“We’re creating a Constitution here…”

Analogizing the Suffolk Downs development’s public discussion to a Constitutional convention ? Yes indeed

Last night, at one of the many public meetings going on these days concerning the vast Suffolk Downs proposal, Lydia Edwards — District One’s City Councillor — was seeking how to explain to a room full of East Boston’s most needful people what she was urging them to conceive. The neighborhood’s very low income people, many of them homeless, don’t often engage with city planners and vast real estate build-outs; questions were asked that made it fairly evident that many didn’t quite understand what part they were asked to play in deciding what sort of project Suffolk Downs’s 10,000 housing units and hundreds of commercial spaces would end up as. Edwards was listing the parameters of the proposal, and the numbers, and the rent costs in full detail; and she wanted her listeners to ask questions, to challenge the project’s design, to offer their own opinions.

“Look,” she ended up saying, “this is your project as much as it is theirs. This is a Constitution we’re making, it’s like the Constitution, and we’re creating it !”

This was adventurous language indeed. Yet it seemed to register. People asked more confident questions, demanded stuff that the Suffolk developer ought by now to know the East Boston community wants and expects.

I’m not going to discuss those expectations any further in this column because I’ve already written about the Suffolk project at length. What I want to write about here is Edwards’s using the Constitution as an example of community engagement with a major issue (and housing is about as major an issue right now, in Boston, as it, gets).

Most of us, I think, regard the Constitution — if we think of it at all — as something drawn up long, long ago by men who wore powdered wigs and buckle shoes, some of whom owned slaves, all of whom were white males. It’s there, we feel, the way a huge granite building is there, or the Interstate Highway System, or a vast bureaucracy. Many of us, in the age of Mr. Trump, talk about the Constitution as we haven’t ever done before, as justification for what we don’t like about his willful orders and such like. We say “but the Constitiution says,” as if we were saying “Highway XXX is there, it goes from A to B, and you damn well better not make it go to point C,” or we may say, “if Trump says A goes to c and not B, he is making Route XXXS great again !” This is the current Constitutional custom.

But what if we were tasked with creating a Constitution ? A set of basic rules for how to do this or that ? Can we even imagine that such power is given to us ? Let us recall that the Constitution we all know about was created to change the basic rules of how the 13 original states were interacting with each other because the original set of rules was not working. And so those who were delegated to fix the rules drafted an entirely new set of rules. That is what Edwards was suggesting, I think correctly : the current rules by which housing is built in Boston are not working, or are working the wrong way, and we the people ought to convene and together create new rules that can work. Heady stuff, but why not ? The Constitution of 1787 was submitted to ratification conventions to which delegates elected by all the voters of that year were elected. Since in 2019, in Boston, every citizen 18 years old or older can vote, why not engage every such citizen in the fight to create development rules that work as they should ? And to those who say, “my vote doesn’t make any difference,” all I can respond is, “you’re very wrong.” Believe me, politicians listen. They may not tell you they listen, or they may not listen to you every day, but they do listen when the chips are down.

That, anyway, is the faith that Edwards has and ponied up to the betting game that is the future shape of the 10,000 housing unit Suffolk Downs development, 151 acres of land with hundreds of commercial spaces, loads of parking, tons of green space, the biggest such development in Boston since the land-filling of the Back Bay 150 years ago. Almost everyone agrees that the present rules of development, with respect to affordability percentages, design, density, and traffic impact, aren’t working — at least they aren’t working for people who have lived in Boston during very different times and now find themselves walking the plank of a twilight zone, Thus the challenge, by Edwards, to imagine ourselves making a Constitution in place of a very dis-functional confederation. It’s a big message — but one that calls us to reactive the history behind us and to live as boldly — but purposefully, knowing our responsibilities as well as our powers — as did our forbears of 1787.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere