Copycat City, USA

Poised for monumental change, our provincial town is looking beyond its borders for new ways to do things. Too bad it keeps ripping off all the wrong ideas.

THE BREAKING POINT FOR ME, I guess, came when the city announced that it wants to introduce blaring, Times Square–style electronic signage to three of its more touristy areas. A notion devoid of vision, sense, grace, or style, it perfectly encapsulates the central irony of life in 21st-century Boston, a town of geniuses governed like a backwater burg straight out of a Sinclair Lewis novel.

When the sign idea was summoned earlier this year by the visionaries at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), the agency hailed it as a way to add “animation and motion” to Lansdowne Street, the Theater District, and the Southie waterfront. (“It will enliven those areas,” said the BRA’s Kairos Shen, “make [them] more interesting and unique.”) This was a stunner, even for City Hall, which often seems as if it’s got some kind of bad-idea particle collider firing away in the basement.

Let’s consider the assumptions that have to be made in order for something like this to be put forward:
1. Lansdowne, the Theater District, and the waterfront need help.
2. Blinking lights are inherently exciting.
3. Making parts of Boston look like Times Square will result in their being more interesting and unique.
4. When the blinking lights are switched on, tourists, powerless against them, will storm howling across the city limits and hurl fistfuls of cash into the face of the first Bostonian they see.

Number one I grant. The entire Kenmore area has been bled out, sanitized, and converted into an expensive playpen for BU kids and their parents; the Theater District seethes nightly with drunken club goons and vagrants; and the waterfront is mostly still a giant parking lot. But the notion that the sign initiative counts as planning, or will in any way address the problems we face right now as a fast-evolving city, requires a degree of gawking bumpkinhood that verges on the incomprehensible.

Yet more and more this is the sort of thing we’re getting. Fort Point, our former arts district, is being remodeled after New York’s SoHo—an effort that should not be confused with the one that brought us the mortifyingly named “SoWa,” the redeveloped chunk of the South End that was supposed to drip with artsy flavor, but wound up being block after block of gloomy luxury-condo complexes looming over a few small galleries and a bookstore. And we haven’t limited our poaching to the Big Apple, either. The mayor evoked the Sydney Opera House in describing his vision for a new City Hall, for one, and his plan for erecting a 1,000-foot tower in Winthrop Square, though Hizzoner hasn’t uttered the word himself, absolutely screams Dubai. Meanwhile, the Canadian consulting firm enlisted to brainstorm ways to revitalize Downtown Crossing issued the following advice: Make the district more like a mix of Carnaby Street in London and King Street in Toronto.

You could almost call it the Epcot school of urban planning, but that would be a disservice to Walt Disney. Though he, too, may have been monomaniacal in his quest to separate out-of-town rubes from their money, at least he had a good (if evil) plan for doing so.

This isn’t to say there’s not a place for a little well-intentioned copycatting. Great cities have always picked off ideas from each other, and we’re no exception. Lifting the general layout of the Back Bay from Paris worked out pretty nicely. And watching visitors try to navigate our medieval village–inspired downtown streets has long been solid entertainment. But we were working with a clean slate, more or less, when those parts of town were built. Now we have a fully developed metropolis on the cusp of what could be an unprecedented building boom, and, at the same time, undergoing vast demographic shifts that have raised fears we’re becoming a rich-only “boutique city” and will unquestionably alter Boston in fundamental ways for decades to come. Smart, small-scale neighborhood initiatives are well and good—they’re the mayor’s forte—but they don’t make up for the lack of a cohesive, forward-looking strategy for dealing with all this change, something that speaks to who we are and where we’re going as a city, and does so in a style that engages everyone who has a stake in it.

Oddly enough, while Boston has been transfixed by the staggering transformative possibility of more blinking lights (by the way: what are we, cats?), New York’s been plugging away on an idea that really is worth stealing. Last December, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, a body consisting of representatives from more than a dozen municipal agencies, plus “independent scientists, think tank scholars, respected academics and city planners…neighborhood activists, public interest advocates, labor leaders, and others from the private and nonprofit sectors.” The office is now working on a project called PlaNYC, which is studying innovative strategies for absorbing New York’s expected huge growth over the next 25 years without ruining the city, its environment, its infrastructure, or its culture. Whether it actually works, it’s an impressive idea: a group charged with cooking up not just a long-term plan, but a long-term plan born of collaboration among some of the best minds the city has to offer, a summoning of the supposed collective greatness of New Yorkers for the benefit of New York.

Here, we have the exact opposite: the BRA, a powerful, quasi-governmental body that answers to no one but the mayor and harbors a lust for secrecy that would make Dick Cheney giggle like a farting child. Even if city officials suddenly did show an interest in harvesting the huge brains that lie scattered all over town, they might not get anywhere because the BRA is structured for maximal mediocrity. Tasked with both planning and development (unlike how they do it in NYC), the agency derives its funding from fees derived from the latter, which makes for a ready-fire-aim scenario in which the development interests steamroll the planning interests, and the city’s beleaguered residents wind up with what we have now: a bunch of half-baked ideas arriving in frightening bursts with neither warning nor context. Activists like City Councilor Felix Arroyo and the Alliance of Boston Neighborhoods’ Shirley Kressel have been fighting for years to create an independent board to bring this lunacy under control. But because the city council has little clout and Mayor Menino, who appoints the director of the BRA, likes things the way they are, nothing’s doing.

Is there hope? There might be, if the political will is there to make a big change and start acting like the first-class city we always talk about being. Remember the fanfare that surrounded the mayor’s decision to look beyond his immediate circle of cronies to fill some key positions? Remember how he mentioned in two separate speeches afterward how “great” it felt, reacting to this new sensation like someone who ate a particularly gross-looking piece of sushi and was shocked that it didn’t taste like crap? Well, the BRA director’s job is still unfilled as of this writing. Maybe there’s a little hope in that.

Then again, as our more cynical brethren might point out, perhaps the best way to retain our core Boston-ness is to ensure we do things as backward as possible forever. We should just keep doing what we’re doing, picking up ideas where we find them and grafting them onto our own city in the clumsy, desperate hope that it’ll make somebody—tourist, builder, whatever—come here and give us their money.

The future holds many unique challenges, you say? Pshaw. That’s nothing that can’t be solved by a NASCAR sculpture park, or a jai-alai arena, or a TD Banknorth Leaning Space Needle and Convention Center. Better yet, why not seize a few acres through eminent domain (heads up, Roxbury) and build something to rival the Iowa 80 Truckstop, the world’s biggest? It’s a hell of a draw. People drive from miles around to see the massive salad bar they have. Ours could have a massive salad bar, too, only it would be housed in a structure that takes subtle architectural cues from the Great Wall of China and Ellis Island as a nod to our enduring commitment to diversity.

I can see it now: It’s the size of a football field and the height of Trinity Church, and out front is a 10-foot-tall animatronic Paul Revere—fattish, so as not to give any out-of-towners body-image issues. His paint job is immaculate, gleaming, and small packs of midwestern tourist children snap at him as he hands out coupons for free garlic bread, repeating in a faintly metallic voice, Welcome to Boston, welcome to Boston, welcome to Boston…