Going for the Mold

August 4, 2015
By

So we didn’t go for the gold after all. Instead we retreated to moldy old Boston where you wouldn’t want to do anything brash, imaginative or interesting. “We have our hats,” said the old Yankee lady, but Boston’s other tribes share her attitude. We don’t need anything new.

I am usually an optimist, which affected my support of the Olympics. Is it a big job? Yes. The effort’s leaders were smart, effective and used to big jobs, even if they weren’t the world’s greatest marketing people. They were not corrupt, as too many leaders were when I first moved to this city. To top it off, they were doing this to make Boston better, not for financial gain or status for themselves.

But, since it is Boston, there were class issues. The promoters were rich, heaven forbid. Too big for their britches, the nasties said. How dare they tell us, the real people of Boston, that we should do something dramatic? How dare they appropriate our city for improvements we might actually like but we hadn’t thought of ourselves? They did not pay enough obeisance to city councilors, state house functionaries, university presidents or most Globe columnists. Those powers were annoyed that someone else was leading a particular charge, when they were too timid to lead any charge.

Since we’re talking timidity, that played big too. The games were too risky. There might be too much traffic. The spectators might tear up some piece of grass. Some taxpayer might have to pay real money. The number of times the word risk was unfurled by the opponents was embarrassing. Isn’t this city, with its so-called world-renowned innovative companies and research institutions, all about risk?

But again we’re back in moldy old Boston, where you keep your principal, and never dip into it, even though it gets divided among subsequent generations until there is nothing left. If someone had dipped into the principal to start a new business, there might have been more for everyone.

Then it’s on to taxpayers. This has to do with risk avoidance too, but it has another meaning—that spending money on a big deal is foolish. Remember the naysayers before the Big Dig began? Sure our taxes are high. That’s because we can afford it. This is one rich city, as studies continually show. When someone spends $20 million on a Back Bay mansion and then spends another who-knows-how-many-more millions renovating it, it shows we can afford all kinds of things we say we can’t.

Ironically, taxpayers alone are now going to have to foot the bill for improvements in places like Franklin Park. We won’t have any Olympics money to help us.

Which brings us to spending money on the needs opponents said we should be funding instead of the Olympics. Does anyone think that will happen?

Already we’ve learned that, despite last winter’s MBTA debacle, the legislature can’t come up with enough money to fix the T or expand it. We’ve decided to apply only a patch. We’re building affordable housing, but we’re still arguing over tax breaks for a downtown project for “working families” that shouldn’t get the breaks, some say, because it is not in a blighted area. Keeping to that principle means no “working families” could ever afford to live downtown, which is discriminatory and wrong.

It would be nice to think because we won’t have the Olympics’ risk looming over our heads, we will spend money on Franklin Park, the T, housing all homeless families, installing kindergarten for four-year-olds across Massachusetts and rebuilding the Northern Avenue bridge. Dream on.
Instead we’ll go back to our desultory ways. Those ways were highlighted this spring when Mayor Walsh kicked off Boston 2030. There was the familiar panel, the recognizable audience, and the sappy tributes to Boston’s universities, research, hospitals, innovation, etc. Except for the speakers’ fondness for the word “millennials,” the forum could have been held 20 years ago when I first started covering such gatherings. The issues were the same. Little had been fixed. It was depressing.

That doesn’t mean Boston 2030 will fail, but an Olympics deadline would have meant we would have worked harder and faster to make it happen. You know that when you throw a party, you clean your house, paint the door and fix the step that broke last year.

The biggest effect of the Olympics failure might be on the most vocal opponents’ careers. Would you hire a risk-averse person who can’t support big efforts?
Boston won’t die because the Olympics died. We’ll still have universities, hospitals, yadda, yadda. We’ll still have a city in which living downtown, the characteristic that first brought me here years ago, is wonderful when it hasn’t even been possible in most other American cities.

But not being able to pull off the Olympics pretty much cements the fact that we’re not world class in any way. We’re just a small provincial city up in the corner of a big country—a city with more than its share of charm, but still with a lot of mold.

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