The story of Thanksgiving is deeply intertwined with the tragedies that led up to it. A less doughty people than the Plymouth colonists might have cursed the heavens for the horrors of 1621. Only 53 of the Mayflower’s original 102 passengers survived to celebrate that first thanksgiving. The Pilgrims’ first celebration is so memorablebecause those pioneers had endured so much.
Similarly, Governor John Winthrop declared the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first official thanksgiving on July 8, 1630, less than a week after experiencing every parent’s darkest nightmare. His 23-year-old son Henry drowned at Salem, and Winthrop’s anguish transformed his journal from chatty prose into terse bleakness. His actions underscored that, while being grateful for comfort and prosperity is ordinary good manners, gratitude amid hardship commands respect.
It also promotes a sense of resilience and common purpose. In that spirit, the Thanksgiving holiday can also be an occasion for contemplating how to anticipate and prevent future disasters. The families who give thanks in Boston today deserve a city as resilient as themselves.
Less than a year after Winthrop declared a thanksgiving, Boston experienced its first fire and quickly passed its first land-use control, prohibiting thatched roofs and wooden chimneys. Although I’ve often argued against overzealous zoning restrictions, public safety does sometimes trump private freedom. The city followed up America’s first fire ordinance with a fire engine in 1653 and a pioneering professional fire department in 1678. It even dammed the Charles in 1910 to protect the Back Bay from flooding.
While this year in Boston was sharply defined by the Marathon tragedy, the future disasters we can most easily foresee still stem from the city’s coastal location. Appropriately, the Boston Green Ribbon Commission produced a report last summer on “Building Resilience in Boston,” and last month, Mayor Menino released “Climate Ready Boston.” These documents remind us that the city’s old and sometimes low-lying housing stock is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, like Hurricane Sandy.
Their warnings were supported by the release, two weeks ago, of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s proposed new flood maps for the city, which would increase the number of homes deemed to be at flood risk from 8,000 to 18,000. There will be a fight against the expanded flood zones, because being in a zone compels residents to buy flood insurance. A better response is to recognize that the risk exists, and then take steps that mitigate the costs that flood insurance may impose on poorer Bostonians.
The Boston Redevelopment Authority has put teeth into preparedness by discussing new guidelines “to ensure basic building preparedness and resiliency practices are included in planning, design, and construction of new projects in Boston.” That seems right, but new regulations can backfire if they deter the transformation of the city’s building stock.
Older housing is particularly vulnerable to disasters, and since older homes tend to be less energy-efficient, they also produce the most carbon emissions. To be “climate ready” the city will need to speed up rebuilding. If the BRA is going to require greater resiliency in new buildings, then it should ease up on other requirements, and allow more density in new buildings. If more Bostonians are housed in newer, safer buildings, then fewer Bostonians will have to spend a future Thanksgiving Day mustering gratitude despite a season of suffering.
Thanksgiving became a national holiday 150 years ago, amid the carnage of the Civil War. Boston’s history since then is replete with tragedy, including the Great Fire of 1872 and the Molasses Flood that killed 25 in 1919, but the city has always emerged stronger and grateful. This year, we have much to be thankful for, especially the city’s superb medical professionals who kept the death toll of the Marathon bombings so low, and the calm competence of the police force. We should honor them by planning for the future, and doing even more to ensure that future disasters do as little harm as possible.
Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard economist, is director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.