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Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families

4.28  ·  Rating details ·  2,234 ratings  ·  215 reviews
Winner of 3 different awards, this is a story of the busing crisis in Boston.
Paperback, 688 pages
Published August 12th 1986 by Vintage (first published August 12th 1985)
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Aug 02, 2007 rated it it was amazing
This may be the best non-fiction book I have ever read. It chronicles the lives of three families in Boston - Irish-American, African-American and WASP (don't mean that negatively!) from the night of the MLK riots in 1968 thru school desegregation. It's a great read of lawyers but also a great read for anyone interested in city issues - be they Boston's issues or any other urban areas. Would recommend to anyone and have already bought it for several friends!
Nov 06, 2014 rated it really liked it
Lukas brings to life the chaos of Boston’s school busing crisis and racial conflict of the ‘60s and ‘70s. His poignant account contrasts the experiences of three families from different communities: poor inner city black, poor inner city Irish, and middle class college educated white. Tracing each family’s ancestry he illustrates the evolution of each community’s values and then shows us how those values guide the families and communities response to the crisis.

Throughout Lukas digresses to vig
Nick Klagge
Jan 14, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is a masterpiece of a book. It is about Boston in the 1970s, though if it had been described to me only as such I'm sure I wouldn't have picked it up. Instead, it was lent to me by a good friend who recommended it highly.

Reading "Common Ground" felt a lot like watching "The Wire," and I can't help but wonder whether David Simon read Lukas' book and was influenced by it. CG is not as focused on crime per se as is The Wire, but it is a similar (and similarly successful) attempt to tell the st
Norman Cohen
Nov 08, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the best nonfiction books I've ever read, and an essential book for anyone interested in the complex ways that race and class play out in American cities and in education.

Watching David Simon's excellent HBO mini-series "Show Me a Hero" inspired me to pick up "Common Ground" again, and I'm grateful that I did. One is about court-ordered desegregation of public housing in Yonkers, the other about court-ordered busing in Boston. What strikes me about both books is the utter intract
Aug 14, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Several years ago, I was asked to give a Common Ground tour to a friend:

More recently, in my current job, I got the assignment of working on a grant at the Charlestown Housing Development so have spent a fair amount of time there. It has changed a lot since Lukas wrote the book, serving families from many ethnic backgrounds.

The book is compelling. It is a very odd experience reading this book as many of the characters in this book are individuals I have he
Jan 14, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This is a book that I had to read for a college course and I thought it was okay, but it really took a long time to get through and I didn't care that much in the end. But when I read it again after college, I realized how great it really is.
It takes a look at three families: one poor black family, one poor Irish family, and one young well-off, idealistic "Yankee" family. The book explores how they deal with each other during Boston's bussing crises of the 1970's. Admittedly, there is a LOT of
Apr 05, 2012 rated it it was amazing
My favorite genre is non-fiction, though it isn't easy to find a good selection. Either the author gets the history right but he/she can't write, or the author is a good writer but gets the history wrong. Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas, is a Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece about an event in the 1960's and 1970's that nearly brought the great city of Boston, Massachusetts, to its knees. It narrates the story of how a well-meaning judge decided that the public schools in Boston were de-facto ...more
Jul 21, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This book is hands-down the most powerfully resonant book I've read since college. I devoured this book, and was changed by it. History is very far from my favorite reading genre. But this book was different for me in a number of crucial ways. For one thing, it concerns the place I've come to see as my home, greater Boston. So the events of this book take place in places that I actually am familiar with (unlike most history texts). I can visualize the geography described here, and while reading ...more
Ben Loory
Jan 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I lived in Charlestown, Mass for a year (many years ago) and really enjoyed finally coming to understand that place (at least a little bit) via this book. I also liked learning about how JFK's dad bought him the Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, which hadn't even been on the recommending panel's longlist (prizes are bullshit, exhibit 9,000). Also, the fact that for something like 50 years after the Irish started coming to Boston, Catholic priests weren't allowed inside Boston's hospitals, ...more
Julie Sizer
Sep 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Took me so long to read, because it's 650+ pages and teensy text, but well worth it - especially for educators working in Boston.
Jun 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Wow. This may be one of the most important books I've ever read. Boston is truly one of the great loves of my life: I give walking tours, work in a souvenir shop, and do research as part of my full-time job. But I have always known that it is not a perfect city, and that its history is far from pure. It is easy to idolize its colonial heritage and ignore the rest of what has happened (and is happening) here. I am so utterly grateful for this book, which has allowed me to learn about Boston's man ...more
Feb 12, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the best books I've ever read. Grand in scope and much more than the busing crisis in Boston. I particularly liked how it described how the same events were experienced so differently by the three families (e.g. the assassinations of JFK & MLK); something you know intuitively but don't truly appreciate until someone like J. Anthony Lukas informs you so compellingly. Also very effective was the way the author described the influence of outside sources such as the Catholic church an ...more
Common Ground by J Anthony Lukas won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 1985.

The detail in this lengthy book is mind numbing. Impeccably researched. It is suppose to follow three families in 1970’s Boston. By my count though there are some two dozen characters featured however. The author pulls no punches on his moral assessment of the Irish protagonists in Charlestown. The author lays all the blame of the 1975 busing crisis and school integration at their hands. The
Jun 23, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
J. Anthony Lukas’ “Common Ground” is the account of civil rights conflict in Boston between the middle 1960s and the middle 1970s, culminating with the forced integration of the Boston school system. The book was published in 1985 … so reading it 28 years after publication and almost 40 years after the events in question, one has some perspective.

Lukas’ book takes three Boston families from different socio-economic conditions and follows them for a decade, up to a frenzy of inner-city strife br
Jun 10, 2011 rated it really liked it
Pretty extraordinary book. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to intimately know the city of Boston or see a warts-and-all look at Northern race relations post-Civil Rights. I often say a book was incredibly well-researched, but this was a true tour de force, meticulously covering Boston history, the long and tangled history of various ethnic groups and these three specific clans, and the social forces, local politics, and personalities that shaped the climate in 1970's Boston and led to th ...more
Feb 02, 2009 rated it really liked it
An exhaustive but fair examination of forced busing in Boston in 1973. The City of Boston's school commitee failed to follow mandated Federal government rules for desegregation and lost control of the city's schools. The management of the school system became subject to judicial receivership. Judge Garrity enforced the rule with busing and the results were on the national news nightly. Vitriol and egg throwing, it was an ugly time indeed.
Having just begun college I would find myself commuting
Samarth Gupta
Apr 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Great book about Boston busing crisis, housing, race, education, politics, etc etc

“What good is a great private college unless it serves a great national purpose?"

"Colin and David could no longer accept that traditional notion, but neither could they endorse the radicals’ concept of the law as a hammer to smash the barricades of vested interest. Slowly, they came to view it as a lever with which to pry up the mossy rocks of privilege, bringing air and light to the teeming precincts beneath."

Jul 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Lukas is up there with Caro in terms of ability to write spellbinding nonfiction. Having moved to Boston not 10 months ago—happening upon Common Ground through a coworker-turned-immediate-friend—Lukas shed uncomfortably clear light on my streets, my neighborhood, my bus routes. And it served its purpose. Why do we read nonfiction? Why do we study history? In vain, we think we can 'learn' and not make the same mistakes 'they' made. But 'they' are us, and I'll be damned if we aren't still engaging ...more
Feb 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Having lived through busing as a child in Boston, Charlestown and then Newton, this book had a profound impact on me. It helped me to understand the clash between well meaning policies largely crafted by people whose children were not subject to forced busing and the families and communities whose lives were disrupted. As we were also a pro busing family in a town that was generally not, the book helped me to understand the response to us which was at times bordering on violent. Definitely worth ...more
Sam Graham-felsen
Aug 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The single greatest work of reported nonfiction I've ever read. A massive work of empathy. Lukas follows three families, one old money and WASPy, one working class Irish, one poor and black, as they live through the busing years in Boston. Anyone who wants to understand the reality of American cities needs to read this book. It's probably the one book that inspired me to be a writer -- one who tries to step inside others' shoes.
Jan 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
An interesting exploration of the clashing of principles, ideals and reality in urban America - vividly threaded together by the personal struggles of the three families. Common Ground brings together problems of race, economics and community self-determination, while not taking particular sides, nor sounding preachy and remaining accessible. In this age of polarisation, a worthy read.
Mar 06, 2016 rated it it was ok
These were a series of fantastically detailed portrayals of white Bostonians during desegregation. It utterly failed to incorporate the voices of black Bostonians.
Tina Humphrey Boogren
May 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
This one's a doozy... Extremely well written and detailed; I'm in awe of the research done for this book--no wonder it won so many awards!
Jul 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
Common Ground opens with the cataclysm of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in April 1968. It ends at Southview Cemetery in Atlanta, where King's body was interred, where Joan Diver's "throat throbbed with the loss of so many dreams buried there in the red Georgia clay" (647).

The book recounts the effects of the Boston busing "crisis" upon the lives of its main three subjects and their families. We witness their personal hopes and the social promise of desegregation crash against the shores
Jul 16, 2019 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
From "It Was Never About Busing: Court-ordered desegregation worked. But white parents wouldn't accept it." by Nikole Hannah-Jones in the New York Times, Sunday Review, July 14, 2019. Further, while it is true that close-by schools may be convenient, white Americans’ veneration of neighborhood schools has never outweighed their desire to maintain racially homogeneous environments for their children. Few remember that Oliver Brown, a petitioner in Brown v. Board of Education, sued for the right o ...more
Jun 04, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: book-club-books
It was really hard for me to decide what I thought about this book! It has a lot (A LOT) of information, and I certainly came away from reading it knowing a lot more about busing in Boston than I had before.

However, the overwhelming number of detailed facts and personal histories contained in this book made it hard to actually get a sense of the larger picture. I came away feeling like I just had more questions than when I started - and while that's not necessarily the worst thing, I generally p
May 16, 2019 rated it liked it
I found this to be an interesting, ultimately depressing account of the school segregation and busing crisis in Boston. However, it tried to do too much and to do so apparently through mere anecdote. The book gives the reader more of a “sense” of the time and period than an actual historical account. Ultimately the book is too long, the lack of linearity is confusing at times, and the book has an ahistorical, narrative feel that doesn’t always do the matter justice. However, the topic is fascina ...more
Matt Suder
May 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, 2018
Beast of a read. Stunning last sentence, even if I doubt the impact received today was intended when written.
Excellent and interesting history of the fight for equality in education and the larger civil rights struggle in Boston. Insane how little has changed nationally over 45 years.
Dec 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I grew up, I think, in a quiet time for racial consciousness and uproar across the nation. And when I thought of equality and civil rights movements I think I thought of it somehow all being resolved in the 50s - as if desegregation had occurred overnight, right after the National Guard walked black children into southern schools. And always it was the south I thought of - not the North, that bastion of peace and equality (after all, we ended slavery in the Civil War didn’t we?). I say all of th ...more
David Rogers
First off, I kept wondering why go through desegregation when what the city of Boston could have done was improve all the schools so that every school in every neighborhood was of high quality. Either I missed the conversation about why that wasn't going happen or I never understood why it couldn't happen.

Okay, so now for the book. Of the 700+ pages perhaps 400 pages were dedicated toward the busing issue while the other pages delved into issues and backstories not really germane to busing at a
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Jay Anthony Lukas was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, probably best known for his 1985 book Common Ground : A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families a study of race relations and school busing in Boston, Massachusetts in the mid - 1970's.

Lukas began his professional journalism career at the Baltimore Sun, then moved to The New York Times. He stayed at the ''Times

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