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How we got here: Boston’s history, enabler of present fortune

What is it about Massachusetts that makes it so successful?

Named the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1632, Boston has served as the economic, cultural and population center of Massachusetts since.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/David L Ryan, Globe Staff

From the Depression into the 1960s, some would say longer still, few predicted Boston’s phoenix-like recovery into a growing, thriving, innovation-focused metropolis. Boston’s metamorphosis from what the Globe in the early 1960s referred to as a “hopeless backwater, a tumbledown has-been among cities,” to a flourishing City upon a Hill, represents one of the most compelling aspects of Boston’s recent history. It sets Boston apart from Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, and other American cities that have not been able to recover so well from mid-20th century disinvestment and population decline. (For a moment let us set aside the challenges that often come with periods of rapid urban growth.)

But if we peer deeper into Boston’s history, the city’s reemergence seems to have been preordained, as if its urban genome contained the essential material with which to progress into the 21st century. Named the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1632, Boston has served as the economic, cultural, and population center of Massachusetts since. Local innovations spread to support the economies of other towns and cities, while enterprise initiated elsewhere — Salem’s China trade or whaling in New Bedford — was often supported and funded by Boston-based investors. The city’s growth helped to spur that of the Commonwealth’s overall. (Presently, 80 percent of the state’s population resides within the metropolitan area, and Greater Boston accounts for 90 percent of the state’s GDP.)


List today’s worldwide urban economic drivers: financial services, health care, bio-and high-tech research, education, culture, and tourism — all are central to Boston’s current economic prowess. Now recall: Banking and financial services were pioneered when the Massachusetts Bank, predecessor to the Bank of Boston, became the first federally chartered joint-stock owned bank in the United States in 1784. Harvard College, founded a century-and-a-half earlier in 1636, began the region’s extensive commitment to higher education and research. Local investment in health care dates back to the establishment of Massachusetts General Hospital in 1811 and its forgotten predecessor, the Boston Dispensary in 1796. Known (perhaps self-labelled) as the “Cradle of Liberty” and later “The Athens of America,” the city’s political, cultural, and intellectual credentials are difficult for most cities to match.

Thus, it is not hard to imagine that Boston’s antecedent institutions were serendipitously planted seeds ready to sprout in support of a future urban economy. Such as when the electrical sciences began to spark at mid-20th century, catapulting MIT and Harvard scientists and engineers, along with investors and businesses, toward a digital age.


The Bank of Boston is gone, but not the tradition of complex financial services and local venture capitalists. The so-called Meds and Eds economies, the source of many publicly supported and private research endeavors, are nowhere stronger nor have been embedded deeper in a local economy. The literary achievements and social environmental sensibilities of Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Whittier, and those of Lowells, Holmses and Jameses, suffuse various public places and both public and private archives. The nation’s bicentennial celebrations brought tourism and thus added interest in the city’s cultural and literary traditions. A prescient embrace of service and knowledge-based industries helped reduce the pining for the return of traditional manufacturing. And this brought and continues to bring young, educated, creative individuals to the area; a cohort demanding amenities to enrich the quality of daily life, from cool bars, to cycle-friendly greenways, to sophisticated emporiums of all kinds, to the Institute of Contemporary Art.


Let’s further recall some of the enduring accomplishments of our prior Gilded Age. The last third of the nineteenth century was one of ambitious social planning, investment, and dreaming from which we still benefit. Substantial public investment produced parks systems, sewerage, and potable water systems, streetcar routes and subways. Concurrent philanthropic support created and endowed various cultural institutions such as Symphony and Jordan Halls and the Museum of Fine Arts. That inherent American idealism, an optimism about the future, played an important role. The exception was the mid-twentieth century national withdrawal from older cities when optimism switched to the promise of suburban living.

Will idealism — presently in remission due to social and economic inequalities, national political partisanship, and the obvious impacts of climate change — reemerge at this moment of relative prosperity to address current obstacles to further and better-shared prosperity? As the city approaches its 400th anniversary a decade from now, that would be in keeping with prior eras of Boston’s evolution.

Alex Krieger is a professor of Urban Design at Harvard and the author of “City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present.” Send comments about this story to