Book review: Massport at 60
Independence has been Massport’s greatest asset and its chief vulnerability
Massport at 60: Shaping the future since 1956
By Jim Aloisi
Massachusetts Port Authority
YES, THIS BOOK commemorates the 60th anniversary of the Massachusetts Port Authority, but the story really begins almost a decade earlier, in 1949, when the city of Boston was a crony-encrusted economic backwater. That year, Boston voters denied James Michael Curley a fifth term as mayor and handed the city’s keys to a good-government reformer, John Hynes. The election ushered in a period of progressive change for Boston, and the city’s business worthies formed a 13-member special commission to examine Boston’s declining port sector, then a drag on the economy and deeply in debt. Perhaps the most consequential blue-ribbon commission ever assembled in Massachusetts then proposed wresting the operation of the port, airport, and toll bridges from the state to create “a new public instrumentality, a new political subdivision”—an independent revenue bond authority that could operate free of political interference.
This independence was at once Massport’s greatest asset and its chief vulnerability. A public entity that was accountable to bondholders rather than to politicians or the public, writes Jim Aloisi in this institutional memoir, “could behave with boldness, but also with impunity.” And for decades after its inception, the Port Authority operated as a power unto itself—pursuing growth as its manifest destiny but alienating local communities and, eventually, elected officials who, it turned out, could still flex some muscle.
Massport published and paid for the history—spending just under $24,000 to purchase 3,000 books at $7.95 a piece—but it is not a vanity project. Aloisi describes key events in the revitalization of the port: the development of ship containerization, which revolutionized port operations; the construction of the third Harbor tunnel; the sale of development rights on Commonwealth Pier. But Aloisi, a native of East Boston, reserves his real passion for the story of Logan International Airport, located on reclaimed tidal flats virtually on top of the dense urban neighborhood, “a site that no planner would likely have chosen if starting from a blank slate.”
Aloisi’s measured assessment of the authority’s development builds to a simmering rage over the reign of Edward J. King, executive director from 1963 to 1974, whose management philosophy was “Never give in.” King, another son of Eastie who nonetheless disdained the neighborhood as “a dilapidated and deteriorating area,” ordered the destruction of 1,000 housing units, dozens of graceful old elm trees, and 70 acres of recreational space—including the Olmsted-designed Wood Island Park—to make way for airport expansion. Local residents took to the streets, some with baby carriages in tow, to block truck traffic and protest noise and air pollution. Arrests were made. Bridges were burned.
Those were some bad old days. But tides turn, and in 1974 the election of Michael Dukakis as governor heralded a more balanced transportation policy for the state. King was deposed by his own board just weeks later, and soon the authority turned over a new leaf, with a new director, Dave Davis, and a ‘good neighbor” philosophy. A 1976 Master Plan for Logan recognized for the first time that the very proximity to downtown that gave Logan such a competitive advantage also came with responsibilities to its adjacent communities. The authority began a program of mitigating its noxious impacts: soundproofing homes and the high school; establishing new flight paths; creating pocket parks. With an understatement that was nonetheless radical for the times, the master plan noted that the agency “cannot function effectively if engaged perpetually in conflict.”
Aloisi also covers what he calls the “strange interlude” of political machinations and intrigue when King defeated Dukakis for governor in 1978 and set his mind on regaining control of Massport with annual appointments to the board. How King was outwitted on his very last day in office is the stuff of political lore and alone is worth the investment of reading the book.
The history of Boston in the latter half of the 20th Century is a story of mostly working-class neighborhoods battling unaccountable institutions encroaching on their lives. Not just the Port Authority’s abuse of East Boston, but the hospitals that expanded into Chinatown and Mission Hill, the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s clearing of the West End, the highway agencies that wanted to build an inner belt through Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, the private universities that gobbled up taxpaying land and flooded communities with carousing students, the federal district court that imposed school busing on unwilling residents. Massport at 60 explains how one extraordinarily powerful entity came to choose a path of peace and reconciliation with its neighbors.Through the lens of one institution, Massport at 60 traces the arc of Boston’s development from economic basket case to heedless powerhouse to nuanced mediator among competing interests. It would be a useful textbook for tomorrow’s political and business leaders, who might learn how not to repeat the mistakes of history.
Renée Loth is editor of ArchitectureBoston magazine and a columnist for The Boston Globe. From 1976-1979, she was editor of The East Boston Community News, a neighborhood advocacy newspaper.