Pride alone won’t fix things

Olympic desire takes eyes off region’s needs

PRIDE IS A tricky emotion.  Even in ancient times, thought leaders cautioned people about the dangers of pride. “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before the fall,” is the admonition from the Book of Proverbs. “Better it is”, continues the verse, “to be of a humble spirit.”   Yet pride is not always, and needn’t be, negative if it becomes an emotion that fills you with a deep appreciation of what you have, and a drive to do better – to improve not just your life but the lives of others.

Pride is not wisdom.  Pride is a feeling, an emotion.  Wisdom is something learned, embodied in one’s values.  Wisdom is something earned, often forged in the hot fire of defeat and disappointment. The ancients understood this better than we do.  The Greek poet Aeschylus wrote about experiencing the “pain that cannot forget,” the kind of pain that “falls drop by drop upon the heart” until it becomes wisdom.  The writer of Ecclesiastes understood this as well, observing that “in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

Ultimately what is the point of feeling pride, or having wisdom, if you do not use those attributes for something larger than your self-interest? Those of us who have participated in civic affairs, or who have more than a passing interest in civic matters, are challenged every day to consider what we can do as individuals to contribute something positive to our time and our place.  There are no clear right or wrong approaches to that, and we are each entitled to establishing our own values and acting upon them.

Examples of civic pride abound – they are all around us.  The opening of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate was a very recent expression of civic pride – not simply the remembrance of a great leader, but the opening of an institute that is dedicated to fostering consensus building and renewing pride in how government works.

There are numerous less grand examples that demonstrate our civic pride.  You can see that pride made manifest every day: it’s in the work that young people are doing in organizations such as the Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project; it’s in the eyes of the family from Mexico who have built a successful and highly regarded restaurant business in East Boston; it’s in the work that groups such as ¿Oíste? are doing to grow new citizens and voters; it’s in the spirit of the ONEin3 Council where young adults are giving their time and energy to actively shape the city of tomorrow; it’s in the hearts of the medical team that responded to Officer John Moynihan and saved his life; it’s expressed in the blogs written by the guys at Transit Matters who care deeply about the future of their public transportation system; and it’s in the work undertaken by the volunteer members of East Boston 2020 who leveraged their community’s rejection of a casino into a positive, forward-looking vision for development at the Suffolk Downs site.

These people, and many more, don’t have a “can’t do” mindset.  Just the opposite: they are optimistic, and get up and hit the ground running every single day with a positive “can do” attitude.  They are what makes Boston tick, and they wouldn’t be doing what they are doing if they didn’t have a larger sense of pride of place, pride that anchors their hard, often selfless work.

We shouldn’t let our belief in Boston – or Greater Boston – be diminished by the challenges before us.  But let’s also agree that pride, and wisdom, require that we tackle them in a candid and straightforward manner. Two topics have dominated the recent civic debate in Greater Boston. The first is the winter MBTA meltdown and what needs to be done to set our public transportation system on track.  The second is whether Greater Boston ought to host the 2024 Olympics. These two topics are mirror images of one another.

The Olympics discussion is about many things, but the essence of the conversation revolves around what might be.  The MBTA discussion, in contrast, is a discussion of what is, and what will be. It strikes me that our civic debate of late has somehow lost its moorings. I was invited recently to participate on a panel organized by Suffolk University and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board to discuss the Olympics, and I suggested that perhaps our focus needs to be placed as firmly on what will be as it has recently been on what may be. Consider the following facts:

Fact 1: The MBTA is not resilient in winter weather conditions and it is largely over capacity and unable to cope with service demand during the rest of the year.  The T urgently requires a new governance structure, a new approach to innovative metrics-based management, and an infusion of substantial net new revenue to begin attacking the massive list of deferred state-of-good repair needs. It’s time to shut down for good more “reform before revenue” nonsense.

Fact 2: A casino will soon be built in Everett and there is no comprehensive multi-modal transportation plan in place that will prevent Sullivan Square or Interstate 93 from becoming parking lots. The mobility plans outlined during the license approval process will not address, prevent, or meaningfully mitigate certain inevitable consequences of a successful casino, including a significant expansion of peak traffic congestion hours on Interstate 93. Just this week, the director of the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs said that last month’s sale of MBTA land to the casino owners violated state regulations because the T should have waited for agency review of traffic and other environmental issues related to the casino project. Bottom line: If state and city leaders do not insist on a realistic and effective multi-modal approach for access to the casino, and fail to creatively deal with parking, we will all reap the effects of increased traffic congestion on city streets and the urban interstate network, increased air pollution, and decreased private sector investment.

Fact 3: The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate recently opened at Columbia Point, adding another jewel to the crown of a site hosting a state university campus, a presidential library, and the State Archives.  Yet there is no mobility plan to improve what is today nothing short of horrendous vehicular and transit access to the site. The JFK Library remains one of the least attended in the entire presidential library system, and it’s not because JFK isn’t famous.  It’s because the Columbia Point site is a royal pain in the neck to get to.

Fact 4: Our three major innovation districts – at Longwood, the Seaport District, and Kendall Square – are struggling with vehicular and transit mobility congestion that threatens to stifle or degrade private sector investment and growth, and there is no plan to connect the Red and Blue lines, and no commitment to adopt Bus Rapid Transit as an effective, affordable mobility and congestion reduction strategy.

Fact 5: Two of our major institutions and jobs creators – Logan International Airport and Massachusetts General Hospital – are forced to manage with poor transit connectivity and, as a consequence, invite too many cars that have no place to park and that add to urban and regional air pollution.

These conditions are not new nor are they unknown.  They are real, they will not resolve themselves on their own, and they bespeak of a civic and political culture that stubbornly refuses to tackle difficult issues head on. Strikingly, in comparison to the volumes of air, gallons of ink, and miles of footage we have devoted to the Olympics – something that may be – we have devoted precious little to understanding, and resolving, what is and what will be.

Yes, there have been studies and group meetings and various attempts to grapple with some of these issues, but what tends to happen is that mostly the same people talk to one another, and very little progress actually gets made because progress would require taking specific and often difficult decisions and actions. We’ve been talk-happy and action-averse.

We need to get a grip on ourselves and pay attention to what is real rather than what may be. If we fail to address the harsh current realities, how can we talk, dream, and aspire to something that may be?

Meet the Author

Let’s not confuse civic pride with boosterism.  The capable people at the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau can, and should, apply their talents to boosting the city’s image.  Civic pride is something more nuanced, more personal, less inclined to overlook or gloss over the obvious flaws.  Civic pride, tempered by wisdom, can be a powerful force for positive action. To paraphrase Robert Kennedy, speaking in the spring of 1968: If we are uneasy about our city today, “perhaps it is because we are truer to our principles than we realize, because we know that our happiness will come . . . from the good we do together.” We have little to be proud of when it comes to the condition of our public transportation system, or our collective chronic refusal to act boldly and decisively to fix it.  But our essential belief in this place – call that pride if you will – compels many of us to work hard to get something meaningful done to improve it.

James Aloisi is a former state transportation secretary and a principal in the Pemberton Square Group.