Boston, recovering city

(On the train to NYC) It’s my sense that the second half of the 20th century was hard on America’s oldest city, but Boston is recovering from the wounds it sustained then.

Boston entered the 1900s as the hub of the first region in the United States to industrialize. It had its own factories, but mainly it provided the harbor and the financial and managerial center for a ring of manufacturing cities from Lowell to Fall River. Founded early and always prosperous, Boston had assembled cultural resources that made it a claimant to being America’s intellectual capital. Politically, it was a battleground between WASP Republicans and Catholic European working-class Democrats–not a pleasant struggle but sometimes a dynamic one. People of color were largely marginalized, but their communities had impressive assets. The city was especially attractive thanks to its architecture and its location at the mouth of the Charles. It had its own distinctive businesses that were points of civic pride, from Filene’s Department Store to the Red Sox.

But the industrial base largely collapsed. The harbor lost most of its business and became notoriously polluted. That meant that the city lost its traditional face to the sea. I-93 was blasted through the central core, and a terrible brutalist City Hall also marred downtown. Because the city was relatively small, each bad large building was a blow to the whole. The department stores faltered and ultimately closed. As in other cities, white middle class residents moved out and left a declining post-industrial economy to African American migrants and new immigrants. In Boston, white resistance was especially explicit and violent. The rest of American grew two- or three-fold while Boston shrank as a proportion of the nation’s economy, cultural leadership, and population.

Although I liked Boston when I first encountered it in the mid-1980s, I think it was a wounded city then. Having lived in the metro area continuously since 2008, I would now describe it as recovering. The Big Dig buried I-93, and the city is stitching together over it. The harbor is clean and graced by some fine new buildings, private and public. Boston again has a face to the sea. Biotech is flourishing. Certain de-industrialized zones, such as east Cambridge, are now massive building sites. The metro area has become multiracial and multicultural. Racial injustice is certainly not resolved, but I sense positive momentum. Boston’s fifth century should be much better than its fourth (unless we sink under the seas because of polar melt).

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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