of historical fact with this fictitious account, highlighting the damage wrought by redlining and disinvestment as he tells his story. I particularly enjoyed elements focusing on community organizing principles, processes, and practices, as well as material dealing with predatory real estate development, organized crime, rapacious behavior by the Boston Archdiocese, the craven nature of state and city politics.

I suspect that some readers may react to the decidedly macho attitudes and dialogue exhibited by a number of the male characters. The story is set in the mid-seventies, and Wise attempts to deal with some of the gender dynamics of the times, especially those impacted by differences in social class. Some also may feel there is excessive violence, as well as too much detail about encounters featuring martial arts techniques and military weaponry, as Flynt and his Vietnam veteran buddies engage with various gangsters. Indeed, they were a militia group – albeit it a loosely organized and relatively progressive one – at a time when such entities had barely entered public consciousness and discourse. Wise has made a challenging decision to combine a story about redlining and the neighborhood organizing to combat it with a murder mystery and an action thriller. These distinct elements may appeal differentially to divergent audiences, and some readers may have difficulty reconciling all ingredients of the story. That said, I believe Wise successfully pulls it off, and this novel will appeal to most readers of this journal.

Lee Staples has been a lifelong community organizer and is a retired Professor of Social Work at Boston University.

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