Lit Drop | After ‘76 visit, a reversal of public fortune for royals and the city

Royals visiting Boston look at photos of another royal visit as they walk through City Hall with Mayor Wu and her family, and Gov.-elect Healey. (Mayor's Press Office)

When William Mountbatten-Windsor, better known as “the Prince of Wales,” stepped into the hallway outside the mayor of Boston’s office last Wednesday, he was greeted by black-and-white pictures of his late grandmother, who made her own visit here nearly 50 years ago.

Despite the beaming local officials who joined her then in the pictures that were put up on the walls ahead of his visit, it was a different Boston back in 1976. “Royal respite for beleaguered Boston,” said the July headline in The Phoenix, an alternative weekly.

Underneath, the article continued in the same vein: “For Bostonians who had spent many an anxious month waiting for something good to happen here, it came with the concert on the Esplanade, the arrival of the Tall Ships, and the visit by Queen Elizabeth. The sun, literally and figuratively, shone on this city for two successive weekends.”

At the time of her visit, Mountbatten-Windsor’s grandmother, who passed away this past September, was a year out from her Silver Jubilee celebration, commemorating 25 years on the throne and she drew large crowds nearly everywhere she went.

Coupled with the US Bicentennial and the Tall Ships, her presence provided a psychological uplift to the ailing city. Kevin White, the mayor at the time, faced a grand jury looking into his administration. Property values were lower. The parks were unkempt and grimy. And city officials, a federal judge, and residents were bitterly at odds over court-ordered school desegregation.

Forty-six years later, the situation has been reversed: Over the course of three days, Mountbatten-Windsor and his wife Kate Middleton basked in the green light of a Boston on an upswing. The city that was the birthplace of successful efforts to overthrow an ancestor of theirs is now home to innovations in climate technology, life sciences, and education.

For the royals, the trip was a respite from the tensions at a beleaguered Buckingham Palace, which has been dealing with a family rift between brothers, and more recently, with a close family friend insistently questioning the Black British leader of a charity about where she was “really” from. While the number of monarchies has fallen dramatically across Europe since World War I, England has soldiered on with, as the Wall Street Journal recently put it, “an institution that — despite being undemocratic by definition — depends on support from the British public for its survival.” Much like Tinker Bell, the pixie in “Peter Pan,” the royals need people to keep clapping.

The visit to Boston, marked by rain and gusting winds, did well on that score. Two years ago, Mountbatten-Windsor launched the Earthshot Prize, which funnels money toward “ground-breaking eco-solutions to repair and regenerate the planet.” He says its inspiration was President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 “Moonshot” speech and the ensuing space race. Dorchester’s Marty Walsh, the former mayor turned US labor secretary, was part of the group lobbying for Boston as the host city for the prize announcement.

The royals picked Boston last July, and they spent last week here lashing themselves to green technology and a young Boston mayor, Michelle Wu, the first woman of color elected to the job. They visited a climate tech incubator in Somerville and appeared downtown and in East Boston with Wu, who won the 2021 mayoral election with a platform promising to mitigate climate change through a “Green New Deal.”

Wearing an emerald tie, Mountbatten-Windsor joined Wu and Gov.-elect Maura Healey under a tent outside City Hall, hitting a button that bathed the Brutalist structure in green. Applause followed.

Before Friday's “Earthshot” awards ceremony in the concert hall next to Fenway Park, Mountbatten-Windsor ducked into Dorchester, where, on Columbia Point, he received a tour of the JFK Presidential Library. He also met for 30 minutes with President Biden, who was in town on democratic matters, including a phone bank inside the IBEW Local 103 union hall, aimed at keeping a Georgia Senate seat in his party's hands.

As they met, the New York Times take on the royal visit circulated online. The article featured interviews with customers of one of the neighborhood's many Dunkin' locations and at the bar in the Eire Pub in Adams Village. "Don't care," one person told the reporter, after learning the topic of the story.

In Dorchester, at least, the applause was muted.

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