Local journalist presents a collection that celebrates the Greater Boston middle class
By RICH FAHEY
As a staff writer for The Boston Globe, Steven Rosenberg covered the suburbs from 2001 to last December, and along the way has documented many of the traditions and rituals that make the Greater Boston area what it is.
Rosenberg has self-published a book called “Middle Class Heroes,” which is now available on Amazon. Most of the individual stories in the book are reprints taken from his work for the Globe; he continues to write columns for the newspaper on a freelance basis. The book includes a generous helping of stories from Lynn, Lynnfield, Peabody, Saugus, Revere and his native Swampscott.
The stories largely have historic connections or have to do with the traditions and rituals that bind communities together. He chose to focus on the middle class because many of his subjects are everyday people who are doing, or have done, extraordinary things.
“I realized going into neighborhoods and area communities that their histories were in danger of being lost,” Rosenberg said. “Things were changing so fast that in many cases it was a case of documenting the last days of important traditions.”
And so it is that he chronicles the last days of the Wonderland Racetrack in Revere, where dog racing once drew 10,000 or more people on summer Saturday nights. In a 2007 column about the annual Black Picnic at Salem Willows, he interviewed Barbara Barton and the late Virginia Barton of the well-known Barton family of Lynn.
The stories of veterans are handed down in a 2006 column about Pearl Harbor that featured survivors of the attack Peter D’Andrea of Saugus and Emory Arsenalult of Peabody.
He describes the St. Peter’s Fiesta in Gloucester and its annual “greasy pole” competition, and brings readers into Peabody’s Brothers Deli. A few Lynners are prominently featured, such as a 2008 column profiling Lynn’s Calvin Johnson, who dresses in his flag suit on election day and becomes a one-man “get out the vote” campaign. And last year he interviewed a former Lynn firefighter and Vietnam War vet named Marty Robichaud about his experiences being part of a war whose soldiers were labeled “baby killers.”
He also includes some previously-unpublished work, such as a lengthy piece about the rooming house at 8 Rogers Avenue in Lynn his father Sam owned from 1961 to 1973, its eclectic group of residents and the toll it took on his parents. T
here’s a chapter on sports: Taking a Plimpton-like turn as a semipro quarterback for the North Shore Generals in Lynn; interviewing Lynnfield resident Hank Finkel, the Celtic who replaced the legendary Bill Russell; and exploring the treasured tradition of Thanksgiving Day high school football.
“Steve’s knowledge of the area is invaluable,” said Marcia Dick, assistant metro editor of the Globe. “He has his finger on the heartbeat of people who live here. Among the many topics he’s covered for, those about the homeless are among the best. He goes out and meets them, including in Lynn, and tells their stories in ways you don’t forget. We’re lucky to have him.”
Rosenberg said when he writes about those who have become homeless, he considers them to be valid subjects because many of them came from middle-class homes and still had middle-class values and memories. “It’s not much of a slide from middle class to the lower class or homelessness,” he said. Thus in 2015, he ventured into a homeless settlement called Tent City in Lynn to speak to those living there, as well as Pat Byrne, an outreach worker for the Lynn Shelter Association who lost a son to addiction.
Rosenberg has also frequently written about Judaism on a very personal level, not only on his own present and past relationship with the religion, but of fellow members of Greater Boston’s Jewish communities. “I’ve always been interested in Judaism as a religion, and in its place in history,” he said.
“We have a sense of place and home and religion plays a part of it.”
He also writes about his wife, Devorah, and son, Aaron – from their first home to the first Rolling Stones concert he took Aaron to (some years after they played at Manning Bowl). Rosenberg grew up in Swampscott and lives there now, but has lived in other places around the North Shore – most notably Marblehead and Lynn, where he lived on Ocean Street for 14 years. He said he has had a chance to meet with many of the people influential in establishing those traditions that have been so much a part of local history.
“Formal traditions helped shape local communities and provided continuity for generations,” Rosenberg said. “The common thread is that they helped give the middle-class residents of these communities a sense of time and place.”
Rosenberg’s late father, Sam – his photo is on the cover of the book – came over from Eastern Europe with his family as a child and grew up in Chelsea, where he ran a deli. (Rosenberg sometimes bused tables and loved to listen to the stories of his father’s patrons). His father never finished high school, but he was well-read. His late mother, Ruby, grew up in Lynn and worked in real estate and had a clothing store in Revere.
“They both knew abject poverty as children and they were selfmade people,” Rosenberg said. “When they moved from Chelsea to Swampscott in 1958, it was the true embrace of the American Dream. It was a little piece of heaven with the woods, the ocean, and it was quiet. It was the kind of place every working-class couple aspired to move to, where their children had a better chance in life.” Both he and his two sisters ended up with professional careers; Sheri Kelton is a talent agent in Los Angeles and Phyllis Osher is an educator in Peabody. After graduating from UMass Amherst and graduated in 1981 with a degree in journalism, Rosenberg forged a 16-year career in television reporting, producing, directing and running stations until he became editor of the Jewish Advocate newspaper in 1998, leaving to join the Globe in 2001. He also holds a master degree in creative writing from Bennington College.
Rosenberg said, as a journalist, he is also a storyteller, just like the storytellers in primitive times who were spinning tales around a campfire, and he intends to continue to do it in future books and columns, as well as taking time to teach and travel.
“That’s what journalism is. It’s not just about content, research and objectivity, but empathy, ideally allowing the reader to feel something in a story, and when they feel it they become more connected to it in their own lives. When someone reads a story, they always ask: ‘Where am I in this story?’ It’s my job to put them in there.”