Thursday, July 13, 2006

Filene and Steffens

Filene’s department store in Boston is going out of business, absorbed by a series of conglomerates until it became redundant. The song with different tenor has been sung in Washington [Hechts], Chicago [Marshall Fields], Racine [Zahns] and beyond.

The local department store has given way, just like the local grocery store, the local appliance store, or local shoe store. The tipping point was a long time ago. Several years ago Filenes became part of Federated stores. The Filenes stores that survive will become Macy’s stores. The central HQ on Washington St in Boston will close. The caravan moves on.

Just as surely, small bits and pieces of the world we grew up in fade away. Commercial mergers and bankruptcies happen – but, in turn, small parts of the civic fabric are rent. Does the manager of a national chain take less interest in the doings of the Chamber of Commerce, the Better Business Bureau or the Civic Improvement Association than does the president of the local department store? Since it has no point it is not the kind of question we tend to ask anymore.

The Filene’s Bros., R.H. Stearns or the Jordan Marsh of Boston were in their times barons of sorts – of no more interest now than Charlemagne and his barons. In their days, they were lords of the city, forming a merchandising class with distinct social oblige.

Unique among all was Edward A. Filene. His family came to this country as part of the Prussian-German exodus of 1848. And, like a lot of those folk, he inherited some innovative ideas about man and society. He was eager, as the Filenes store succeeded, to improve the lot of Filene’s workers, and of the city of Boston. This reached a culmination of sorts when, at Filene’s request, muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens came to Boston in 1909.

Filene and Steffens formed an inspired partnership, with civic duty as the bond. Filene influenced the Merchant’s Association to hire Steffens, at a salary of princely $10,000 per year, to uncover corruption in Boston.

He hired Steffens to write the “Boston 1915 Plan.” Within six years it would be a better town. Steffens would uncover corruption of police and politic as he had elsewhere, most notably in NY during Teddy Roosevelt’s term as police commissioner.

By the time he came to Boston, Steffens had refined his investigative methods, which required the reporter to find the individuals that most influenced the life of a city, to ascribe their motives, and to examine the areas where one group’s interests conflicted with another’s.

Filenes and Steffens were not out to revive abstract ideals. Instead they were -- in the thrall of some trends of the day -- interested in finding a new model for society that worked within the reality of the times. Boston was corrupt. This wasn’t a surprise to too many; to Steffens the muckraker, it was very familiar, and, ultimately, he tired of the Boston assignment. But, for a time he lived on Beacon Hill, and summered, with Filene, in Marblehead, and went about copiously inspecting the city and its phalanxes, all the time on salary.

New England, Steffens described, as ‘darkest America.’ Worse, he said, then Philadelphia. By describing the vices of the town, and the links that had formed between the police and business interests and the vice mongerers, he thought he could lead the way to removing corruption from the principality. This came at a time in Steffens life when he was as interested in effecting change as he was in disclosing corruption.

Steffens found plenty of material, most especially in a series of interview sessions with ward boss Martin Lomasny. During his Boston days, he came to influence two future journalists of note, John “Jack” Reed and Walter Lippman, both Harvard students at the time.

For his part, Filene believed in a sort of controlled socialism, influenced as well, perhaps, by the writings of his friend Louis Brandeis. He offered his workers profit sharing, and company incorporation papers foresaw a day when the employees might vote to take over ownership of Filenes. It didn’t happen. Filenes himself was booted along the way. The idea of a merchant like Filene as patron to an investigative reporter like Steffens would be odd to day -- it may have been odd in the early 20th Century, but it happened!

Like an Internet millionaire of today, Filene promoted the vision. Here it is as described by Justin Kaplan in his biography of Steffens: “Shuffling through the Filene’s Exposition in Copley Square … the citizens of Boston were treated to movies, an Italian marionette show, statistical charts, displays of model housing of the future, and a demonstration, put on by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, of advanced methods of garbage collection.” All still matters of interest!

Filene’s notions did not turn into a Chamber of Commerce-backed social movement. What he is best known for is the Automated Bargain Basement, where the prices on items were reduced each day of the month, until what was left was hauled off to the Salvation Army.

Certainly the manager of the Boston’s Macys that takes the place of Filenes can become an exceptional figure in Boston’s civic life. But a national chain seldom has a local sensibility. And the sensibilities of ethics may be ones best monitored locally.

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