Michael Patrick Brady


Eden on the Charles | Michael Rawson

October 12, 2010

My review of Michael Rawson’s Eden on the Charles ran (online today, print tomorrow) in the Boston Globe.

The book explores the development of Boston during the 19th century, specifically how Bostonians cultivated and were themselves shaped by their interactions with the natural geography of the region. Rawson provides many examples, including the enclosure of the Common, the development of pastoral suburbs, and the establishment of separate nature reserves, such as the Blue Hills; in my review, I chose to focus on the story of Boston’s municipal water system because I felt it was startlingly similar to the contemporary debate over health care in the United States.

The battle lines were essentially the same. Supporters of municipal water thought that letting private interests control a resource that directly affected public health would be a mistake, and that the government should ensure universal access to clean water. Critics of the plan believed that private enterprise would fill the role just fine (ignoring the fact that the one private water company operating in Boston at the time made no effort to build pipes in poor or working class neighborhoods), and, like today, were apoplectic that they might have to pay taxes that would be used to benefit those other than themselves.

Eventually, the water advocates won the battle of public opinion. Municipal water won a landslide victory at the polls and when the first drops from Lake Cochituate reached the fountain on Boston Common in 1848, citizens celebrated with a raucous party and parade along Tremont Street. Over 100,000 people turned out. They carried signs declaring the new water system to be “a second Declaration of Independence.”

So it’s a little disheartening that 150 years later, our nation is still fighting this old battle, this time over universal access to health care, with opponents using many of the same specious arguments and wild distortions to undermine a movement that is intended to help raise up their fellow Americans. It’s said that a rising tide lifts all boats, but if you listened to some of today’s loudest voices, they’d have you sink all the ships around you so you can have the harbor all to yourself.

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