Opinion

opinion | Max Grinnell

A Faneuil Hall for Bostonians

The Faneuil Hall Marketplace and nearby Quincy Market (pictured) combine for one of Boston's major tourist attractions.

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The Faneuil Hall Marketplace and nearby Quincy Market (pictured) combine for one of Boston's major tourist attractions.

In the summer of 1995, Ben Thompson, the architect responsible for transforming the run-down and neglected Faneuil Hall Marketplace — including what is now known as Quincy Market — traveled across the Charles River from Cambridge to visit the iconic site, one of his signature projects. He was less than pleased at what he found.

Commenting on the retail milieu, Thompson noted, “There’s been a shift from local business to national chains and tourist shops.” Adding some remarks on the Disneyification around the entire landscape, he wrote wistfully, “People say Faneuil Hall has lost its Boston identity, and if you look around you have to agree.”

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Nearly two decades after this biting assessment, Faneuil Hall Marketplace boasts 20 million visitors per year — but few of them locals. I’ve never met a single Bostonian who makes it a habit to visit . . . unless they’re hosting out-of-town visitors. Yet this is an invaluable asset held by the city of Boston. As its operator, Ashkenazy Corporation, embarks on an ambitious overhaul of the historic property, front and center to the discussion should be how to transform Faneuil Hall into a place that caters to — and has the support of — actual Bostonians.

Most of the debate so far has focused on aesthetic considerations. These are all fine and worthy concerns, but the real focus here should be linked to broader concerns about social and economic opportunity. In this reimagined and reinvented Faneuil Hall, there should be a concerted focus on celebrating Boston’s diversity by bringing local businesses from underserved communities, formal mentorship opportunities for Boston public school students, and more. In short, capitalism with a conscience.

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If the Hub is serious about a new “new” Boston in the decades to come, the Faneuil Hall Marketplace is a great place to start. Below are a few first steps to consider.

Make the past resonate with present and future generations: Faneuil Hall offers a unique, rich brocade of history from the Revolutionary War era. But when I ask my students from Massachusetts what they think of when they think of Faneuil Hall, I am usually treated to a story about a required field trip that they barely remember.

Instead, visitors should be re-engaged with the site’s past, its importance in both Boston’s and national history throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, in a variety of formats through well-planned out temporary exhibits that appeal to young people. The city is so fortunate to have the Freedom Trail, the Bostonian Society, and other groups, but more can be done to engage the minds, hearts and creativity of younger residents. And, of course, drawing on the rich talent we have at public schools such as the Boston Arts Academy can strengthen these ties to the areas for future generations.

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Aggressively recruit local businesses and increase diversity: Not surprisingly, most festival marketplaces environments such as Faneuil Hall attract large, national chains because of their reliable income streams for real estate investment groups and the like. But to create a more equitable and representative retail and cultural environment, more female and minority-owned businesses must also be recruited.

Given Boston’s distinctive communities and ethnicities, it shouldn’t take long to locate retail entrepreneurs in Dorchester, East Boston, and other immigrant entrepôts to join this renewed and more cosmopolitan gathering place. It’s easy to talk about diversity, and quotas often leave a bad taste in the mouths of those trying to achieve such goals, but they shouldn’t be off the table in the formal negotiations between city officials and Ashkenazy Group over the coming months and years.

Establish formal mentorship programs: High schools and colleges now routinely require community service. But at many schools, formal, rigorously monitored mentorship programs are just as valuable. And this type of initiative should be an integral part of Faneuil Hall Marketplace.

Yes, most of the buzz is about software coding, high tech this and that — all those awesome 21st century professions. For some people, but not everyone. How about a formal arrangement at the proposed new hotel that teaches student interns about hospitality management, marketing, design, and a wider variety of future careers. Why not get Boston University’s hospitality school involved as well?

That’s just one of the new partnerships that might be available — there are many more that could be incorporated into new and old businesses in the marketplace. People in Boston who come to work in Kendall Square, the so-called “Innovation District,” and other high-flight professions are very, very well taken care of when they arrive. Such learning opportunities at Faneuil Hall might be one small step to encourage nurturing the young talent just a short train ride away in Savin Hill, Orient Heights, and Mattapan.

Max Grinnell teaches urban studies at the University of Chicago.
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