Boston 2024

^ “developer speculation” ? Yes, because that is how Citi9es are built and re-built

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Yesterday a person who does not want to see Boston host the 2024 Olympics called the project “developer speculation” as if that were something bad. Actually, it’s how Boston got built. East Boston, South Boston, most of Dorchester, much of Roxbury, of Brighton and Jamaica Plain, and almost all of West Roxbury, Roslindale, Mattapan, and Hyde Park were built by developers speculating.

In that same vein, Boston 2024 will also be a project of developers speculating, and good that it will be. That developers are willing to risk their money — yes, their money — to create things that currently do not exist is our City’s good fortune. We should do all in our power to enable their speculations to become actual.

Cities exist because that’s where the money is — the commerce, the transactions, and the structures in which these take place — and people want to be close to it, even to reside near it.

Cities are not photographs, they are movies., By which i mean that cities do not reflect one time frame, they move through time, changing, evolving, creating, destroying, renovating, abut always generating commerce and profit. If they do not do this, they wither and even die.

Boston’s great era of developer speculation — of commerce and innovation — took place during about 130 years beginning in about 1820 and ending in about 1955. During that period, almost all the neighborhoods we now take for granted were built up to the shapes we see them in. Downtown took shape then too, as did the waterfront, the transportation systems. Shipbuilding was revolutionized by Donald McKay, creator of the “clipper ship.” The City’s population grew from about 65,000 to about 800,000. There was much money to be made, and many made it, most of them immigrants like the Kennedys and the Volpes, Drukers and Callahans, Filenes and Goldbergs, Flatleys and Corcorans.

Developer speculation also meant good jobs for Swedish wood-crafters, Scottish ship-caulkers, Irish and Quebecois rail workers, Italian construction crews and quarry workers, Jewish tailors and merchants. Boston became a core city for Building Trades unions and remains so today.

It was a dynamic City, the Athens of America. Horace Mann invented the universal public school; here. Massachusetts General hospital was the crucible of much medical discovery. Harvard was transformed, MIT created. Integration and abolition took shape in and around Boston. Prejudices grew and were defeated here. Modern city politics was invented here.

All of it fueled and enabled by developer speculation.

We forget all this. How easily we forget.

We forget this because few of us have personal memory of that Boston. The City that we grew up in was a city in decline, where very little developer speculation took place and where the one huge, traumatic development all do recall was the destruction of the West End, certainly the hugest planning mistake ever made in  Boston and an exemplar, that destruction is not development but its opposite. Removal of the West End decreased the population of a city already fully challenged by large numbers of residents fleeing to the suburbs.

There was little developer speculation in a city that people were getting out of. Rent control, which the City attempted disastrously, assured there would be none at all. By the late 1970s downtown Boston was completely under-utilized, the waterfront a smelly mass of rotting piers and vacant lofts. Fort Point too. Downtown was fast becoming one huge ruin.

As for the neighborhoods, there was almost no new construction anywhere. When in 1970 my Aunt Liz came back to East Boston, for my Mom’s funeral, after living away for over 50 years, she and I drove through Eagle Hill and the Central Square area where our family had lived. Aunt Liz recognized every single building !

By the 1980s entropy was spurred away by the Faneuil Market project — which seemed crazy at the time; today development in Boston has become the norm, at least in Downtown, and is a significant generator of the commerce that enables a city. But one thing has not changed : our mindset. Many Bostonians still think of the City as something to be preserved from change, as if the change that makes a city live were still a kind of West End bulldozing.

as a result, in too many neighborhoods, development is treated as a threat, not a boon, and projects are rejected by design review groups in which opponents of change vastly outnumber those who want it. Few seem to realize that discouraging development devalues  a neighborhood. Some who do recognize it actually prefer devaluation.

There is one other mistake that many Bostonians make : a city does not only belong to those who reside within its boundaries.  A City belongs also to those who work in it, to those who bring commerce to it and those whose commerce travels through it. A City belongs to these people too because without them there would be hardly any City left.

Here is where Boston 2024 comes in. The Olympic games will bring enormous development to the City, increase its population, balloon its traffic (in both senses of the term, and there’s a reason why the word has both meanings), make Boston even more commercial and innovative than it has become.

To the extent that Boston 2024 brings change and traffic, commerce and development into the City, it is to be welcomed. The only — only — question is, can Boston 2024’s managers manage the project ? In all of its co-ordination of complexity ? To that question I have no sure answer yet; but I do know this : change will happen anyway, but un-co-ordinated, piecemeal, and small-minded, with much that we could have not coming to us because in small projects, the developers think small, thread-bare, and stingy.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Spjhere