Of Boston’s 138 municipal buildings that have been named for a person, all but 11 bear the moniker of white men. Many are named for obscure historical figures from the 19th century or earlier. Some choices are confounding. One elementary school, the William Ellery Channing in Hyde Park, is named for an early opponent of the abolitionist movement. At that school, hundreds of young minds walk into a building whose namesake once justified slavery by writing, “It would be cruelty, not kindness . . . to give him a freedom, which he is unprepared to understand or enjoy.”
For a city filled with generations of qualified leaders, the fact that naming rights are lost on historical footnotes is unfortunate. Perhaps it is only fitting then that when the Ferdinand Building in Dudley Square, a symbol of Roxbury’s revitalization, reopens next year, it will bear the name of someone who deserves credit for the neighborhood’s turnaround: Bruce Bolling, the Boston City Council’s first black president. Beloved by those he helped and yet limited in notoriety, Bolling quietly did more to reverse economic disparity than any other elected official in Boston. That he accomplished this as a member of the City Council — a body often ridiculed for ineffectiveness — remains all the more impressive.
General platitudes abound in the political world, but it is results that deserve our attention. One such result can be summed up in a single word: linkage. If you Google the word, you’ll find a wide range of definitions, but none describe its Boston meaning. Yet ask virtually any real estate developer who has built here in the last few decades, and they’ll know exactly what it is, having contributed over $165 million in payments due to it.
Linkage is a municipal law that ties the success of Boston’s commercial developments to neighborhoods and residents in need of affordable housing and job creation. It requires formulaic payments from private developers for projects above a certain size. Unlike most regulation that slows economic momentum, linkage encourages it — the more development, the more housing and jobs are created.
Linkage has become axiomatic today, replicated by cities nationwide. Twenty-seven years ago, however, amid an anxious business and political environment, the proposal was widely criticized as a policy that would “kill the goose that lays the golden egg.” Bolling and his team, including Joyce Ferriabough, a former Channel 5 producer whom he’d later marry, passed the legislation even after it was first vetoed by Mayor Kevin White.
Had he stopped there, it would have been enough. But Bolling went on to create policies that require a dedicated number of construction jobs for Bostonians, women, and residents of color. He formed a fair housing commission to limit discrimination within the real estate industry. And he launched numerous laws that had one goal in common — to provide opportunities to those who need it most, the residents of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods.
Like most thriving American cities, today’s Boston remains stubbornly divided between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Bolling’s decades of intervention, however, has made a difference. The Globe just last week reported on data that shows Boston’s wage gap to be well below that of other cities. Indeed, Boston is ahead of most of its peer cities when it comes to fighting poverty. Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago all have higher rates, according to city-data.com.
No doubt more needs to be done to combat disparity in Boston, but Bolling’s example of how change can occur should serve as a model for policy makers who want to get something done. One who appears to be watching, City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, was the moving force to name the Ferdinand for the former lawmaker. She didn’t need to do much convincing. Mayor Walsh — who worked on the Ferdinand project as head of the Boston building trades, and, thanks to Bolling’s son, knew the city councilor’s contributions well — was already on board.
“He was a quiet leader who simply led,” Walsh told me while driving by the soon-to-be-named building now wrapping up construction.
Boston lost Bolling two years ago to cancer at the age of 67. Just months later, Catherine Hardaway, the director of Central Boston Elder Services, which had just built an elderly housing project, presented him with an posthumous award at her annual meeting. She said that the new project would not have happened without the linkage funding provided by the city. In fact, without the legislation, some additional 12,000 units across Boston would never have happened.
Having one’s name adorn a building is, of course, an honor. But Bolling proved the value of patient work under quiet leadership. That — his true legacy — should be what today’s public officials should strive to emulate.Mike Ross is a former Boston city councilor and writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @MikeForBoston.