Boston's secret to success

The Red Sox may be tanking, but it's still hard for a Philadelphian not to feel jealous of Boston.

As people here are endlessly fond of pointing out, Boston is the world’s 11th largest financial center. This town knows how to use its political muscle, too. Two decades ago, Congressman Tip O’Neill snagged $9 billion in federal aid to demolish Boston’s s downtown highway and now the city has a seamless connection to its glorious waterfront. On top of that, Boston’s population ballooned by over 6 percent in the same period – a feat that makes Philadelphia’s 0.6 percent blip in the recent census seem hardly worth mentioning.

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But did you know that Boston was pretty much considered an urban basket case until the start of the 1980s?

It’s true. Corruption took a heavy toll on Boston in the 20th Century, and by 1950 it was routinely described as a “hopeless backwater.” I’ve been learning a lot of surprising details about the city’s history in a class at Harvard’s GSD, called Cities by Design. It’s really a series of mini courses about five cities, taught by hometown experts. The course kicked off with a two-week session on Boston by the noted planner Alex Krieger. Next up: Barcelona, Mumbai, Mexico City and Rio de Janero.

Krieger’s Boston lectures have already provided what feels like a semester worth of revelations. He started by showing a time line of Boston history that was eerily similar to Philadelphia’s. Having been a major cultural and industrial center from its founding, Boston, like Philadelphia, began to nosedive around 1920 (after seeing its population peak at 750,000). By 1960, Boston had lost a quarter of its residents to the suburbs – same as Philadelphia.

But if you had asked anyone back then which city was more likely to come roaring back, the experts might have put their money on Philadelphia. Planner Edmund Bacon seemed to be dealing with Philadelphia’s problems in a subtle, surgical way - modernizing the downtown office core, reinventing downtown shopping, reviving downtown living in Society Hill – while his counterpart Ed Logue presided over the stunningly brutal clear-cutting of 90 acres of downtown Boston.

So how did Boston pull ahead of its southern sibling?

One explanation, Krieger offered, is that Boston’s cruel treatment of historic core was actually a sign of boldness, ambition and - yes - public collaboration that paid off later. Because of its geography, Boston has a long history of managing big engineering projects that require lots of civic consensus. Until Krieger showed us colonial maps, for instance, I was completely unaware that downtown Boston was once a small island called the Shawmut Peninsula. Thanks to a 300-year landfilling binge, Boston is now quadruple its original size. Four out of five acres in the city are built on fill.

That makes Boston the Netherlands of the U.S. Like the Dutch, Bostonians need to work together to keep the sea at bay. Bostonians are similarly undaunted by massive infrastructure works, whether it’s filling in the Back Bay neighborhood or excavating a crosstown tunnel for the Big Dig.

 The political and planning skills needed to undertake such projects are deeply embedded in the city’s DNA, Krieger says. So, as awful as the razing of downtown Boston was, he suggests that it also provided a platform for a thriving modern Boston. By 1980, Boston had built an entirely new government center, and was busy developing the country’s first festival market at Faneuil Hall and was decking over the turnpike for Copley Place. Burying the Central Artery and reconnecting to the waterfront followed.

 Was it worth the loss of its historic center? All I can say is, I’m sure glad Bacon never realized his dream of razing Philadelphia’s City Hall. On the other hand, Philadelphia could certainly learn a trick or two from Boston’s history of getting citizens to work together for ambitious, long-range plans.