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Can an Olympics Fight Inequality?

May 19, 2015

As someone concerned about inequality, what would it take for you to support the Olympics in Boston in 2024?”

That is the question that journalist Neil Swidey asked me for his article that appears today [April 11] in the Boston Globe Magazine.

My quick answer: If the Olympics were designed to support a well-planned agenda to reduce inequality and increase city resilience, I would be for it.

What would it take? Boston 2024 and Mayor Marty Walsh should convene a group of city researchers and activists who understand the impact of growing racial and class inequality on Boston – and also understand the challenges Boston faces with sea level rise and accommodating climate change. Fund them to develop a bold plan for Boston Equity and Resilience 2030. Identify the key interventions to reduce wage wealth and education disparities – as well as infrastructure retrofits that will create jobs.

Bring a specific focus to our high school youth: How do we ensure the 2024 Olympics will have a positive impact on all the young people in Boston’s middle and high schools – who will be in their mid-20s in a decade? This plan should be about developing them as people and workers with real opportunities.

Tap thinkers from outside the Boston’s historic pro-growth boosterism circles. Keep the Boston Redevelopment Authority away from the table. Enlist people like Charlotte Kahn, who ran the Boston Indicators Project at the Boston Foundation, Phil Thompson from MIT Urban Planning, Marc Draison from Metropolitan Area Planning Council, community organizers like Lydia Lowe from Chinese Progressive Association and Juan Leyton, the new director of Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.

Give them two months and some planning staff to create the plan to identify the 20 most important things we can do as a city –and what it would take.

Now put the Olympics 2024 Plan next to this plan for Boston Equity and Resilience 2030. How can the Olympics support the City’s plan? There will, of course, be different and conflicting needs. The Olympics will have short-term needs but if properly organized, we can spread the benefits around.

If we are clear that the goal is not to host the Olympics, but to have the best possible city for all its residents, then our criteria will become clear. A plan could include things like:

Job Preparation Bureau. What are the short and long-term employment opportunities from the Olympics? How can these jobs reduce unemployment in our city among those most excluded? How can we prepare today’s high school students for these opportunities?

Eco-Transport. Jump-start ten worker-owned Pedi-Taxi businesses with 300 new hackney licenses for young Boston residents. Work with groups like Bikes Not Bombs to train 500 youth bicycle ambassadors during the Olympics to host visitors and encourage walkable and rideable venues.

Climate Resilience. How can Olympic infrastructure help protect our shoreline, restore wetlands, and mitigate against sea level rise mitigation?

Food System Resilience. How could provisioning the Olympics increase greater Boston’s ability to produce more of its own calories? Create a food plan that boosts the infrastructure and capacity of the local food economy -sourcing from locally rooted growers, producers, and caterers.

Hospitality Money. Create a city portal for residents to rent their rooms and houses during the Olympics –or host international visitors –spreading the hospitality revenue around to our neighborhoods.

Beware the Pro-Growth Elites

I’m deeply suspicious of the boosterism behind the Olympics. I recently read Jim Vrabel’s terrific book, The People’s History of the New Boston, which chronicles the social movements that shaped the City in the post-James Michael Curley era, after 1950.

In the decades between 1950 and 1980, Boston city politics were dominated by a “pro-growth coalition” of big real estate developers, building trade unions, corporate boosters, and compliant media that pushed federally funded urban renewal projects onto disorganized neighborhoods. These elites were organized – they even had an association called “the Vault” – and pushed an agenda of wrecking balls and bulldozers. They empowered Robert Moses of New York and Ed Logue of Boston to remake the cities to serve downtown business and suburban residential elites.

The complete destruction of Boston’s West End serves as the case study of bad planning, disempowered citizens, and triumphant developers. The late Leonard Nimoy recounts the village life growing up in the West End, a vibrant ethnic gateway community. But to Boston’s corporate elites, the West End was a filthy crowded neighborhood of non-English speaking immigrants.

“From a social aspect, it was a tragedy,” said Nimoy, because a wonderful tight community was destroyed.”

Today, there are not the billions of federal urban renewal funds to remake cities. Instead, we have Olympics, World Cups and other circus spectaculars. We have more organized neighborhoods that sometimes put a check on the worst excesses of elite planners.

Now we have Boston Olympics 2024, a new manifestation of the pro-Growth coalition that isn’t content with status quo. They are part of a globalized elite who want to brag about their cities when they’re in Davos or Dubai. They genuinely care about Boston, but they move in different circles. They don’t ride the T. They don’t have children in the public schools. They don’t worry about how climate change will impact their neighborhood. They have more than one house.

There is good reason why support for the Olympics plummeted during the blizzards of 2015. For most Bostonians, we want a livable city. We want to be able to get to work. We want our streets clean and safe. We want opportunities for our young people. We frankly don’t care if we never attend an Olympics in our lifetime. We’ve never been to Opening Day at Fenway. Or never been to Foxboro. There are more important things.

We are constantly being told that “there is no money” for the basic investments for us to have a decent life. And yet when the Circus comes to town –or there’s an agenda that perks up the power elite –the money appears.

It’s tough to get motivated when someone like former Hancock CEO David D’Alessandro lectures us to “relax” about the Olympics, like we are lacking in sufficient municipal spirit. Maybe we just have a different vision for our city?

Personally, I’d love to see us plan for equity and resilience. We need to be clear about the criteria against what we measure any and all projects. And then we start implementing the plan. And all the Boston 2024 boosters stay engaged, putting their time, treasure and talent into making Boston the most equal and resilient city in the U.S. We all win the gold and they win the bragging rights at the next international conference they attend.

Let’s celebrate our progress in 2024 and watch the Olympics in Hamburg on a giant Jumbotron at the beautiful luscious green and welcoming Boston City Hall Plaza.

Originally published at inequality.org

Olympic hands image via shutterstock.