Boston is a historic city undergoing a building boom. That puts Greg Galer in an interesting place. The executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance is a sort of advocate-in-chief for the city’s older buildings and public spaces. A PhD historian and former museum curator, Galer these days sits on the front lines of debates about how much of that old city will be part of the new, and how to keep Boston growing without sacrificing the character that makes it unique.
It’s a job that keeps Galer busy, but the Globe’s Tim Logan recently caught up with him to talk about how he got here and what he expects will happen next.
1. Galer got a feel for the fabric of the city at an early age. When he was growing up in Mattapan and then Milton, his dad owned a vending machine business, and they’d drive all over town stocking machines in gas stations and laundromats. As a teenager, he went to the Boston Public Library on Saturdays to pore through old newspapers and microfilm, and then walk up Mass. Ave. to Harvard Square, stopping at book and record stores along the way.
“The big challenge was managing your load on the way home. Records and books weigh a lot. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s how I got my interest in history and the city. You could see the city changing and how different parts of the city had different feels to them.”
2. In college, Galer studied physics and math, but soon decided those areas weren’t for him. Eventually, he found a field that married his two interests — the history of technology and industry — and wrote his undergraduate thesis on the old Boston Bridge Works, which built steel-frame bridges all over New England. He began to see how the history of a city’s buildings was woven into the history of its industries, and how they influence each other over time.
“Cities have these complex and interrelated histories, which is what makes them interesting and fun places to be. Not just to study but to be in and watch this change.”
3. Galer explored those connections further at Stonehill College, where for a decade he managed the Stonehill Industrial History Center. After that, he spent two years as head of exhibitions at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. When he came to the Boston Preservation Alliance in 2012, his job changed in some ways, but not in others.
“When I left New Bedford, my kids were saying they don’t get to look around in the collections anymore. I remember driving them into the city once and saying, ‘This is my collection now.’ It’s not quite the same, but we see ourselves as being stewards, the best we can, of an important part of what makes Boston, Boston.”
4. He has held the job during a time of great change in Boston. A building boom is altering the fabric of the city, sometimes threatening historic buildings, other times generating the money needed to fix them up. Amid that, Galer says, it’s important to remember that Boston’s unique texture doesn’t just come from famous historic landmarks, but also from its everyday older buildings that have evolved over a century or more.
“Some people think about Boston and think it’s all about the Freedom Trail. That’s certainly an important part of our history, but it’s not just that. There are these layers of change and evolution, not just downtown but in neighborhoods, too, that makes Boston so cool. So how do we allow Boston to change without losing its distinctiveness? That’s the biggest challenge today.”
5. Galer’s a historian, but he’s also an advocate, and he spends a lot of time lobbying City Hall and negotiating with builders and community groups over high-profile development projects. He was in the thick of talks about the future of the Citgo sign and engaged in the debate about shadows on Boston Common that would come from the skyscraper planned at Winthrop Square. The Preservation Alliance has no particular authority in these matters, just its voice. Galer said he tries to use it wisely, to find common ground on a project.
“A lot of it is spending time listening and recognizing that, most of the time, most people don’t have evil intentions. Neighbors will say, ‘That guy’s a jerk.’ Developers will say, ‘Those people are crazy.’ We need to get to a solution that works for everybody, and you can’t do that if you don’t talk to people.”Tim Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.