Local journalist presents a collection that celebrates the Greater Boston middle class
By RICH FAHEY
As a staff writer for The Boston Globe, Steve 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, a Swampscott resident, has self-published a book called “Middle Class Heroes,” which is now available on Amazon, and which includes on its back cover words of praise from Swampscott native and Pulitzer Prize winner David Shribman.
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 the North Shore, including, of course, his native Swampscott.
He has also included some previously-unpublished work, such as a lengthy piece about the rooming house on Rogers Avenue in Lynn his father once owned, and his fascinating relationship with a homeless man named Arthur Foster. 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.
“Among the many topics he’s covered, those about the homeless are among the best,” said Marcia Dick, assistant metro editor of the Globe. “He goes out and meets them, and tells their stories in ways you don’t forget.”
“Steve’s knowledge of the area is invaluable,” Dick continued. “He has his finger on the heartbeat of people who live here. We’re lucky to have him.”
The stories he chose to publish 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.
He also shows up at the annual Black Picnic at Salem Willows, where among those he interviewed were members of the well-known Barton family of Lynn; he describes the St. Peter’s Fiesta in Gloucester and its annual “greasy pole” competition.
He speaks to a Gloucester fisherman named Mark Carroll and a crossing guard from Marblehead, Marjorie Mace, better known as “Nana Putt.” He also explores the history of Rockport’s Motif No. 1 (named that by artist Lester Hornby), and what it has meant to the town and its economy. He listens to the stories of veterans, as well as everyday folks who were inspired to rise up against the Seabrook nuclear plant.
In 2004, he told the story of the 1974 murder in Swampscott of 15-year-old Henry Bedard Jr., which remains unsolved. In a 2008 column, World War II veteran Merrill Feldman of Swampscott, who received the Legion of Honor from the French government, recalled his time as a medic in the European theater, with death all around.
“Middle Class Heroes” devotes an entire chapter to walking — here, there and in places as far away as Jerusalem. The woods behind the Stanley School (just a few minutes from his home) and the area along the beach are two of his favorite places to walk. There’s also a chapter on sports:Taking a Plimpton-like turn as a semipro quarterback, interviewing a Celtic who replaced the legendary Bill Russell and exploring the treasured tradition of Thanksgiving Day high school football.
Rosenberg 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 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.”
Rosenberg is married to Devorah Feinbloom, who is a doctor of chiropractic at Marblehead Natural Healing. Their son Aaron, 22, is a senior at Clark University in Worcester.Though he has lived in other places around the North Shore — most notably Lynn and Marblehead — Swampscott is home.
Rosenberg’s late father Sam—his photo is on the cover of the book— came over from Eastern Europe as a child and grew up in Chelsea, where he later 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, was from Amesbury, but 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 self-made 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 Osheris an educator in Peabody.
After graduating from Swampscott High in 1977, Rosenberg headed west to UMass Amherst and graduated in 1981 with a degree in journalism. He 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 the suburbs of Boston remain in a constant state of flux as wealth spills out of the cities and makes its way into those suburbs. And while the Swampscott of his youth has changed greatly, Rosenberg said with change comes new energy and perspectives.
“People who have come here from other places love this town and bring new ideas, good ideas,” he said.
It may be less colloquial – perhaps residents might not know their neighbors quite as well – but it a remains a place where people respect their neighbors and it offers, he argues, “a true suburban experience, where you can be involved as much as you want or just live your life.”
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,” he said. “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.’”