Boston isn’t broken, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed
Since mid-December, the brain trust flanking incoming Mayor-elect Marty Walsh has been hosting town hall gatherings to ascertain what programs to sustain, which should be scrapped, and which are nonexistent, in desperate need of innovation and imagination. With some due respect to the outgoing mayor, these events have marked a seismic shift in municipal messaging. While Tom Menino held the occasional hearing and engaged the public personally, his was hardly an open-door City Hall. Residents have been able to communicate small gripes through the Citizens Connect app and other constituent service apparatuses, but on a macro level, one trembles to imagine the number of unread pleadings Menino found in his cobweb-strewn suggestion box on the way out.
The Walsh team’s ongoing series of input forums kicked off with a mass gathering in Roxbury on December 14. For nine hours, experts, bureaucrats, curmudgeons, academics, gadflies, and ordinary residents congregated in the Reggie Lewis Center, at times breaking off into working groups to discuss–and in some cases, to debate–everything from potholes to pot smoking. Split into clusters dedicated to 11 categories–basic, youth, and human services plus arts, economics, education, environment, health, housing, safety, and transportation–hundreds laid the ground work for a challenging yet promising transition. In the weeks since, they’ve continued the discussion at public powwows citywide.
The new administration concedes they won’t be able to–or even necessarily want to–implement every change shouted out by everyone offering advice. Nevertheless, even those who have already deemed these forums to be superficial stage productions should be happy their input is at least being recorded. The process has already given residents an unprecedented opportunity to share ideas with officials, who as a result can be held more accountable for not following up on complaints. On that note, the following is a wishfully curated compendium–more or less parsed by department–of the brightest hopes, dreams, and expectations of Bostonians we’ve heard so far on Mayor Marty’s listening and learning tour.
As previously noted in DigBoston, MassCreative and its Create the Vote Coalition played an effective role during the recent mayoral race. That presence paid off, as Walsh has already promised to establish a cabinet-level arts commissioner, and to dedicate 1 percent of the budget to cultural funding. With those specifics laid out, many arts advocates have also set general goals, like “taking more pride in the city’s artists,” and “holding up the arts as a fundamental part of [Boston's] public persona,” as one creative recommended at the Reggie Lewis Center.
MAJOR ISSUE: The city’s arts scenes are fragmented, and for the most part fail to stand together in any formation that comes close to resembling a united community.
POSSIBLE FIX: Bulk up one or more of our successful festivals into an international annual event like South by Southwest. Show the world we’re more than just a beer-swilling college town with kickass sports teams.
POTENTIAL HURDLES: The highbrows are reluctant to work with entities they consider culturally inferior. The occasional Amanda Palmer theater stint won’t cut it alone; in order for Boston to rival the likes of Austin, we’ll need Jurassic standbys like the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Symphony Orchestra to work with everyone from indie rockers to graffiti artists.
A lot of recommendations being made can apply to several city departments; take, for example, pleas for less red tape and better customer relations, which are ubiquitous across categories. Basic city services, though, is the widest catch-all, including everything from animal control, which some say needs fixing, to street vendor permitting. We’ve also heard loud calls to ditch and decentralize the Government Center mothership in favor of “little city halls”–a move Walsh, like Mayor Kevin White two score before him, has expressed significant interest in. Of course, in 2014, this all boils down to technology.
MAJOR ISSUE: In order to make city government even more responsive than it already is, people need even better access to essential services like dog permitting and pothole reporting.
POSSIBLE FIX: There’s great news for the Walsh administration here, in that the well-established Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics is a national leader in streamlining municipal tasks using technological solutions. From the aforementioned Citizens Connect app, to the City Hall To Go truck, which brings basic services into the neighborhoods, all Boston needs to do is keep up the great work.
POTENTIAL HURDLES: The name MONUM is an homage to Menino, who was long ago labeled the Urban Mechanic for his working class gusto. If Walsh keeps the acronym, he’ll have to share props with his predecessor for the office’s future accomplishments.
For a second, let’s forget about the Boston Redevelopment Authority–that labyrinthine bureaucracy that’s favored major builders and administration cronies for far too long–and the looming struggle that the Walsh administration faces in taming that despicable beast. Also important, at least according to those offering input thus far, is that workers gain access to better or even universal childcare, that building and occupation permits are made more easily available–perhaps through an online tracking system–to small businesses, and that tax-exempt entities start chipping in their fair share around here.
MAJOR ISSUE: The longstanding Payment In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOT) program is a joke, which is especially dangerous since more than half the property in Boston is not taxable due to the number of schools, hospitals, nonprofits, and government buildings.
POSSIBLE FIX: The city has already commissioned an extensive PILOT study, and knows which institutions take advantage. The new administration needs to start with a fresh precedent and let the worst moochers and degenerate land-grabbers know there will be hell to pay if they don’t open their doors and wallets to the larger community.
POTENTIAL HURDLES: Let’s just say we always kind of knew Menino would be gainfully employed by a local university come his retirement, and that we hope Walsh establishes a less abusive relationship with the likes of BU and Northeastern.
Though nobody expects the war over charter institutions to subside, or for school privatization pimps to stop gunning for the Boston Public Schools budget, headway seems possible in a few pedagogical areas. Instead of just lamenting the “achievement gap,” some have recommended trying to reevaluate the Hub’s learning divide. People are also demanding more equity in the school assignment process, and more transparency in everything from the superintendent search underway to department purchasing. Many would also like to see more resource-sharing between experimental and traditional programs.
MAJOR ISSUE: Boston needs more and better trade schools, and it needs them yesterday.
POSSIBLE FIX: Considering the new mayor’s history of backing vocational education programs, his administration could update high schools citywide to reflect the growing employment needs in Boston’s legacy and newer industries as well.
POTENTIAL HURDLES: Not everything comes down to money, but school building and improvement does. This will ultimately boil down to priorities, and whether improving education is more important than, say, giving tax breaks to luxury developers.
From maintaining and expanding urban agriculture programs, to improving the efficiency of city vehicles, to subsidizing green and solar roofs across the Hub, to further popularizing the Renew Boston smart energy initiative, there’s no limit to the bright ideas that residents have in response to their environmental concerns. Most of all, we’ve heard people speak about defending the commons, as in not allowing historically open spaces to be bulldozed and developed at the whim of real estate moguls. While we’re saving Boston’s parks, green areas, and beaches, some say it’s also critically important to improve facilities as well.
MAJOR ISSUE: A lot of public parks around Boston–especially in low income neighborhoods–are in ill repair, and are in many cases poorly lit and dangerous as a result.
POSSIBLE FIX The key here is to update open spaces so they’re safer and more efficient. One suggestion, for example, has been for the city to place recycle bins in parks and use the nickels from returns to keep the lights on longer.
POTENTIAL HURDLES: Much of what needs to be done in this area also requires funding, which isn’t always easy to come by. With that said, sustainable parks projects are a proven key element to municipal longevity.
You don’t need to be an expert in finance or foreclosure to grasp the grand threat to housing in Boston. People on the top end of the market are in great shape, with more highrises to pick from than ever before, while families on the opposite side of the divide have decent but ultimately limited and lackluster choices, and the dwindling middle class in-between is being squeezed out. With federal affordable housing cuts looming, and neighborhood stability in jeopardy from East Boston to Roslindale, experts (including those at City Life/Vida Urbana, where I consult on media matters) believe it’s time for the most aggressive defensive strategy yet.
MAJOR ISSUE: Even as the housing market rebounds in some ways, certain segments of the Boston community still face preventable evictions at disproportionate rates, while abusive landlords operate unchecked despite long paper trails of neglect and red flags.
POSSIBLE FIX: Whoever Walsh taps to handle housing will be pressured to enforce a moratorium on foreclosures, particularly those held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, both of which are government-sponsored enterprises that have proven themselves every bit as predatory as their fully corporate peers.
POTENTIAL HURDLES: Despite determined efforts by fair housing advocates and community banks and credit unions to rescue homes and adjust mortgages according to post-bubble values, major lenders like Bank of America have been largely unwilling to play ball.
Though public health and human services are technically different departments toiling in separate silos, there is perhaps more crossover here than between any other two transition working groups. Community centers, for example, which traditionally belong in the wheelhouse of the latter, are places where innumerable pressing health issues–from homelessness to drug addiction–are confronted daily. Fortunately, discussions about Boston’s youth, veterans, and elderly residents have so far straddled the health and human service categories, with robust conversations that have even addressed typically invisible strains like teens who age out of foster care.
MAJOR ISSUE: Boston continues to endure a severe opiate problem.
POSSIBLE FIX: The Office of Recovery Services promised by candidate Walsh would be a huge start, but local drug counselors say we also need safer sober houses, more responsive first responders, and several other resources that could together constitute a “complete continuum of care.”
POTENTIAL HURDLES: There’s an army of high-powered healthcare professionals working on this transition. That’s great, and needed, but at this point, nearly two decades into the Oxycontin epidemic, we don’t need more tests or studies. We need recovery beds and results, and we need them now.
In a city where police are unconditionally praised and stopped for photos by tourists sporting Boston Strong shirts, safety reform is hard to come by. That’s why it’s been disheartening to hear so many platitudes about needing “more coordination across city government.” Of course we do, but first the Boston Police Department needs a major internal overhaul, plus a lecture about getting along with residents and other first responders. Otherwise, public safety talks have seemed fruitful, with attention being paid to improving reentry programs for ex-convicts, establishing a civilian review board with subpoena power, and other long shots that finally seem somewhat possible.
MAJOR ISSUE: From what the Dig has learned from experts, community members, and first responders, Boston has had problems getting help to trauma victims in a timely manner.
POSSIBLE FIX: In addition to EMS workers, many of the city’s firefighters are also trained and certified emergency medical technicians. The Boston Fire Department, however, is not summoned to stabbings and other potentially lethal calls, but they could help save lives if given the right tools and access.
POTENTIAL HURDLES: There’s about as good a chance of ending police brutality as there is of Boston detectives allowing firemen to enter crime scenes before BPD forces arrive. One can certainly dream though.
The Walsh campaign offered sweeping transportation promises–to make transit more efficient, more accessible–particularly to under-served neighborhoods–and so on. From players inside their camp and from outside groups, there’s been talk of pushing for vast improvements to cycle infrastructure, and of modernizing how the city moves in general, from late-night trains to East Boston ferry boats. Of course, there are also corner-to-corner concerns over micro issues; at the Reggie Lewis Center, for example, transition team members said they’ve already heard a whole lot of commotion about the Casey Overpass in Jamaica Plain. And the list goes on …
MAJOR ISSUE: The Hackney Carriage Unit, which overseas all taxi operations, is an utterly disastrous mess riddled with proven problems on both the municipal and private sides of the industry.
POSSIBLE FIX: The hackney unit is currently a division of the Boston Police Department. As they’ve proven incapable of running a transparent ship, the cops should be made to relinquish themselves of all cab-related oversight.
POTENTIAL HURDLES: The gears on Boston’s taxis have been greased for decades by the same players, some of whom are cops, ex-cops, and individuals close to the department. They won’t give up getting to regulate themselves without a fight. Furthermore, traditional cab companies seem unwilling to coexist sensibly with more technologically convenient options like Halo and Uber.
It’s been fantastic to hear some actual youth voices at these transition gatherings. Too often decisions are made that impact the lives of young people without solicitation of their qualified opinions. In this case, local high school students are begging for more safe spaces, increased job and mentor opportunities, and to be treated with respect by authorities. And there are vocal adults on their side, too, as Walsh and several community leaders are already calling for more local businesses to cut the bullshit already and help build a native work force we can rely on.
MAJOR ISSUE: According to teens and teachers, far too many students have been arrested for minor infractions at school, like disturbing an assembly. This can decimate their future school and job prospects.
POSSIBLE FIX: Place more trauma management specialists and guidance counselors in schools, as well as more professionals trained to handle students with behavioral issues. Stop allowing cops to meddle in nonviolent campus matters.
POTENTIAL HURDLES: In case you haven’t heard, schools and young people aren’t exactly a priority around here. If they were, every BPS student would have a computer, and cops wouldn’t be allowed to treat them like uncooperative cattle.
Visit Boston14.org for more info on the following public hearings:
Environment: Tuesday 1.7 (7pm to 9:00pm)
Housing: Wednesday 1.8 (5:30pm to 7:30pm)
Youth: Thursday 1.9 (6pm to 8pm)
Human Services: Saturday 1.11 (10am to 12pm)
Arts & Culture: Saturday 1.25 (9:30am to 11am)