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Gary Younge
Boston ambush

Ask the bartender how many black people would be there normally and she shrugs.

"Not many," she says.

"How many is not many?"

"OK, none," she admits. "Downtown Boston is pretty segregated so you just don't see it. Not normally."

But tonight is not normal. Tonight is a "friendly takeover" - a mixture of racial ambush and social networking. The bar's name may be Modern but, like most social spaces in Boston, its usual clientele looks nothing like the city beyond its walls. Blacks make up more than a quarter of Boston's population but are rarely seen downtown at night.

When Reggie Cummings, a software developer, got tired of being the only black face out after dark, he came up with the idea of the friendly takeover. He sends emails, contacting every local black professional group, from the Society of Black Engineers to the National Association of Black Flight Attendants, not to mention the university fraternities and sororities. He tells them 48 hours ahead of time which venue in downtown Boston "could use a little colour", but doesn't tell the venue.

"Boston is one of the best cities in the world in terms of culture, arts and music," says Cummings, who will admit only to being "thirty-something". "Yet I find myself living in a world that doesn't look like me. So I thought there are all these great places. Let's take them over."

Tonight at the Modern there are around 60 African-Americans and few whites. "It's better when there's more of a mix," says Cummings, who insists that numbers are less important than impact. "Sometimes it works out like that and sometimes it doesn't. But it doesn't matter if two people or 200 show up. These are public places and we're the public."

He stands back, nursing a drink and watches the fruits of his labour. "Initially they react with some shock and they can feel uncomfortable," he says, referring to the bar owners and their patrons. "I have seen people walk in and walk out when they've seen so many black people in a place where they are not expecting them. That's not the reaction we want, but we can't help that. But nine times out of 10 they welcome us. We spend money and we don't make trouble. It's friendly. But it's a takeover."

While his immediate aim tonight is for a social takeover of the Modern, he also hopes his idea will lead to a racial makeover for the city. For when it comes to race, Boston, one of only a few major American cities never to have had a black mayor, has an image problem. It dates back to the 70s when a court decision to enforce the bussing of black children to mostly white schools provoked a violent backlash. "What I remember most about that period," says Cummings of the attacks which took place in 1974, "is that I was a little kid and I was thinking, why are these people throwing rocks at me?"

Two years later, Ted Landsmark, a black man, was photographed being beaten viciously by white youths with the staff of an American flag just outside Boston City Hall. The picture won a Pulitzer prize and cemented the city's status as one of the nation's least tolerant cities.

Serious problems undoubtedly remain. Democrats had second thoughts about holding next year's annual convention here because the welcoming committee that greeted them contained few minorities. But the fact that they decided to hold it there anyway is one indication that, whatever racial problems remain, they are nothing like on the scale they used to be.

Nonetheless, there is a sense of unease that is as vague as it is prevalent among the city's African-Americans. Articulate as all revellers at the Modern are, none can quite find the words for it, yet all of them feel it. They talk about not feeling "comfortable" in bars and restaurants, often dining, dancing and drinking in couples, or as the only black person in a group full of white workmates.

"We get used to the fact that we'll be the only black people in the restaurant," says William "Mo" Cowan, head of the Massachusetts Black Lawyers' Association that sponsored the friendly takeover, who is there with his wife, Stacy. "We want to come to something like this to see other people who look like us. Everybody has their own comfort zone."

Dig a little deeper below the melanin content and it becomes clear that the friendly-takeovers are inspired at least as much by class as by race. The inhabitants of Roxbury, Mattapan and South Dorchester - all black, working-class areas of Boston - do not share this angst because they have organic social scenes in their neighbourhoods, although by all accounts there remains a sense of alienation.

Cummings is keen to attract the right kind of African-American. "The professional is as important to us as the black," he says. "We are not an elitist organisation, but we appreciate people who respect themselves and who are prepared to act appropriately."

Black professionals, dispersed to the suburbs and often isolated at work or university, find little opportunity to socialise in their own image. "You work hard and then you go home," says Stacy Cowan. "You come into the city to work, then you leave the city to live." The process of integration has been strong enough to elevate them into jobs and lifestyles that distance them from most African-Americans, who are poor. Yet racism has proved too stubborn for them to secure the kind of meaningful social relationships with their white colleagues and neighbours with similar economic and professional aspirations.

If friendly-takeovers are about integrating downtown Boston, they are also about asserting a black identity within it. If white people organised groups on such racial lines they would be accused of racism. The fact is, points out, Mo Cowan, they don't have to.

"White people in the US have had the comfort zone all their lives," he says. "They don't have to go looking for it. It's always interesting to me to observe even the most positive, forward-thinking progressive member of the majority culture when they are surrounded by minorities. All of a sudden they have to struggle with the fact that they are now the minority. But that is the what most black people in the US have to deal with all the time."

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