On the Up-and-Up, but Still Looking Back

The arrival of the Hubway, the new bicycle-sharing program in Boston, is certainly to be welcomed. Put aside the fact that there are many months during which cycling is unpleasant, if not downright dangerous. And put aside also the inevitable complaints that the system isn’t as elegant as some of its peers, or that the city streets don’t welcome bicycles as much as they should (though they are clearly getting much better), or that it won’t meaningfully improve Boston’s traffic situation.

The real impact of the Hubway system’s arrival may be that it marks another step away from provincial, inwardly focused Boston, and one toward the city raising its aspirations on the global scene. This marks a small but distinct shift for a city too long obsessed with its past, and insufficiently engaged with its future.

As one who has only lived here for 25 years, my observation should necessarily be taken with a grain of salt. I am clearly late to the table; a clumsy arriviste. I will never be a real Bostonian. But nevertheless … Boston has always struck me as a place that ultimately behaves as if its best days are behind it. Of course there are the colonial roots, and the reality that Boston was once a major city in the United States, by virtue of its size, trade, culture, literature, and wealth. Those days are long gone as prominence drifted south the New York, and west to Chicago, San Francisco, and beyond. But the branding of Boston as a simulacrum of colonial times owes as much to a more recent event as anything from the Revolutionary era. Is our certainty that what comes next will be inferior to what happened 100 years ago so great that we fear the risk of trying anything new?

In 1976, the country celebrated its bicentennial, and Boston went all in. So when it came time to prepare for the Bicentennial, Bostonians went about reclaiming their roots: The Freedom Trail, The Granary Burial Grounds, Faneuil Hall Marketplace, the Old North Church, etc. were all brought to new prominence during that time. But what began as preparation for a year-long celebration quickly became an obsession with the past, and one that doesn’t always serve the city well.

Take the Red Sox. We are understandably drawn to baseball’s deep historical roots. We love the idea that we watch essentially the same game that our grandfathers, and even great-grandfathers did. But while we may be delighted that we kept the original 1912 Fenway Park, are we really delighted that we have empowered the Red Sox management to dictate what external development can be seen from inside the park? The desire on the part of the Red Sox for a “ye olde ballpark” experience is fine within their walls, but the team’s branding strategy (no matter how effective for them, and no matter how many bases Ellsbury steals!) should not be allowed to color to character of the entire city. They have already transformed what would have been an excellent proposal for building over the turnpike near Fenway Park, because the views of fans in the park looking outward might be altered, or worse, that residents in a new tower might be able to see in the park.

Boston is not in fact primarily a period museum; it is a vibrant and very exciting place. It’s a leader in biotechnology, finance, medical research, high technology, design, and perhaps most of all, higher education. The city can learn a lot from London, which in the 1990s successfully re-branded itself from the Beefeaters of the Tower of London to the “Cool Britannia” of the new millennium.

This kind of thinking is important because while the city doesn’t want to lose the sense of its history (no more than London), neither does it want to remain mired in it. When it comes to making contemporary choices, like whether to build modern buildings, attract and retain interesting people, or say, create an innovation district, a forward-looking narrative is essential. “Come to Boston for a colonial look at biotechnology!” is a pitch that just doesn’t sound effective.

Something as simple as a bike-sharing program implies that there may indeed be things that other cities do that might make sense here. And we are long past the time for Boston to attempt to reconcile its historical image with contemporary reality. More than anything, Boston needs a brand makeover.

Next: How to do it.