“One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”
— Vincent J. Scully, Yale architectural historian
So was the thinking about the demolition in 1963 of a Beaux Arts masterpiece in New York City, the old Pennsylvania Station, an act of progressive vandalism, from which rose (or sank) the present site of the Madison Square Garden complex, a dingy maze of commerce and commotion. In the 1960s, progressivism – once a purely political movement – began to seep into civics and cultural mores, even private-sector architecture.
The city ultimately recovered from this destructive movement in the 1990s and 2000s. But with vicious irony, Bill de Blasio was elected in 2013 as New York City’s mayor (the first Democrat in 20 years) within days of the 50th anniversay of the old Penn Station’s demise.
De Blasio is today’s most outspoken urban progressive, with ambitions beyond his abilities. His friend, and fellow co-chair of Cities of Opportunity Task Force (COTF), Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, should resist this progressive lurch, and distance himself from de Blasio, as he eyes re-election next year.
Boston too has experienced a remarkable 20-year rejuvenation, from which it should not retreat in an effort to emulate New York.
Walsh may not seem like a progressive pillar (more of a wanna-be) but that didn’t stop then-Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi, during 2013’s mayoral campaign, from describing his stance on issues as, “dear to progressive hearts.” As The Globe further noted a year later, de Blasio and Walsh “both campaigned on a message of economic populism, vowing to tackle income inequality and dramatically expand early education” – among the flash points of the progressive agenda.
With regard to “rising inequality” and “declining opportunity,” de Blasio said, upon the launch of the COTF that, “the task force is going to organize and focus the progressive ideas coming out of cities.” The defining mission of the COTF is to “make equity a central governing principle” and “advance a national common equity agenda.”
What progressive ideas in the last 50 years have benefitted the likes of, say, Detroit, Chicago and Baltimore, bastions of murder and mayhem? And since when is equity a “governing principle”?
Under Mayors Rudolph Guiliani and Michael Bloomberg, New York City repelled those progressive ideas, making the city safer and more prosperous. Boston was certainly not a progressive haven during these years. Indeed, the late Thomas Menino – Boston’s longest serving mayor – was more of a powerbroker and pragmatist, eschewing lofty ideas. Rather, he fully embraced being the “Urban Mechanic.”
Last year at the second meeting of the COTF, held in Boston, Walsh said, “inequality is a national crisis. It’s holding down wages, it’s holding back our economy, it’s undermining the American Dream.”
Not in Boston. Apparently Walsh does not see the paradox of progressive thinking as it applies to his city. Boston has one of the highest inequality levels in the country, yet The Hub is flourishing. It will be fun watching Walsh explain why Boston should adopt de Blasio’s progressive politics during next year’s mayoral race.
There are other areas where the two mayors are ideologically simpatico: climate change (both mayors attended a Vatican conference on slavery and climate change last year; Walsh says – seriously! – there is “social equity” when “talking about the environment”); free universal pre-K education (in a 2013 position paper Walsh indicated that there is“no greater equity issue” than ensuring all students “start kindergarten with foundational skills”); and affordable housing. Progressives demand equality of outcomes in all aspects of life — even if it is not earned or deserved or paid for.
Writing for The American Prospect, Harold Meyerson noted that the mayoral class of de Blasio and Walsh, among others, in 2013 is “one of the most progressive cohorts of elected officials in recent American history.” Collectively, they may be “charting a new course for American liberalism.”
Today 27 of the nation’s 30 largest cities have Democratic mayors. But, mercifully, 23 states are controlled by both Republican legislatures and governors. It remains to be seen if the new progressives will leave a positive legacy. Preferably, it will be a short-lived one.
Once again, there is talk of “transforming” Penn Station and returning it to its former state of grandeur. That is the delicious irony of New York’s progressivism: everything old is new again. Boston need not repeat the refrain or rattletrap.
James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer and former columnist with The Cape Cod Times. This piece originated in The New Boston Post.