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Is Boston a world class city?

istock photo/heather hopp-bruce/globe staff

‘Pretty Cute Watching Boston Residents Play Daily Game Of ‘Big City’ ” runs the much-discussed headline in the satirical publication The Onion, a sharp jab with some uncomfortable truth. To be a “world class city” has been our aspiration for decades, a regular refrain from the Menino administration. We wish it were so, but worry it’s not. The Onion rubs it in: Boston’s “a live-action role-playing adventure in which Bostonians buzz about their daily routines in a delightful hubbub of excitement as if they lived in a major American metropolis.”

And what really is a major metropolis? In The Onion’s estimation, it’s places such as New York, Los Angeles, and (perhaps) Chicago. By some measures we stack up. When it comes to traffic jams, for example, we shine. LA is second worst in the nation, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, while New York is fourth. But we’re next in line — fifth — and Chicago is seventh. So at least when it comes to the misery we inflict on our drivers, we’re comfortably in the top 10.

Then too, like other world-class cities, we have adorable quirks: weird foods, strange rules, and odd verbal ticks. Chicago has deep dish pizza, we have beans (in truth, it’s hard to find good versions in either city — it’s just what we’re known for). New York wants to nix big drinks; Boston bans Chick-fil-A and happy hours. In LA, highways are freeways and always bear the article “the.” In Boston things are “wicked,” although now mostly on TV and in movies.

But by other measures, we just don’t made the grade.


Take green space, for example. Real cities should be gray and dingy, filled with cars and nary a tree in sight. Not so Boston. With an estimated 7.6 acres of parkland for every 1,000 residents — as well as trees planted along almost every roadway — it’s an eco-crunchy paradise. That, of course, is its problem. Chicago, with just 4.2 acres, has got it right. So too do LA (6.2) and New York (4.5 — despite the vast Central Park in its midst).

Real cities should also be maelstroms of despair and anxiety, filled with poverty and unemployment. Yet with a startlingly low unemployment rate of 5.9 percent, Boston is getting close to the level economists think of as full employment (4.5 percent). Not so America’s big metropolises: New York (8.5 percent unemployed), Chicago (8.6 percent) and LA (9.3 percent) keep their residents hand-to-mouth. If Boston really wants to become world-class, it’s got to stop this nonsense about innovation districts, develop some outlandish new regulations, and come up with a city income tax.


You can see Boston’s shortcomings in its wealth and demographics. At over $62,000, Boston’s median household income is above that of New York, LA, and Chicago. And its population — with a median age of 31 — is younger too, a reflection of the students attracted to local colleges and universities as well as the perception that its more dynamic economy offers them greater opportunities. Not only that, but Boston is better educated — as a percentage of the population, more of us have high school, college, and advanced degrees. Again, Boston loses: Real cities should be older, stodgy and a little bit dumb.

In other respects, too, Boston doesn’t live up to big city standards. Major metropolises should be sick and unhealthy places. The American College of Sports Medicine ranks cities by a “fitness index” and, sure enough, New York (ranked 22), Chicago (28) and LA (38) are well down the list, reflecting the grit and toughness — which is to say, higher death rates and the like — that are the hallmarks of a true metropolis. Boston, meanwhile, ranks third. C’mon Boston: You’ve got to get people smoking more!

I could go on, but you get the idea. Indeed, a variety of surveys regularly rank us as one of the most desirable places to live in the nation. A recent Business Week analysis, for instance, put Boston fourth (just behind San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.). No wonder: Boston is green, clean, healthy, wealthy, smart, and employed. But what that means, of course, is that as a real city, we’re an utter failure.


Tom Keane can be reached at