Photo by Chris Faraone
On the back side of Symphony Hall last week, two hours before Boston Mayor Marty Walsh dropped his second State of the City address, I spied two well-dressed men poring over a clipboard in a dark lot. I’m sure the guest list they were guarding included the names of many token hardworking residents and good samaritans in addition to area dignitaries and monied backers from the business community. Still the image stuck with me all week as I considered the conceit of these annual ordeals.
Few things are less democratic than a state of the city, state, or union address. They are subjective greatest hits lists for captive audiences, written by people who are paid to make their bosses shine. In Boston, the local press tends to flank municipal decisions without question—moves to attract GE, IndyCar, and the Olympics, for starters—until public opposition mounts. Which leaves hardly any voices to contest the mayor’s narrative besides some rants on social media. The same can be said of the routine on Beacon Hill; despite their overwhelming majority in the state Senate and House, Massachusetts Democrats lapped up every coded privatization platitude served by Governor Charlie Baker in his State of the Commonwealth spectacle just two days after Walsh’s performance.
Not everyone applauded for the mayor. Around the block from the VIP entrance, in front of the Symphony T stop, dozens of parents with children in Boston Public Schools protested impending cuts of programs and potentially entire buildings. Joined by students and teachers from BPS, their signs told the kinds of stories that were left out of the mayor’s speech: STOP SHORT-CHANGING OUR STUDENTS, BUDGET CUTS HURT KIDS, among other placards questioning the mayor’s allegiance to public education.
In his turn, Walsh claimed “the City of Boston is as strong as it has ever been,” citing evidence including nearly 5,000 home units “started,” “1,000 of [which] were affordable homes—a new record.” Plus “3,800 homes completed—another new record,” as well as decreases in violent and property crimes, a drop in unemployment, and “a state-of-the art homeless facility, replacing every shelter bed from Long Island.”
Of course perspective is important—there are ugly sides of nearly all of Walsh’s claimed accomplishments, especially along the broken bridge between Long Island and replacement shelters. So on the day following the Symphony Hall speech, I asked Erin Anderson from Epicenter Community in Dudley Square for a recording of their event titled “Potluck & Politics: The State of the City” (I couldn’t make it in person due to a family engagement). According to Anderson’s co-host, Malia Lazu, the event was for people to “talk about the state of our city—not only the speech that we heard yesterday,” but rather “our thinking.” “If you were to have given a speech,” she asked, “what would you have said?”
The discussion that ensued fell more in line with my own observations—and that of the working people I know and interact with in person and on social media—than anything out of the mayor’s mouth one night before. Individuals representing interests ranging from law enforcement, real estate, and politics, to education, entertainment, and social justice discussed their realities of life in the Hub in 2016, with an emerging picture much less hopeful than that of a booming new bohemian Utopia depicted by Walsh.
“I can look at the mayor’s transcript, and at the ‘entrepreneurial center,’ and at this and that, but at the end of the day that doesn’t affect our merchants as much as housing does,” said Luis Edgardo Cotto, executive director of Egleston Square Main Street. Cotto acknowledged Walsh’s promise to open an Office of Housing Stability, but said people should continue to ask, “What does ‘affordable housing’ mean? The mayor says he put in affordable units, but affordable to you might not be affordable to me.”
Added Greg Ball, editor-in-chief of the Boston-based music and culture site KillerBoomBox (with whom I have collaborated on journalism projects), “As the mayor was talking about all the wonderful things that are happening, there were a couple of things that he sort of left out. The reality is that it’s very difficult to live in this city … The 800 people who come to work at GE headquarters—they’re going to be alright. Whether they live in luxury, or in an increasingly expensive place to fix up in Roxbury. What’s going to happen to the regular working folks? It’s a concern to me as an entrepreneur because it’s hard for people who are just getting out of college and trying to break in. You can’t do that in a city where the median rent is over $2,000.”