Leaving the fate of a Suffolk Downs casino proposal to East Boston only illustrates the dominant native thinking. Barring extreme tragedy, like the Marathon bombings, it’s “neighborhood first,” not “One Boston.”
From a political perspective, it's no surprise the Boston City Council voted overwhelmingly, 10 to 3, to give developers who want to turn an old racetrack into a shiny new casino exactly what they desired: an East-Boston-only referendum vote.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino backed that outcome. So did the East Boston political establishment. And deference to the overall casino cause was the order of the day at a public hearing the day before the preliminary election for mayor.
District City Councilor Bill Linehan told the audience it was "an honor" to preside over the event. He chided city councilor and mayoral candidate John Connolly for asking too many questions. City Councilor Mike Ross, another mayoral candidate, was the only elected official to gently question gambling revenue projections. And someone made sure that when casino opponent and mayoral candidate Bill Walczak testified, it was not until 3:10 p.m. — three hours after the hearing began and five minutes after the last television crew packed up to go.
Still, while no really hard questions were asked, the hearing revealed some hard truths about how Bostonians and their elected representatives view their city.
"East Boston is an island," declared City Council President Stephen J. Murphy, as he promoted an Eastie-only vote. "You get there by tunnel or bridge." Explaining that his Hyde Park home is 15.7 miles from Suffolk Downs, he called it "ludicrous" for a resident of any other neighborhood to have a say in the matter.
City Councilor Ayanna Pressley told the gathering she was not going to stand in the way of "a host community determining their fate." In doing so, she accepted the definition of "host community" as East Boston, not the entire city, even though the host agreement was executed by the mayor on behalf of the entire metropolis.
In lonely contrast, Matt O'Malley, a district city councilor from Jamaica Plain, argued that a Suffolk Downs casino would affect the entire city, so every citizen should have the chance to vote on it. He's right, when you consider the social cost of addiction and the pressure on police and other public health and safety services.
But, at the hearing, 84-year-old Alice Christopher from East Boston was incensed at O'Malley's argument: "Where was the rest of Boston when this was going on?" she said, holding up a picture of Logan Airport. "Shame on you," she added. Now that East Boston is about to cash in, she went on, "you all want a piece of the pie."
Compared with other development projects, the rewards and risks of a casino are outsized, adding some credence to the argument that only East Boston should vote on it. But on issues large and small, it's almost always neighborhood first around here. Pride and tribal loyalty play a role but so does necessity. Residents of specific locales are used to fending for themselves, without moral support from other parts of the city.
Residents are left to lobby City Hall on behalf of neighborhood-specific issues — whether its gang warfare in Roxbury and Dorchester; unsafe rental housing in Allston-Brighton; or gentrification in South Boston. From the mayor to the city council, there's little effort to engage the entire city on what are commonly viewed as matters of hyperlocal interest.
Public education is one issue that cuts across neighborhood turf. But even that's viewed mainly as a problem for the poor and struggling middle class.
Indeed, the idea that anyone should think beyond neighborhood was ridiculed at the casino hearing. Because of geography, Murphy's description of East Boston as an island rings especially true. It is a neighborhood cut off by tunnels and bridges from the rest of the city. But it doesn't take Boston Harbor to make other Boston neighborhoods feel like islands unto themselves.
Getting the "One Boston" mind-set to extend beyond enormous tragedy — or great sports victories — is something for the next mayor to think about.
As for a Suffolk Downs casino — if it becomes reality, its success or failure will extend beyond Eastie. Eventually Boston will figure that out.