BOSTON’s NEXT 20 YEARS

Charlie Baker

^ if you want to see the future of Boston governance, here it is : the Governor Baker who is promoting the TCI climate intiative — an instututionalist reformer

Alarm and crisis dominate much current discussion about the people happenings to and in Boston these days. I find the majority of such reaction missing the mark. Boston is definitely changing in a way that it hasn’t changed, perhaps, since the 1850s-1890s, when what had been farmland since the 17th century became completely built up with densely-arranged houses and multi-family dwellings. And so ? I suspect that the Boston of 1870-1890 looked pretty radical to those who had grown up amidst the endless farms and open spaces that prevailed everywhere except in Downtown. By 1890 the old Boston, of a city crowded on what had been Shawmut Island, surrounded by pasture and villages in Roxbury, Dorchester, West Roxbury, and East Boston, had all but disappeared ( the final abolition of that farming Boston gave way to homes built, in Roslindale, West Roxbury, and Mattapan after World War Two ), yet we today take that radically built-up Boston for granted. It’s the Boston we want never to go away — forgetting, assuming we even know, that at one time it was the vast change to what had seemed forever.

So here we are, in the midst of this second coming of radical Cityscape change, and of course our reaction to it lacks the “it’s all been done before” perspective that has scant patience for comforts that grow up during periods of stasis. It is stasis that we want, and, sure enough, there are many political voices calling for a halt, or for economic contortions that, in these politicians’ views, will mitigate, or deflect, the effects of the new change.

A significant factor in the new change is the enormous bull market in real estate prices, both sales and rentals. Yet these, too, occurred during the 1850s-1890s build up. In 1850, land in Boston sold for $ 300 an acre, or less, and built homes sold for $ 1000. By the end of the build-up, these prices had risen by at least 500 percent. The bull market in today’s Boston has reached similar levels. In 1850-1890, those who were moved out by the building boom either sold, took their profits — and even at 1870 prices, profits there were — and moved away or they ended up in the City’s labor force, earning a wage. It wasn’t a very good wage, and two generations later labor unions arose to win workers a fairer wage, but for those who had to pay their way in the 1870s-1900s, wages were the only option for most.

The same is true today. Those who must accommodate to the huge bull market, without owning, have to work for their rent, and, as during the 1870s-1900s, what most can earn today is nowhere near enough. In the period 1870s-1900s, families crowded together in lousy tenements; today, no one suggests that kind of desperation, nor should they suggest it; we don’t want to revisit the sorts of unmitigated consequences that befell non-owners during the first building boom, and much of Boston’s next 20 years will take the shape of economic decisions we are going to be making these next two or three years. What will these be ? It’s too soon to tell, but I would like to have you think about the following facts:

( one ) middle-income and working-wage families continue to move OUT of the City entirely because they do not trust the City’s school system to provide their kids the education they want their kids to have. This movement assures that the vast demographic changes that have revolutionized the politics of Mattapan, Roslindale and Hyde Park will continue.

( two ) the City’s residency requirement for most City employees guarantees that some families which would otherwise move out will stay in the City. Most such choose West Roxbury, Fairmount Hill, Orient Heights, eastern Dorchester, and South Boston, thus granting these parts of the City some population stability

( three ) the City’s institutional and technology booms look certain to continue, thus enabling the bull market in house prices in neighborhoods adjacent to Downtown : Roxbury especially but also Roslindale and the Washington Street to Uphams Corner corridors of Dorchester. This buying pressure forecasts that the City’s Black population will decrease — Black Bostonians being clustered along the Blue Hill Avenue and Washington Street corridors, whence previous populations were most likely of any to move to the South Shore, and, like them, are already following prior movement patterns —  even as its Asian and Hispanic populations continue to expand.

( four ) politically, the voters of Downtown and its expansion areas voted overwhelmingly for Governor Baker in 2018. They are not “progressives,” not ideologues of any kind, really, and, in fact, are owned by neither party. They have yet not settled upon any sort of local, municipal politics view and don’t seem on the verge of forming one. Many are single and concentrating entirely on 50 to 70 hour work weeks. Hardly any of them are City employees. What, then, will they say about City politics when eventually they care to say anything about it at all ? I have no idea, nor do you; but certainly theirs will not be a libertarian one. These voters are problem solvers and innovators — but also highly bureaucratic and control freakish. I suspect they will eventually be right at home with the City’ s vast bureaucracy of command and control of planning — but also with economic freedom and skepticism about utopias. They will, indeed, be very much like the Governor they overwhelmingly voted for in 2018 : Charlie Baker — especially the Baker who is now promoting the TCI initiative; and their numbers and geographic presence in the City will grow, eventually to a tipping point — I’ll say the 2023 or 2025 cycles.

Then we’ll see what Boston’s outlook sounds like and what kind of City we have to live in.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

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