Whither Boston?

IndyCar didn’t reflect the city’s values

THE RECENT DECISION of the IndyCar promoters to pull out of Boston was met by some with relief, by others with dismay.  I was not a fan, and I was particularly concerned about its potential negative impacts on the Silver Line in the Seaport District. Some of the reaction I received on Twitter from IndyCar supporters was so nasty it reminded me of high school bullying.  But there was a more thoughtful discussion on my Twitter feed, with one writer observing that IndyCar failed because some folks “keep trying to turn Boston into something it isn’t.”  Someone responded to that comment by asking: “But who decides what it is and isn’t?” and another asked “Who is to say what Boston is and isn’t?”  Good questions worth exploring and answering.

Similar questions have been asked in the past.  When the Reverend Seavey Joyce, then dean of the Boston College Business School, was flying back to Boston from a trip, he looked down and saw nothing that would easily or clearly identify the city.  From his window seat he famously asked: “Where’s Boston?”

This experience led Joyce to reach out to the new Mayor, John Hynes.  In 1949, at its most challenging moment, when the future of the city was literally in the balance, Hynes had been elected by a city tired of the shenanigans of James Michael Curley and desperate for new leadership.  Hynes assumed office when the city was experiencing the low point of its 20th-century decline, a decline made persistent by a series of mayors who were largely either corrupt or uncreative (or both), and a business community that had turned inward, viewing Boston primarily as a place to extract wealth from but not invest in.  This combination was powerful and poisonous, and there was a real question at mid-20th century whether Boston could survive as a viable urban center.

Together, Hynes and Joyce inaugurated a series of forums about the city’s future, where they sought to bring political and business leaders together in an unprecedented effort to reimagine and rebuild the city. Hynes stood up in October 1954 to inaugurate the first session of the Boston College Citizen Seminars, and began his remarks by asking: “Boston, whither goest thou?”

That question lingers, it begs to be answered by each subsequent generation, and it hangs over the city in 2016.

Whither Boston? 

Boston (or perhaps, more accurately, Greater Boston) is squarely at a critical moment in time.  It’s not the first time we’ve experienced this, but this particular moment seems to be a portentous one.  We are challenged to consider our values and our aspirations for the future.  Do our public policies and initiatives reflect those values and aspirations? How do we square the explosion of wealth and housing prices with the reality of growing income inequality? Is the private sector responding by leading, or by reflexively supporting the status quo?  How much is really within the control of the city and the mayor, and how much is in the hands of state leaders and the private sector?  How can we, as citizens, meaningfully participate and help?

It’s a time of disconnects, where there appears to be one reality – the one that informs decisions like bringing IndyCar to Boston – and the competing reality that reflects the values actually embraced by most people.

You can see the disconnect play out time and again: the forces of old-think wanted to build a casino at Suffolk Downs; instead 56 percent of the people of East Boston (a place thought to be “in the bag” by casino proponents) voted “no” and soundly rejected the casino.  Two years later, civic boosters spent a mini-fortune to promote a Boston Olympics, only to be rejected by a powerful and broad coalition of unpaid volunteers and citizens who could not understand how redirecting the public’s time, money, and attention on a one-off sports event would inure to the short or long-term benefit of the city, or their personal quality of life. More recently, the disquiet about the proposed IndyCar racing event in the Seaport District helped inform a decision by the promoters to pull out of a city that never embraced their concept, a concept that was likely geared more to non-Bostonians than city residents, certainly more to the well-off than the many citizens who cannot afford premium sports seats, whether they be at IndyCar or Boston Garden or Fenway Park.

These are not disconnected circumstances.  The “no Casino” vote, the “No Olympics” movement, and the “No IndyCar” initiative each tell the same story about the city and its residents.  It’s a story of Boston residents who are thinking differently about what “quality of life” in the city means, and who want to see public and private sector leaders move beyond 20th-century thinking.  These Bostonians have shared values that are more inclined to support a first-class multi-modal and egalitarian public transportation system, and safe, best-practices cycling lanes, than an IndyCar race.

Making those shared values actionable would have a profoundly positive impact on the city.  It would mean seeing the 100-plus underdeveloped acres at Suffolk Downs – a site with two transit stops and literally two minutes from Logan International Airport – as a place to build a new exciting transit–oriented neighborhood that creates a lot of good, quality housing for people across economic spectrums as well as good jobs in the health and innovation sectors.  It would mean support for a citywide effort to introduce Bus Rapid Transit along critical transit corridors, and safe cycling lanes throughout the city.  It would mean a massive reconsideration of how our public transport system is responding to changing demographics. It would change the way we think about our city, and ourselves, and about our ability to create and sustain lasting, positive change.

I am optimistic about our future.  Our history is rich, our brand is deeply engraved, and our citizens are newly active in positive, empowering efforts to control our own destinies. Boston thrives because Boston has had a successful track record of renewal and capturing the future. Let’s not get caught in a Groundhog Day loop that repeats endlessly, offering up the same menu of initiatives that are not platforms for our future but rather the tired leftovers of outdated thinking.  No more gimmicks like casinos and one-off global sports events, no more giving sections of the city over to a few folks who want to make a quick buck. We are better than this.

The reaction to the IndyCar news sparked the predictable “woe is us” response from those who continue to think that civic identity and pride somehow depend upon high profile sports events. I have high regard for former City Councilor Mike Ross, but I believe he was wrong to bemoan the loss of IndyCar in a Boston Globe op-Ed, expressing a concern that we are sending a message to the outside world that their ideas are not welcome.  To the contrary, we are sending a message that we do not want ideas that fail to respond to our values, that fail to appeal to city residents across income and social spectrums.  We want ideas that will lift us up, anticipate the future, level the playing field, and improve our lives.  Such ideas are very welcome indeed.

To quote the poet Adrienne Rich, we might do well to ask ourselves at this opportune moment: “Where are we moored? What are the bindings? What behooves us?”

Meet the Author

Whither Boston?

James Aloisi is a former secretary of transportation and a principal at the Pemberton Square Group.