One of my first long essays was a lament about Boston's population decline, which has since turned around (though the city is still almost 200,000 below its peak). I got more hate mail for this piece than anything else I've written: about a dozen letters, which would probably translate to a few hundred online comments today. Most of the negative feedback was along the lines of "Why don't you move to New York if you like it so much?" A few people were particularly angered by my belief that "the number of new trees must not exceed the number of new people" in Boston.
I'm still amazed by the anti-urban attitudes of people who pay a lot of money to live in Boston.
Here's the opening of the piece in the Boston Phoenix. The rest is here.
Boston is a lot emptier than it used to be. That's hard to believe when the city has so many construction sites and so few vacant apartments, but the numbers don't lie. Fifty years ago, Boston was the 10th-largest city in America, with 801,444 residents. According to 1998 estimates, we're now hovering around 20th place, with 555,447 residents — a drop of more than 30 percent.
There's more at stake here than bragging rights. A smaller city means a smaller base of support for public transportation, public arts programs, and recreational facilities. It means less clout in the state legislature (which funds things like the MBTA) and in the US Congress (which includes only one Boston resident, Joe Moakley — and his district extends well into the suburbs). On a more intimate level, Boston's smaller population has spelled doom for many independently owned stores, bars, and diners that depend on high customer turnover.
The population drop in Boston has been so severe that it's probably impossible to reverse it totally by the next mid-century point. Even with the current economic boom, the most we can hope for is to hang on at 20th place and avoid the fate of places such as Buffalo and Pittsburgh — once mighty, now completely off the national radar. Given this context, it's odd to see current Boston residents look around at the cranes and jackhammers and worry that we'll become "another New York." The real question is whether we can get back some of the vitality and diversity we once took for granted.