Boston – Whither Goest Thou?

By Lawrence S. DiCara

Following is an excerpt dealing with public policy and transportation in the city of Boston taken from an address that Lawrence S. DiCara, a Dorchester native and onetime president of the Boston City Council, gave recently to the Harvard Real Estate Alumni Organization:

“Long before I was in public office, John B. Hynes was mayor of Boston. Over 60 years ago, he gave a major address at what was the first of many Boston College Citizen Seminars. It was entitled “Boston – Whither Goest Thou?” On Oct. 26, 1954, Hynes laid out a remarkable vision of a completely transformed and modernized “New Boston.” It was a very formal speech that predicted to some extent the city which we have become. 

“John B. Hynes was a homegrown product, trained as a lawyer at Suffolk Law School, a career city employee, and the city clerk before he became acting mayor when James Michael Curley went to jail in 1947. He was thorough and businesslike.

“Boston was not enjoying good times in the 1950s. First of all, following the passage of the GI bill and the resulting VA mortgages, large numbers of our most productive young citizens took advantage of the benefits they accrued as veterans of World War II and moved out of the city. Second, federal policy called for clearing slums and encouraged the building of elevated highways, and we did both. Third, Boston’s finances were in crisis [and remained so] were until some significant shrinking of city government during the Kevin White era [1968-1983].

“Boston was a 9-5 city then; men who worked downtown wore hats and expected dinner to be waiting for them at 6 p.m. Men in South Boston walked to work at Gillette. Men in Dorchester Lower Mills did likewise at the Walter Baker Chocolate Factory. In J.P. and Roxbury, Plant Shoe was the large employer. In Charlestown, H.P. Hood filled that role. All of that has changed.

“I think 2018 is an appropriate time and that this is an appropriate forum to once again ask: Boston — Whither Goest Thou?

Public Policy

“Many millennials assume that Boston has always been a thriving prosperous international city, bustling with thousands of bright young people. We have emerged from our prior doldrums because, on many occasions, the public interest overcame selfish individual interests.

Many living in Boston today do not understand that, but for the actions of state government over 80 years ago, Eastern Massachusetts would not have the extraordinary water supply that it has had for many decades. 

Others assume that Quincy Market has always been a tourist destination, while those of us who are a bit older realize that, but for activist government in the 1970s, Quincy Market might still be all but abandoned, with pigeons flying about and rain dripping through the roof.

“Some forget that the harbor smelled and that the Central Artery was almost falling down and that the Navy Yard and the Army Base were abandoned during the Nixon Administration. 

When some of us were growing up, Post Office Square was dominated by a rather ugly elevated parking structure, a testament to the efforts of government in the years after World War II to entice drivers into the city. I was part of the legal team that worked with Norman Leventhal to create the Post Office Square Park. I walk through it every chance I get, especially on sunny days in the spring and summer.  

“Liberty Mutual’s decision to locate its new headquarters in the Back Bay and Converse’s decision to do likewise at North Station were the precursors of GE’s decision to build a new headquarters in Boston, which has been followed by many others. Mass Mutual is next in line.

“I know from working with some of those companies that these decisions were not made lightly. Boston, and the region in general, were attractive for a host of reasons, including but not limited to workforce, and transportation options, as well as receptive state and local governments. “Anyone who studies the comparative positions of states understands that in the post war era, Connecticut was viewed as a great economic engine; today it is not, in part because of actions taken by state government. 
Going forward, there will be similar opportunities to make Boston an even greater city, one of which requires a sensible at grade Allston Interchange for Interstate 90. It is essential that we overcome old habits that result in our rebuilding roads and bridges in the same manner as when John B. Hynes was mayor. 


“Going back to the end of the nineteenth century, people in Boston have known that the only way for the city to function is to have people travel at different grades – on, below, or above ground. Today, there are 1.3 million daily trips on the MBTA. In my case, I take the Silver Line to the Seaport and occasionally the airport, the Red Line to Cambridge for Coop meetings and to see my daughters, the Orange Line to Copley Square and then to Jamaica Plain and the Green Line to get to Fenway Park. The recent study authored by A Better City speaks of a “transportation dividend” resulting from those 1.3 million daily trips. It reminds us that 37 percent of the region’s jobs are within a half-mile of an MBTA station or commuter line stop. I think that’s a clear message to all of us, but one that many have been reluctant to acknowledge.

“In addition, as many can attest, housing values have increased primarily in communities with access to transit. I think of the efforts to create the SW Corridor (as opposed to building Interstate 95) often. All the missing teeth are now being filled in. Jamaica Plain is a great place to live because of the Orange Line and the 39 bus. 

“Every person in this room understands that, without an extensive underground transit system, downtown Boston cannot function. Yet how many of us have been on the front lines fighting for the dollars needed to sustain and expand the MBTA? Reducing the amount of money available to the MBTA via self-serving referenda so that each of us might have a few more dollars in our pockets—enough to purchase an overpriced cup of coffee once or twice a week—is foolhardy. Other cities are stepping up to meet these needs. Seattle just approved a $53 billion program. 

“Forty years ago few complained about overcrowding on the subway because our subway system was quite adequate for the number of people who worked downtown—a number that was significantly reduced from its peak sometime around World War II. 

Recently I was on the Green Line, on a Saturday afternoon—nice day, not too crowded, but it took far longer than it might have taken when I was a student at Boston Latin School, more than fifty years ago. There was a signaling problem. This is not surprising, since some of the signals on that line date back to the administration of Woodrow Wilson! 

“The future of our city and our region depends upon the ability of residents and workers to get into downtown Boston and elsewhere via dedicated underground systems rather than the late 20th century alternative of buses, which clog our streets. We must explore every possible sensible alternative, including but not limited to time-sensitive tolling, dedicated bus lanes, relocation of bus stops to South Station and North Station, the closing of streets, and a total revamping of scheduling.

“The city has taken some great steps in recent weeks. We must keep in mind that we benefit from being a walking city. Franklin Roosevelt in the midst of the 1932 campaign suggested “Try something...If it does not work, try something else”. Every option should be on the table, including the gondola proposed by Millenium Partners. We cannot be the captives of outdated ideas and sclerotic thinking. 

Lawrence S. DiCara practices law in Boston.