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Olympic bid has Boston asking: ‘Huh? What inferiority complex?’

“It’s a very different city,” said former governor Michael Dukakis. “It’s a more confident city. People love Boston.”
“It’s a very different city,” said former governor Michael Dukakis. “It’s a more confident city. People love Boston.”Stephan Savoia

The question hadn’t even finished and already Jimmy Tingle was shouting back into the phone. “What inferiority complex?!” the comedian asked. “What the hell are you talking about? We’re not called the Hub for nothing.”

OK, well maybe we weren’t talking about it, but some were. Try Google, where a search for “Boston” and “inferiority complex” in the aftermath of Boston’s selection as national nominee to host the 2024 Olympics brought 122,000 returns. (Take that, Philadelphia, with your adorable 71,600 inferiority-complex Google hits, or Cleveland, with a mere 50,700.)

Or try The New York Times, which wrote of Boston’s Olympic bid that the city remains “wrapped up in an existential debate with itself about whether it is a ‘world-class’ city” and that despite “its many obvious assets . . . Boston still has an inferiority complex.”

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Or Los Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke, who skipped the whole inferiority complex thing and just went with inferior, calling Boston a “parochial burg” and the US Olympic Committee’s selection of Boston over LA, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., akin to raising “the white flag, albeit one with a Dunkin’ Donuts logo.”

Parochial burg. That one had Michael Dukakis steaming.

“That’s ridiculous! Absolutely ridiculous! There’s nothing parochial about Boston these days,” said the former Massachusetts governor, a winter resident of LA. “We love Los Angeles, but the notion that Boston is somehow to take a back seat to Los Angeles when it comes to being the host city is preposterous.”

At 81, Dukakis acknowledged that the Boston of his youth had an inferiority complex. But that Boston was a grimy, deteriorating place, riven by racial, ethnic, and religious divides, suffering from disinvestment, population drain, and malaise. Today’s thriving Boston — a leader in education and biotech and league championships, rich with history and culture, a vibrant city with a walkable scale — is unquestionably world-class, he said.

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“It’s a very different city,” said Dukakis, whose son is involved in the Boston 2024 campaign. “It’s a more confident city. People love Boston. They take enormous pride in it. People are up about Boston.”

“What inferiority complex?!” comedian Jimmy Tingle asked. “What the hell are you talking about? We’re not called the Hub for nothing.”
“What inferiority complex?!” comedian Jimmy Tingle asked. “What the hell are you talking about? We’re not called the Hub for nothing.” handout/Ellen Shub

Forget, for a moment, that the ultimate marker of civic confidence might be to ignore the jabs or gibes of others altogether, certain of our place in the world. Beyond the animating debate over the merits of the Olympics — is this cause for celebration or despair, a worthy showcase for the city or a financial white elephant? — the news has stoked questions of how we see ourselves and how people see us from afar. Do we still have an inferiority complex? And if we do, would Olympic approval banish it for good?

Boston has long been a place of multiple identities — a small town and a big city, a seat of fervent abolitionism and busing resistance, home of Yankee propriety and “Yankees suck!” — where self-confidence (of course they picked us!) mingles with self-doubt, a city still craving the validation of others (keep going, NYT, about those “many obvious assets”; thank you, Plaschke, for that line about Boston being “an inspirational American icon of a city,” if not an Olympic one) despite its achievements.

For all the tourist activity and international-student enrollment and top-hospital rankings, Boston remains a place where the debate over bar-closing times or MBTA operating hours is laced with questions of identity and global standing; where what might even have been a compliment from Gisele Bundchen in a Brazilian magazine (“Boston is a small town, but very clean and safe”) can cause hand-wringing or harrumphing; where an Onion article (“Pretty Cute Watching Boston Residents Play Daily Game Of ‘Big City’: ‘It’s Fun Watching Them Hustle And Bustle Around Like They Live In A Major Metropolis,’ Nation Says”) can sting our insecurities and stoke some look-they’re-talking-about-us excitement all at once.

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“Boston is a small town, but very clean and safe,” Gisele Bundchen said in a Brazilian magazine.
“Boston is a small town, but very clean and safe,” Gisele Bundchen said in a Brazilian magazine.Paulo Whitaker/REUTERS

“Let’s stop coddling our Boston and New England inferiority complex,” a letter writer to the Globe urged readers . . . back in August 1960. In the 1970s and early ’80s, Kevin White’s mayoral administration often used “world-class” as a buzzword, but it was as much aspirational or defensive, justifying the expense of the city’s 350th birthday celebration or the need of a mayoral trip to China, as accurate.

It wasn’t always that way. When civic leaders were plotting a bid for the 1885 World’s Fair, locals debated the financial merits but harbored no doubts about Boston’s worthiness, at least not in the pages of the Globe.

“Boston has natural and factitious advantages for the exposition above any other city,” the paper put it, with “greater attractions than it is possible for any Western city to show” — take that, Los Angeles — as well as ample lodging, plentiful horse cars, and a rail network that moved crowds with “celerity, certainty, and security.” Plus, it was a day closer than New York to Europe by boat. (Local planners ultimately backed off that bid for financial reasons but still hosted an 1883 Foreign Exhibition with displays from dozens of countries and the first, edgy showcase of French Impressionist works in America.)

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Back then, Boston did not have an inferiority complex, it had a “superiority complex,” historian Jim Vrabel said. Brahmin Boston was the financial capital of New England’s thriving manufacturing industry — itself the seat of the nation’s Industrial Revolution — and the literary and cultural capital of the United States. The inferiority complex set in during the 20th century, as other cities caught and eclipsed a struggling Boston, Vrabel said. But the city today rates highly on an array of measures of vitality, vibrance, and quality of life, confident again in the 21st century, he said.

“The discussion about the Olympics also reflects this confidence,” said Vrabel, author of “A People’s History of the New Boston,” which traces the role of community activists in creating a more thriving, humane residential city to accompany the downtown turnaround. “It’s whether or not we want the Olympics, more than whether the Olympics want us. We are so sophisticated, smart, and sometimes cynical that we have to look at what’s best for Boston here, and not what anybody else thinks about Boston or what it makes us look like.”

Former city councilor John Tobin said Boston had a “gigantic” inferiority complex — but it was primarily sports-driven, and eradicated by the riches of the 21st century (eight championships by four teams in a dozen years). The 86-year Red Sox “curse” alone could make pessimists, skeptics, and fatalists of an entire region. Even after the championships, some of it remains in our cultural DNA, through a mix of history, geography, ethnicity, and weather, said Tobin, a comedy-club owner and booker.

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“People in Boston — and we love them — they’re the toughest critics in the world, and it’s my belief that’s why we have so many nominees for president of the United States . . . and why it is Boston comedians are the best in the world,” Tobin said. “If you can make people laugh or get them to vote for you in Boston, you can make it anywhere.”

But that’s not to be confused with an inferiority complex, said Tobin, who thinks Boston has found a desirable sweet spot as a world-class city with a small-town feel — though we sometimes torture ourselves trying to figure out which part is the defining feature.

And Tingle said Boston “has anything New York has, or any other city, in a more manageable level.” Still, he wouldn’t mind if more businesses stayed open late — something, he joked, the Games might change. “If the Olympics come, a lot of these people will be jet-lagged, so they’ll have to keep the restaurants open all night,” he said. “It will bring us out of the era of the Pilgrims and into the era of the European Union.”

A region of skeptics and fatalists was forced to look at itself in a new way when the Red Sox broke an 86-year drought and went all the way in 2004.
A region of skeptics and fatalists was forced to look at itself in a new way when the Red Sox broke an 86-year drought and went all the way in 2004.evan Richman/globe staff/file 2004

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.