THE RADICAL TRANSFORMATION OF BOSTON

ONE DALTON

^ ONE DALTON PLACE : gazillion-dollar condos for jet set investors

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The building pictured above sets a most depressing pace for the transformation of Boston from an introverted but stable, affordable city, as it once was, to a dynamo of top dollar innovation unaffordable to all but the sponsors of linkedin dazzle.

Yes, your Boston has, since the 1990s at least, moved to recreate itself entirely. So have other cities — the movement is a global one — but Boston is the city I was born in and have lived my life in or near, and it is Boston’s transformation that I — and all of you — have seen from up close. There’s very little in it that anyone foresaw back in the 1970s and 1980s, when the idea first took hold, that downtown Boston badly needed revival and should pursue it. The proposal then was to revive Quincy Market: a limited endeavor, easy to support, for very sound reasons : bringing new life — tourists, maybe even local shoppers — into downtown might regenerate the whole district economically and maybe even boost the City’s real estate tax revenue. The project was a hit. Today, after twenty years of such hits, downtown and in the City’s close-in neighborhoods, Boston isn’t the same City at all. The hits ARE the city.

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Thirty years ago — 40, 50, even 60 years ago — the dynamics of Boston life pointed outward. Boston’s rich had, almost all of them, beginning as early as 1920, left Beacon Hill and the Back Bay for Brookline, Milton, the North Shore. The rest of Boston’s people also wanted to move away — from dense, tenemented in-town neighborhoods, with their under-funded schools, and out of the next rung of neighborhoods as well : off to West Roxbury and Hyde Park, and Ashmont, and out of the City altogether. The South Shore, once completely rural, became the “Irish Riviera,” as towns from Quincy and Weymouth to Marshfield, Hanover, Holbrook, Braintree, Randolph, and Pembroke — and even onto Cape Cod — doubled and tripled in population: and then some. At the same time, other in-town people moved from the West End and North End, Charlestown and East Boston up routes 38, 28, and 1-A, changing the demographics of Middlesex County all the way up to Route 128 and beyond — and up into Essex County also. The dream was to own a home with a picket fence, lawn, and driveway away from smoggy air and  city noise, in towns with well-managed school systems; towns near huge new shopping malls and close to the new super-highways that led to the new jobs in defense plants and high-tech mills built, providentially, along those same highways. Route 128, which in the 1950s circled Boston through farm towns, became a 50-mile long industrial park. This is where the action was, and Boston itself was left, pretty much, to those with City jobs — in 1975 Boston had over 30,000 municipal employees — and folks who serviced city employees’ needs. Also another 20,000 or so people with county and State administration that takes place, perforce, on Beacon Hill, in the city.

Boston in 1975 was a closed world able to continue being a closed world because no one wanted to open it. I recall that world. I was part of it as was my Mom, a famous Boston newspaper-woman born in East Boston to a large immigrant family. My Mom knew everybody who mattered, because in that closed world, everybody who mattered knew and had always known each other. House prices were low — you could buy a row house in Charlestown for $ 5,000, and not only in Charlestown — which favored the continuation of that closed Boston: why move out if your work was in Boston, and you could get a favor done, and you trusted your neighbor, and the cost of living was almost nothing ? Even the derelict had a placed in that closed Boston. The South End in 1975 was a mix of long-established city denizens, many of them people of color, and rooming houses, each seedier than the next but all of them woven comfortably into the accepted fabric of the neighborhood and its city. Plenty of South End properties sold for $ 10,000 and some for much less. Many others were boarded up, which was also OK because boarded-up properties signalled the culture of no-change.

In the Boston of 1975 those who continued to live in it had no reason to expect that their uncontested ownership of the city would ever give way. It was a city of the familiar and the permanent. I often tell the story of my Aunt Elizabeth, who, returning to East Boston for my Mom’s funeral, in late 1969, after living in Cleveland since 1929, recognized every building, even every store, in her old neighborhood of Eagle Hill. Nothing had been done. No investor had built anything. Why would they, when property prices didn’t budge, nor rents rise much : Mom’s family in 1921 paid $ 18 a month to live on the second floor of 180 Bennington Street; rents in 1975 Eagle Hill had lifted to maybe $ 35 a month.

So that was it. There were Irish neighborhoods, and Italian ones, and a Jewish one — fast disappearing: more about this later — a remnant upscale neighborhood (Beacon Hill, Back Bay), and two or three Black neighborhoods too. that was how it had been, and would be, and nobody was making any alternative proposal.

Boston’s very few 1975 high-income people — almost all of them from old-money; Boston families — who still lived in the city benefitted too. They had their neighborhood, and house prices higher, of course, than elsewhere in the city but a bargain nonetheless. Their clubs were in the neighborhood. They had a grocery, on Charles Street.. They lived close to their work, at the MGH hospital across Cambridge Street from Beacon Hill, or at white-shoe law firms, wool brokerages, and old-line trust companies in the downtown district. Many took the subway to work or walked.

Most of that Boston is now gone, the rich as well; as the middle and bottom; the remnant is rapidly going. Where money 40 years ago wanted no part of Boston, today money wants all of it. The rest of us can go take a hike :

( 1 ) the thing now is to live, work, shop and socialize downtown. The nearer to downtown, the more desirable.

( 2 ) the high tech industries that in 1975 made Route 128 their happy place now locate downtown. So do the bureaucratic new specialty professions — lobbying, “consulting,” public relations, event production, trade show promoters, networking convention management — that did not exist in 1975. Downtown is home to several new convention centers.

( 3 ) entirely new neighborhoods of high-rent, amenity-rich residential clusters, $ 40 to $ 60 a meal restaurants, craft beer brewers, high tech firms, nightclubs serving $ 12 drinks with a $ 25 to $ 50 admission price, and specialty professions have remade derelict old, portside sectors. Areas that once had no value now claim multi-million dollar prices.

( 4 ) much of the new downtown is blatant racist. Clubs are afraid to let more than ten percent of their fans be people of color because, as one club  owner told me, let in more, and the club soon becomes all Black.” (And the all Black clubs are here too.) The old Boston was racist too, vulgar at times, economically biased (“no Irish need apply,” “Italians not wanted,” or “no Jews in this law firm”)and it was divided by neighboods with different country of origin; but the new economy is open to all — even its business clubs — which makes today’s downtown racism a sick joke as well as an obsolete hypocrisy. Does anybody in it care ? Not many that I hear from.

( 5 ) neighborhoods near to downtown, of “period” homes and funky old two and three-decker row houses, have become trendy destinations.

( 6 ) the move of high-paying jobs from Route 128 (and Route 495) to downtown, combined with a scarcity of housing compared to those whop want to live close to high-paying work, has spurred a building boom t.hat shows no signs of slowing. Rents have risen 1000 percent; you’ll pay $ 2,500 to $ 5,000 to rent in a trendy neighborhood. Buy prices, too: homes in East Boston, Charlestown, South Boston, Mission Hill, and Roxbury all claim a million dollar price tag. West Roxbury in 1975 was one of Boston’s priciest neighborhoods; today, being seven miles from downtown, it’s below average.

( 7 ) immigrant and low-wage people have either been forced out of their long-available neighborhoods or will soon be, as low-wage people move away from the city, away from their jobs, leaving them with long, costly commutes. Even middle-income workers find it hard to remain in the City. (This is not news. From 1967 to about 1974, the almost 100 percent Jewish neighborhoods along Blue Hill Avenue were block-busted to meet the expanding needs of Boston’s Black residents — a classic cased of pitting one disfavored group against another. Block-busting was a real estate brokers’ bonanza — an avalanche of houses for sale, sold quickly !)

( 8 ) traffic has almost choked the City. It was one thing to locate industry along super highways, quite another to concentrate it in and around the narrow streets of downtown. Super highways could always be widened and service roads built. No such option is available in the city. And where do residents park ?

Boston by 2030, which year is Mayor Walsh’s end date for building 53,000 units of new housing in the city, almost all of it very high-rent or high-buy-price construction, will almost certainly. be a city for the very highly paid, along with those City and State employees who can somehow continue to afford to live in it. It’ll be  a city of impossible traffic no matter how many bikes and bike lanes we enable. It will be serviced by low-wage workers who commute in from ten to 60 miles away, living in Fall River, where house prices and rents are one-third or less of Boston prices, or in Lynn, Lawrence , or Malden, where low-income enclaves have taken up since the 1980s and continue to grow. There’ll be more of these enclaves, because unlike the old Boston, in which low wage workers often came from the same families as city and State big-wigs, are today m,ore and more likely to be immigrants in a society that has come to look down up[on immigrants.

Boston by 2030 will have public school facilities with a capacity of 92,000 students but probably fewer than today’s 54,000. Fewer and fewer residents will want to send their kids to a school system bound by old work rules and bureaucratic curricula when they can easily afford private schooling. By 2030, as well, Boston will be challenged every day by rising sea levels that already flood portions of East Boston. By 2030 much of Dorchester and the South End will also be threatened. The money cost will be immense of berming low-lying Boston neighborhoods.

Boston had been very much a city of the old. In 1975 the typical Boston voter was a grandmother with an Irish or Italian last name. The old of 1975 had no choice but to live as they had, because house prices were too low for anyone to want to sell and because Boston life was easy and familiar. Toady the old, if they own a home, must find it very hard NOT to sell, now that their house is a lottery ticket. Boston by 2030 -will be a city of the young. You can tell by what kind of housing is being proposed: tiny units (two bedroom condos with 850 square feet of living ? The typical house with a picket fence, of 1975, had about 1200 to 1500 square feet; the 19890s McMansions that everybody wanted briefly offered about 3500 square feet ! Those 750 square foot one-bedrooms, 450 square foot studios, and 850 square foot two-bedrooms can only accommodate the young and the single.

The young, the single, the highly paid, will dominate the Boston of 2030, a beehive of 12 to 15 hour workdays, craft beer bistros, $ 50 meals, food trucks, and high-end retailers serving all of those post-graduate educated $ 150,000 to $ 500,000 earners in their linkedin consultancies, medical cubicles, law firm brief-writing laptops, and higher-education speech-code lecture halls. Immigrants will be only those with HB-2 visas. Everyone will be busy beyond belief, solo, and endlessly self-conscious that they live in a city surrounded by nameless proles who fear and hate them.

There has to be better than this for a city whose present dynamism is, in some ways, as much downfall as triumph. Perhaps the community activists who are gathering for conversations and recreating block-level friendships, can find a way to rein in the runaway gold fever that threatens the city’s sanity, not to mention its legitimacy.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

 

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