James P. Freeman: Boston dies at 394

  JULY 4, 2024

With an air of inconsolable sadness, the Boston City Council announced today, on the anniversary of the republic’s birth, that the City of Boston passed away after a long illness. It was 394 years old, six years short of what would have been its 400th birthday.

While the cause of death was not immediately disclosed, it is widely believed that one of America’s oldest municipalities expired after complications arising from morbid obesity (collapsing from the weight of massive unfunded liabilities) and asphyxiation (suffocating on uncontrollable borrowing). Boston was to play host to the 2024 Summer Olympic Games, which were largely financed with debt and taxes. The opening ceremonies and the official competition, now cancelled, were due to commence later this month.

Whimsically referred to as “The Hub,” it also suffered from congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease. A complicated and expensive procedure was undertaken in 1991 to unclog its central artery. Known as “The Big Dig,” and thought to create a future unfettered, it provided only temporary relief by creating a double by-pass (the Tip O’Neill Tunnel and Ted Williams Tunnel).

It was finally completed in 2007, after 16 years and costing over $14 billion, well over the original $2.6 billion estimate. Plagued by administrative incompetence, mitigation payments and political corruption, that project, with a cruel irony, was to be finally paid off 14 years from now. Like many patients arrogant with self-indulgence, bad behavior contributed to its ruination.

Boston is predeceased by Detroit, MI, Jefferson County, AL, Orange County, CA, Stockton, CA, San Bernardino, CA, Bridgeport, CT and Central Fall, RI. Those cities suffered similar symptoms, ultimately succumbing to overextended obligations.

Founded by Puritan settlers, in 1630, on egalitarian political idealism and a revolutionary character, its members’ lives were structured by limited resources and stark morality. An early observer of America’s burgeoning democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote that the  Puritans were governed by “austere principles.” Such a peculiar genius seems remarkably quaint by today’s evolving standards of propriety. And those once-vaunted values guided that pioneering fervor to The Boston Tea Party and early support for Abolition, a sampling of its importance to American history as a beacon of liberty. But that libertarian spirit waned as a progressive wave dominated much of the 20th Century.

In the years preceding its failure Boston was the 24th largest city in the United States. Public communication often took place in the Brutalist-styled City Hall, before the bannered backdrop of a sign that read: “Thriving, Healthy, Innovative.” And so fiscal pathologists and actuarial planners were lamenting over the demise of a city thought to be a postcard of urban health.

In 2015, the last year for which records are available, the city’s budget was $2.7 billion. Despite its sterling bond ratings, it was reported to have over $6 billion in unfunded pensions and retiree healthcare liabilities, according to the Boston Business Journal.

Additionally, it also had over $1 billion in outstanding debt. Over 14,000 active city employees were supporting 10,000 retirees, who, on average, were receiving $36,000 annually.

A closer inspection of the books indicated an ever increasing portion of its budget was dedicated to pension and debt service, stripping the city of its ability to cover more discretionary spending. Demographic changes also showed an increasingly aging workforce.

Given this backdrop, it was surprising Boston submitted a bid for this summer’s games in 2014 (it was awarded them in 2017). Organizers originally proposed a $4.7 billion operating budget with total a cost projected well above $10 billion. Despite assurances by then-Mayor Martin Walsh that no public funds would be used to finance the games, and despite a significant infusion of private money, the city in fact was forced to pay a substantial part of the cost. With this additional burden -- and absence of adequate accountability and transparency -- the city was unable to continue as a going concern.

Expressions of sympathy began arriving from around the country, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., cities not chosen by the U.S.  Olympic Committee. Heartfelt condolences were received also from Denver, originally selected to host the 1976 XII Olympic Winter Games, but relinquished holding that Olympiad when voters rejected its financing. Boston voters were never given that opportunity.

Mourners discerned a sort of political synesthesia over the last decade of its life. A mayor elected by popular vote in 2013 was against allowing a public referendum on the games in 2015. A clause in the agreement signed by the mayor and Olympic organizations forbid city employees to oppose the proposal. Of greater consequence, an elite group of private citizens usurped power properly held by public officials. The tension in Boston’s ancestral sinews became evident, stretching between its old Yankee parochialism and new modern internationalism.

In lieu of flowers, forensic experts and financial advisers have requested that donations be made to a financial collection committee, established in bankruptcy proceedings. It was determined that Boston’s insolvency would be better managed by liquidation instead of another restructuring. Among the creditors are 40 public unions that were once ardent supporters of the games.

Boston is survived by the collective memory of its glorious founding.

Visiting hours have been cancelled since widespread street closures and parking bans in Boston proper and surrounding neighborhoods were implemented as Olympic protocols. Infrastructure investments never materialized because the MBTA, the public transportation agency, for decades severely mismanaged, went into receivership in early 2018.

Advance copies of the Order of Service reveal that the recessional hymn will be “M.T.A.,” popularized by The Kingston Trio and originally recorded as a campaign theme song in 1949 for Progressive Party Boston mayoral candidate Walter A. O’Brien. It speaks of a sorry passenger who was trapped in the city’s subway system, with a pause in its choral phrasing allowing audience call out… “Poor Old Charlie” and “What a Pity.” A fitting coda for the organizers of Boston 2024.


James P. Freeman is a Cape Cod-based writer