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WiseGuy: The Author's Blog


Murder, Redlining, and the Fight for Jamaica Plain
Kenneth Reardon reviews "Redlined: A novel of Boston" by Richard W. Wise. Brunswick House Press, June 2020, 338 pp., $14.75 (Paperback).

By Kenneth M. Reardon -


June 29, 2020
"An organizer, eager to discover who is responsible for the destruction of her Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, stakes out a vacant building that arsonists are expected to hit. Shortly after 2 a.m., a car stops and its passengers enter the structure. Minutes later they return to the vehicle and speed off into the night. Curious as to what took place inside the building, community organizer Sandy Morgan enters one of its open apartments. Within moments, the arsonists' timer triggers a violent blast that hurls her body against a brick wall, killing her instantly.


With a deep understanding that's largely based upon his experience working as a community organizer in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood, Richard W. Wise tells a powerful story of the urban development wars that took place at a time when powerful developers, financiers, politicians, and nonprofit leaders promoting upscale place-making in pursuit of "trickle-down benefits" were pitted against poor and working-class residents struggling to preserve their neighborhoods. In the first few pages of Redlined: A Novel of Boston, Wise seizes the attention of readers eager to know who caused Sandy Morgan's death. He then quickly exposes them to an epic battle over the future of American cities being waged in low-income communities throughout the U.S. during the last quarter of the 20th century.


This semi-autobiographical novel describes how a small group of community activists, working through their churches, compelled the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to require banks to disclose where they were making loans. The clear pattern of discrimination revealed by the data subsequently helps this network of faith-based organizations negotiate a major reinvestment agreement with local lenders.


The book is set in the early 1970s when state and federal transportation officials proposed the construction of a new highway to ease the commute of South Shore residents traveling into downtown Boston. During the land acquisition phase of the Southwest Expressway Project, which featured the widespread use of eminent domain, an unlikely coalition of neighborhood activists, historic preservationists, urban environmentalists, and mass transit advocates came together to defeat the initiative, placing the future of the neighborhoods located along its right-of-way up for grabs. Wise focuses Redlined on the fierce struggle that took place over Jamaica Plain's redevelopment. Here, a large number of vacant lots and abandoned buildings remained following the cancellation of the highway project, which discouraged local lenders from providing mortgages in the area, in turn causing real estate values to plummet and many property owners to abandon the community.


In Redlined, powerful real estate interests with extensive financial and political ties quietly assemble land within Jamaica Plain for a mega-project, using campaign donations, charitable gifts, and illegal bribes to secure the support of local officials—and threats of violence and arson to encourage residents to abandon the neighborhood. Early in the story, readers are introduced to a determined group of citizens who mobilize to challenge these efforts. Along the way, Wise exposes readers to municipal officials committed to the machine politics of the James Michael Curley era, religious leaders more interested in their Swiss bank accounts than in saving souls, and Vietnam vets willing to operate outside of the law to defend their neighborhood. While some readers may find Wise's characters and rapidly changing subplots challenging to follow, few readers familiar with the rough and tumble nature of urban development in Boston and its tribal-like municipal politics will be among them.


Redlined: A Novel of Boston would be a great addition to the summer reading list of anyone interested in Boston's social history or the struggles of citizen organizations resisting displacement and gentrification—problems that have gotten significantly worse in recent years despite the passage of the Fair Housing, Home Mortgage Disclosure, and Community Reinvestment acts. It is an informative but exciting whodunit thriller that tells a compelling story, with a few creative liberties, of how a small group of Jamaica Plain residents prevented an expressway from destroying their community, pioneered anti-redlining policies that stabilized their neighborhood, and converted the Southwest Expressway's right-of-way into verdant and heavily-used greenway that transformed Jamaica Plain into one of Boston' premier, and increasingly exclusive, neighborhoods— something Wise and his organizing colleagues might have found difficult to imagine in 1975.


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Thanks to Smorgasbord Cafe for your fine review

Redlined: A Novel of Boston is set in 1974 and focuses on the Jamaica Plain section of town. This area has been redlined by banks, due to the housing market's crash, which sets the stage for racial steering and blockbusting, prompting the transition from a healthy neighborhood to a slum. Abandoned buildings to proliferate as crime rises.
When a building is burned and the body of a community activist is uncovered, fellow community organizer and Marine combat veteran Jedidiah Flynt and assistant Alexis Jordan become determined to stop the destruction of the neighborhood. They assume the role of amateur investigators who probe the arson and death with a focus and determination reflective of their abilities.
All too soon, however, adversity strikes even closer to home. Jedediah and Alexis face their own prejudices, pasts, and the initial discomfort of a forthright, sexual woman confronting a former Marine already uncomfortable with the power women have assumed in society and the workplace. These experiences capture the first phase in the blossoming women's movement that was to change many of these roles.
This interpersonal interplay of emotions sets the stage for a dual confrontation as the unlikely team forays into unfamiliar territory both personally and politically.
At first, Redlined reads with the setup and motivation of a murder mystery. Readers are in for a bigger treat, however, because Richard W. Wise incorporates real, contemporary social issues and tensions into this story, along with a special dynamic between the investigators, which elevates his read beyond a typical whodunit.
From Jedediah's ability to face Alex's charge that he is a "consummate opportunist' whose worldview affects his life choices and taints his perspective to their shared zeal and campaign, the politics which plays dirty tricks behind the scenes in Boston affairs, and gang members (a coalition of actors; real estate agents, developers, crime syndicate, who make money from the destruction of an urban neighborhood) who play a key part in community choices and makeup, Richard W. Wise tailors the kind of story that is steeped as much in Boston's unique cultural and social makeup as it is in community struggles to change it.
While investigative mystery readers will be the likely audience of Redlined, the story will especially appeal to women who like their characters strong and purposeful. Another audience will be readers familiar with Boston's cultural milieu, who will find Redlined an absorbing series of conundrums that lead ever deeper into the heart of a community's manipulations, politics, and social interactions. Highly recommended.
–D. Donovan, Sr. Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

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