The great Boston comeback story

Globe Staff/Associated Press Images

Mayor Kevin White.

By Ira A. Jackson  

On the eve of a mayoral election, when the city is red hot and the turnout will likely be low, it may be instructive to dial back 50 years ago — when the city was dying, the turnout was huge, and the results were in doubt. Kevin White defeated Louise Day Hicks for mayor a half century ago, when the future was bleak, racial tensions were high, and when Boston was viewed as a once-great city with a proud past but not much of a future.

Boston after World War II had already lost 250,000 residents, largely from white flight. The tallest buildings were the Customs House, the old Hancock Tower, and the Prudential Center. City government was viewed as a political backwater. The school department engaged in deliberate and flagrant segregation and discrimination. Quincy Market was largely abandoned and rat-infested. Homicides were up, confidence was low, and historic ethnic rivalries kept neighborhoods separate and suburbanites away.


Into this charged environment, a young progressive took on a traditional pol, and the city held its breath as the final count came in. Kevin White, known not affectionately in many neighborhoods as “Mayor Black,” won in a narrow victory that signaled the beginning of a historic turnaround for Boston. Today, crime is at an all-time low, construction and job growth are at all-time highs, and Boston’s economy is the envy of the nation. Boston is viewed as hip, smart, innovative, and tolerant.

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How did all this and more get done in such a short period? What lessons from this turnaround might be relevant to Boston’s future? What, if anything, does political leadership and the mayor have to do with this incredible story?

It’s not a simple story, or it would have been replicated by other cities across the nation. Lots of people and institutions pulled together to make it happen. There’s no single silver bullet, but at least three explanations are instructive.

First, leadership and vision matter. When White boldly proclaimed that Boston would become a world-class city, he was widely ridiculed. But his persistence and vision helped a city to believe in itself, to benchmark itself against best practices elsewhere, and to aspire to greatness. City government became a magnet for talent – people like Barney Frank, Fred Salvucci, Paul Parks, Kirk O’Donnell, Micho Spring, and Paul Grogan — and an incubator for innovations, like Little City Halls, Summerthing, and community schools. A renovated Quincy Market opened in time to greet the Queen of England for the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, and today attracts more visitors than Disneyland. Powered by an ambitious, creative, and charismatic leader, Boston began its turnaround with a bold vision and enormous positive energy. Three successive mayors — Ray Flynn, Tom Menino, and Marty Walsh — have all helped to keep that vision in focus and to implement many of the improvements necessary to see that vision fulfilled.

A second explanation is that government matters, and that Boston would not have achieved its dramatic turnaround without major investments. The explosive growth of the Innovation District wouldn’t have happened without the $24 billion Big Dig, and Boston wouldn’t be a bustling seaport again if we hadn’t spent another $5 billion cleaning up Boston Harbor. We wouldn’t have a technology corridor if we hadn’t expanded the Red Line to Alewife and Quincy; we wouldn’t have a competitive airport without billions spent on modernization; and we wouldn’t have a majority-minority public research university for our majority-minority city if we hadn’t created UMass Boston on Columbia Point. All these projects and more required massive public investment, and none of them seemed plausible at the outset. Columbia Point was a tough public housing project built next to a toxic landfill surrounded by a polluted harbor; others thought that expanding the T was throwing good money after bad; skeptics couldn’t justify a return on investment for a clean harbor. In fact, Boston could never have made its turnaround without these big bold multi-year public investments, which spurred confidence and subsequent private investment many times over.

A third essential lesson is that respect and tolerance and inclusion matter, perhaps more than anything else. It was only four decades ago that Boston experienced its ugliest chapter: the intolerance and violence and hatred during court-ordered desegregation. Busing was Boston’s Selma. How far we have come in such a short period of time that Boston is now celebrated for its tolerance and inclusion and diversity. That only happened after blacks and Latinos and women and gays, and others who had historically been excluded and marginalized and left out behind the cold and rigid facade of the old Boston, were finally given a place at the table. But Boston still has a long way to go: we have highest rate of income inequality of any city in the nation, the life expectancy gap between Back Bay and Roxbury is a chilling 33 years, and the wealth gap between white and black families measures a choking $256,500 versus $700.

As Boston heads to the polls, it would be wise to remember that only a half century ago the city was practically on the ropes. Our dramatic comeback story is powered by people and ideas and institutions, all of whom matter. Kevin White’s vision was that Boston could become a city of ideas and innovations at a time when ideas and innovations are the fuel of the future. We are the beneficiaries of leaders with vision, who made public investments and gave people who had been discriminated against and marginalized a place at the table. If we’re going to make Boston not only strong but great, if we want to make Boston not only successful but good, if we want to tackle the challenges of our time – income and racial inequality and our vulnerability to climate change — we’ll need to tap a similar formula based on vision, investment, and even greater inclusion.

Ira A. Jackson is senior vice president at Brandeis University. He served as a chief of staff to Mayor Kevin White of Boston.