There's a lot to love about Boston. It's in much better shape than it was 40 years ago, when there was some doubt over whether it would recover from decades of rot and self-destruction. It's now firmly in the top tier of livable, walkable, and economically sustainable American cities.
And yet... There are still things that frustrate me about the Hub. Here are 10 things that still make me squrim.
1. The Filene's Pit. The Filene's department store (and its iconic bargain basement) closed in September 2007, and what was one of the city's leading tourist attractions is now just a facade next to a fenced-off hole in the ground. A plan to build condos and office space there is dead, and a recent condo-building spree seemingly everywhere downtown except the pit will probably kill any demand for more units.
Mayor Menino blames the economy and the rotten planning of the developer that tore down the building, recently telling the Herald, “The hole is going to be there until those folks from New York understand we in Boston know how to do development. And just because they can’t get development done, that’s not my fault.” But Menino justifies his record-setting tenure (he's been mayor since 1993) and tight control of the Boston Redevelopment Authority by saying that he's able to get things done rather than worrying about such things as a "vision" for the city. Would an inexperienced mayor really do a worse job of saying "not my fault"?
UPDATE: As of May 2014, a new developer is rehabbing the Filene's building and starting construction on a 625-foot tower that will replace the "pit." The Boston Globe reports that the Filene's building will be occupied by a supermarket and by the first American store of the Irish clothing chain Primark (which Globe fashion writer Christopher Muther describes as "a company known for $13 sneakers and $3 sunglasses" that won't do much to improve Boston's fashion sense).
2. City Hall. It's not that City Hall is the ugliest building in the world (though plenty of people see it that way), it's that Bostonians have spent decades whining about it and scapegoating it as the cause of everything that's wrong with downtown. Either tear the thing down or make the most of it. The plaza isn't as pretty as Copley Square, but it's handy for large gatherings, so there's a good argument for leaving it as is and dressing it up with food carts and the like on normal days. And the worst thing about it — other than the haphazardly parked police cars in front — is the awful, cliched red brick around its base. But instead of making the building more inviting (and it could be made more inviting with the right signage and art installations), city leaders just float a way-too-ambitious renovation or demolition plan every few years and then forget about it.
3. No public food market. There's the Haymarket, but that's worthwhile only for nostalgia's sake, and its narrow, cramped space looks silly right next to the underused Greenway. What Boston needs is something like Montreal's Jean-Talon Market. There is an effort to open a small version right next to the Haymarket, and it's due to open in 2012. This being Boston, l'll believe it when I see it. My other worry is that the market won't function as a truly public area, where people can stroll about or sit down for a spontaneous snack. In many ways, I admire Boston's non-nonsense pace, but this should be a zone where people are encouraged to take their time. We do not need the Hub's famous "whaddya want?" service attitude here.
4. The cap on liquor licenses. It's embarrassing that happy hours are illegal in Massachusetts and that bars must close at 2 a.m. even in hotels and in non-residential areas, but most big cities have their own form of skittishness about alcohol. What's worse in Boston is the state-imposed limit on liquor licenses, which makes it almost impossible to open a full-service restaurant here without a huge bankroll. (The Globe recently editorialized against the law.) The license cap is absurd when the city is growing in population and encouraging further growth by opening up areas like the Seaport (or whatever it's called now). It also makes no sense because bars and restaurants are among the few businesses that can plausibly revitalize city neighborhoods over the next few years. (Those bookstores and record stores are never coming back, and Woolworth's is gone for good.) Of course, if the state Legislature repealed the cap, it would be relinquishing political power to the city of Boston, and holding onto power always takes precedence over economic growth in Massachusetts.
5. The diner shortage. Which overpriced, overcrowded restaurant do you want to try for brunch on Sunday? And where do you want to go tonight after the concert to be told that the kitchen is closed? Yes, I've heard of those things in New York called diners, but our real estate is too valuable for such tacky things. Besides, they might attract students who would urinate on my front stoop, so my neighborhood association is vigilant about stopping them. And what's so bad about a $15 omelet?
6. No gayborhood. The South End has been overrun with baby strollers, and the Bay Village Neighborhood Association is determined to remove all bars from what used to be a focus of gay nightlife in Boston. In contrast to cities like Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, the Hub is no place for gay club-hopping (unless you've got a car). This may not seem important if you're not gay, but it's a sign that Boston is not very good at maintaining a vibrant urban life in general. Plus, rumor has it that the convention- and events-planning trade includes some gay professionals who might want not want to spend a lot of time in the Killjoy Capital of America. (Note: I wrote about the implications for city life of disappearing gay bars in the Boston Globe a few years back.)
7. Sam Yoon. Boston's first Asian-American city councilor, a rising political star who attracted a lot of young and minority residents to the polls, moved to another state after unsuccessfully running against Menino in 2009. The rumor is that the Menino adminstration made sure he couldn't get a real job here, but it doesn't really matter whether the rumor is true. If Boston's leaders really cared about its reputation, they would have tried like hell to make sure that Yoon continued to play a role in improving the city. Instead, Yoon's departure re-emphasized the widely held belief that Boston's civic leadership is threatened by new blood. It also seemed to show that you can't challenge City Hall without paying a price. This might be gratifying to the politically connected, but I can't see it helping to attract entrepreneurs and young professionals to Boston.
8. Weird public transit gaps. There's a long history of political decisions and Big Dig-related lawsuits that explain why the MBTA is spending so much money on an extension of the poky, smartphone-app-resistent Green Line to the suburb of Medford. But it's still ridiculous when there are large swaths of Dorchester, and entire Boston neighborhoods like Roslindale, without subways or trolleys.
9. No 311 system. Yes, Boston has a system very much like the 311 line used in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, and dozens of other American cities. But the Hub refuses to make things simple, keeping the harder-to-remember 617-635-4500 as its 24-hour citizen's complaint hotline. Is this to keep out-of-towners from using it? Or pique that Somerville adopted it first? Whatever the reason, it reinforces the popular image of Boston as stubborn to the point of absurdity.
10. The Lite Brite Panic of 2007. Boston regularly makes the national news, but usually in ways that emphasis its status as a big city. (The president holds a fundraiser here, Mass General does something to revolutionize medicine, hipsters feel guilty about gentrification, etc.) But the most cringeworthy moment in the national spotlight made the Hub look like Paducah, Kentucky.
The city and the local media's panicky response to a few LED devices left on public property (meant to publicize a Cartoon Network series) could have happened anywhere, including New York. What made it a quintessentially Boston story was the anger and humorlessness of state and city officials after everything was sorted out, with the state attorney general calling the devices "sinister" and charging the two guys who planted the toys with a felony — planting "hoax devices" designed to cause panic, even though they obviously had no idea they would prompt that kind of reaction. (The attorney general later settled for an apology and a few dozen hours of community service.)
It all made Boston look a bit unsophisticated, and Boston gets very defensive whenever it's accused of not being "world class," which makes it seem even more provincial. (The New York Times is never going to shame the Hub into abandoning the practice of using lawn chairs to save shoveled-out parking spaces.) The trouble is, if the city really wants to make a success of its new Innovation District, it's going to have to put up with people who like guerrilla marketing and artistic shirts.
Above image from Boston.com.