CITIES AND HOUSING : CHANGNG THE GAME ENTIRELY

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We were on our way to writing a big op-ed about why Massachusetts is best governed by a centrist GOP governor and the Democratic Speaker of the House, when, this morning, there appeared in the Boston Globe a Paul McMorrow piece that spotlights a societal shift of major significance, one that demands immediate discussion.

In his op-ed, Mcmorrow notes that the young people now gathering to work, shop, dine, party, and live in the downtowns of major cities are rendering the traditional single family home a thing of the past. McMorrow notes the building boom now going on in Boston’s central areas — from the Fenway to Seaport District and everything in between — , of apartment complexes, condominiums, and mixed-use mini-cities in which residential and commercial uses share. He applauds it. He calls for Massachusetts to shift from building single family homes to enabling the new living preference.

McMorrow is right, and I agree with his call.

The talented, socially active young people who are transforming downtown Boston completely live entirely differently from their parents and grandparents. Where the generations who grew up in the 1950s and the 1980s wanted to move far away from city downtowns, into those wonderful picket fence houses with driveways that Norman Rockwell used to paint, today’s young want to live, work, shop, dine, and socialize right next to one another. They work in collaborative competition, close and next to each other in emporia of start-up enterprises, and close-up collaborative competition is how they socialize as well. Even as social media and laptops enable people to work from home, the generation that lives by social media and smart phones wants, paradoxically, to be up close and personal with one another; to exchange ideas directly; to have conversations in real time and — indeed — to do everything up close in real time.

Prior generations sought privacy and fences, curtains drawn, and distance from their fellows. they want all their immediate concerns to exist enclosed within vast walls and rooms. That’s why, in so many 1980s-2000s exurbs, you see vast tracts of identical McMansions sitting on lots far too small. Inside was to be big, and outside didn’t matter, because you probably didn’t know your neighbor, and the commute to work took an hour or more each way, so there was no time to get to know neighbors. The generation before, of the 1950s-19609s, lived, family by family, in smaller homes on more cordial outdoor terms, but it too swore by Robert Frost’s famous line, “good fences make good neighbors.”

Today’s generation lives too great a diversity of lifestyles or cultures to accommodate to McMansions or to picket fences. In the center city, surrounded by parties and traffic, dining al fresco or indoors, partying till late at night or not, bicycling or walking, inventing or extending, the generation of 2010-15 cares less about what its living quarters are shaped like than how many different kinds of people (and different ideas) live close by. Young city dwellers want efficient space, in apartments one-third the size of McBoxes, even far smaller : micro apartments are very popular with single young people; they come really small, like the chihuahuia-sized Fiat cats of Europe;  as tiny as 350 square feet !

They are getting the living quarters they want. They have the money to demand it. What is less evident, and is not mentioned at all in McMorrow’s piece, is that the 2010-15 generation is beginning to transform the city’s basic institutions.

Good bye to the obsolete 2 AM closing hour. Hello, all night public transit.

Good bye to the five piece rock band. Hello, house music DJs.

Good bye to the dominance of cars. Hello, bicycle world : Hubway.

Good bye — I hope — to the racial segregation of downtown social life.

Good bye to the department store. hello, high end boutique.

Good-bye to the chain restaurant. Hello, the chef-owned trend spot.

Hello to District Hall, to Future Boston assembles, to Eventbrite.

But all of the above are changes in style and congregation. Much deeper changes are in store for how the city is governed :

1. Hello, interface mayor

2. hello, budgets on line and virtual council meetings.

3. good bye to the structured school classroom, hello to teacher-monitored on line learning, to apprenticeships, to study groups, to field trips (within the city).

The old, picket fence neighborhoods remain and will continue or some time. Some folks do like them. But today the center city once again drives the entire urban process. The change is radical and affects every part of city life,. it will have huge political consequences too, and these will push exurbia away from influencing how Massachusetts is governed, as surely (and for the same reasons) as the value of McMansions goes down because almost nobody wants to live that way anymore, 40 to 60 miles away from ‘the action,” slaves to automobile commuting, needlessly carbon foot-printing and isolated in huge and costly uselessness from their collaborators and competitors.

Builders went for McMansions because land costs left them no choice but to build oversized houses. That should have been the big clue that the single family home had lost its provenance. It probably would have made the point, except that 2000-06 was also the era of mortgage excess; and the marriage of house oversize and mortgage binge became a perfect storm of housing absurdity.

Today we see it.

The big changes at hand are big because they first have to wipe away that absurdity. this, they will do.The unanswered question is, what will become, in the new Massachusetts, of those who cannot afford city life, nor a 40 to 60 mile commute, and who lack access to the new city jobs ? Will we bring enough economic fairness to these people, for whom the new life of downtowns, tech jobs, and money so far has scant place ?

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

THE MAYORALTY OF MARTY WALSH : A LETTER FROM MEL KING

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^ Mel King : says that his endorsement was prompted by the “young adults” of Right to the City,” whom he “encouraged to do this analysis” of “its questionnaire to both candidates.”

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A letter from Mel King in today’s Boston Globe prompts me to write a column about Marty Walsh’s impending Mayoralty that I was already thinking about. In his letter, King — the Grand Old man of street-theater activism, decades before Occupy — says :

“A group called Right To the City, composed of various organizations working on access to affordable housing, good jobs, quality education, and sustainable community development, seeks to enable a cross section of racial, ethic, and income groups to remain and participate in all aspects of Boston.’

The letter continues : “The group’s members, a new rainbow coalition, are in the forefront of such issues as foreclosure blockades to protect people’s homes, stopping no-fault tenant evictions, and fighting alongside unions for construction jobs.”

This letter fascinates me. It raises all sorts of questions :

1.The second quote sums up the organization City Life/Vida Urbana, of which Steve Meacham, a man very close to both Felix Arroyo’s, is the justly respected spokesperson. Vida Urbana does all but one (that, see below) of the things cited in that quote. Yet in the Primary, when it most mattered, King did not back Felix G. Arroyo. He was closest to Charles Clemons, a man of almost Republican economic views, and to Clemons’s major supporters — all of whom ended up supporting John Connolly.

2.The first quote mentions affordable housing initiatives as one of Right To the City’s priorities. Did King not know — does he not YET know ? — that one of John Connolly’s primary endorsers, State Representative Jay Livingstone, filed and shepherded a $ 1.4 billion affordable housing bond bill that Governor Patrick signed into law just last week ? Later in his letter King says that “the group felt that Walsh was more responsive to its concerns.” Not true of the affordable housing issue.

3.King then says, “Having encouraged these young adults to do this analysis, I joined with them.” King then talks about watching Walsh, at several rallies : “I saw evidence of ways Walsh’s campaign included people.” True enough; but did King not manage to see a few of John Connolly’s rallies ? If not, why not ? It would be fascinating to know what inclusion King did NOT see at the Connolly rallies.

These questions merit answering. Can I start with the one thing, in King’s quote, that City Life does NOT do :  “…fighting alongside unions for construction jobs” ?

These seven words express the reason why King finally joined a group comprised chiefly of Felix G. Arroyo people, to endorse a man about whom this most original of Boston citizens had nothing original to say…

Construction jobs and unions were Walsh’s cliche. The Construction Chief’s campaign piled forty stories of Mayor-initiative atop that cliche, space well built and beautifully appointed by 600 architects of policy hired for the job. The cliche is what King clings to.

Time is coming soon now when that policy building will have to be built. Will it be ? CAN it be ?

Walsh is hemmed in by his union support even more than he is empowered by it. If he favors his unions supporters too obviously, he will hand a perfect “See ? we told you so” issue to a 2017 opponent. If he cracks at the next City union contract crunch time… or, if he pushes back against the City unions, as he did against the school bus drivers… If he proceeds with the infamous House Bill 2467…or if that bill is never heard from again : whichever way Walsh chooses, either the opposition will gain or his supporters will complain. Which is it to be ?

Implementing even a fraction of the 40 policy initiatives that his campaign crafted and published will require intricate management. Compromise and collaboration won’t suffice. Every one of Walsh’s policy proposals shifts the job descriptions of those who will have to carry them out. City employees, like union workers, resist work rule changes. gho will assure that the city employees tasked to carry out Walsh’s initiatives will comply ? Will feel enthusiastic about it ?

Enter, perhaps, some of those business, university, and Union partnerships that Walsh talked of during the campaign.

And then comes the Boston Public Schools, which, according to State evaluation, appear able to educate properly barely half their students.

Easier for Walsh will be what he is already masterful at, with long partnerships in place : continuing the Boston building boom. And ramping it up. The Building trades people and the developers who accord them a living can expect to work the BRA a lot more invitingly than they did under Mayor Menino. City hall plaza — a good idea, if rather impracticable — and hotels galore, new school buildings, Downtown Crossing, Dudley Square, Jackson Square — and more. The next few years will surely be a field day for Boston construction. Probably, also, for workers from the City’s communities of color, whose entry into the Building trades Walsh has long sought, with less success than he would like.

This is one deal that Walsh can definitely close.

It seems, however, that Walsh and his team want to say and do everything they can to distract the voters’ attention from this deal. The Walsh Mayoralty, in their talk and print, puts on an ear-ful of masquerade. Is there a reason why the Walsh team so gilds their developer-deal lily ? Certainly it’s not that building trades jobs are a bad thing. They’re very much a good thing. Then what IS it that they are cos-playing about ? Do I sense a price tag dressed in domino in the background ? (Yes, I am thinking Venice here — an echo only, since we won’t be getting a Venetian casino, sigh.) Perhaps when we find out who the “One Boston PAC” is — the half-million bucks that Joce Hutt is harlequin-ing for — we’ll find out who is carnivalling in Walsh’s political pasquinade.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere