Monday, September 29, 2008


Loyal readers of Rustbelt Intellectual, I'm still alive but maddeningly busy. It's the time of year when I have a zillion letters of recommendation, several tenure reviews, and lots of other obligations. Throw in two back-to-back conferences, a whole new lecture course to write, and a once-weekly day-and-a-half long trip to Beantown, where I'm teaching a course on urban planning, and my free time gone the way of the industrial economy of Detroit: dwindling fast.

But I do have to put in a few words from Boston. In the early 1970s, Boston ranked up there by every measure as one of the handful of most distressed cities in the United States, right along with Gary, Newark, St. Louis, and Detroit. Boston's manufacturing base had been declining since the 1920s. Its working-class white population was relatively immobile and very turf-conscious. The city was wracked with racial tumult over neighborhood change and especially busing. Its harbor was as polluted as Lake Erie and if it weren't replenished by the tide, it would have probably burned like the Cuyahoga River. To top that off, its housing stock was (and is) pretty lousy. Lots of cheaply built wood frame houses and the vernacular "triple-decker"--one family per floor don't make for a vital urban housing market.

Yet in just a few decades, Boston turned around. Its prominence as an educational center (Harvard, MIT, Boston University, and Boston College, among others) positioned it well to take advantage of the new economy. The universities provided seed money for high tech and biotech industries that lifted it high (other Rustbelt cities rely heavily on meds and eds, but few have such a deep base in research and development). Its old neighborhoods, only partially plundered by urban renewal, appealed to historic preservationists and gentrifiers. And, while Boston was ravaged by racial tensions, it's a much whiter city than many of its northeastern and midwestern counterparts. That has ultimately made it more appealing for commercial investors and real estate developers. Together, all of these factors, along with good infrastructure (especially an excellent public transit system), gave Boston a base for revitalization.

There's one lesson for those who look with despair onto decaying Rustbelt cities. All are not without hope. The ups and downs of metropolitan America cannot be predicted with certainty. If you had asked any well-informed urbanist in 1970 whether Boston would be one of the most prosperous metros in the US in the early 21st century, he or she would have dismissed your question out-of-hand with a sneer.

Off to the airport (not one of the better airports in the US, especially for a city of Boston's importance). But I get to travel underground, through the massively expensive, corruption-riddled, and sometimes dangerous, but still truly fabulous tunnels of the "Big Dig," a reminder that even with unexpected twists and turns, big city construction projects can really work--and can really make a big difference in improving urban life.