City Council Candidate Chat: Douglas Wohn
David S. Bernstein: Why are you running for an at-large council seat this year?
Douglas Wohn: I have worked for the city for 25 years, helping people, and now I want to serve people better. Having met so many people—homeowners and residents, small-business owners and small-property owners—through the building permitting process, and helped on all kinds of building types, it’s about time to hit the road, to come to the neighborhoods and streets and meet the people, so I can serve better, and more. I bring my experience as an architect, and as a husband and a father. I have raised three kids. Through the METCO system, I have my own peculiar experience in education. Education is one of my three platforms.
You said an unusual experience, putting your kids through METCO?
That’s right. My kids all got involved. My first daughter went all the way through high school. My second daughter came back for Boston Latin school. My son started in METCO also. So, I had my own peculiar experience living in Boston, in terms of education. I want to raise the standard of life for [my daughter] and for her kids. I hope she can join me—I’d be lucky for her to come back to Boston. Some couples, for instance in Charlestown, the young generation there, there are many young couples, many of them have a three- to five-year plan. When they get married, they move to Charlestown for example, and they have kids. They are not happy with the schools, so when the time comes, they may go out to the suburbs. Urban density, urban environment, urban education—these are all related. I was blessed; METCO was a great opportunity we came across. Because 20 years ago my wife and I could not have sent our kids to a good nearby Boston public school. I don’t want to antagonize the Boston public school people. METCO people are motivated parents, motivated students. If you come out before dawn to take a bus to Sudbury or Framingham, and all the way back, two or three hours back and forth. I think of them as educational Peace Corps.
Right now there’s a very long waiting list to get into METCO, so obviously there are motivated parents and students; what can we do with the Boston public schools accommodate them here, without sending them out to Framingham?
That’s not easy. I just talked today with the Boston Teachers Union. We are all for an excellent Boston Public School system. The METCO schools, after all, are part of the statewide public school system. All the schools they go to are public schools. Not charter schools. Not private schools. These are strictly public schools, however they are one step higher up than Boston’s schools. But I don’t want to talk only about schools. As an architect, I have three platforms. I am very sensitive in sustainability issues. I believe in a healthier economy for everyone; a better education for everyone, and a healthier eco-environment and energy efficiency. My priority items are for global sustainability and energy efficiency. We are an energy hog, basically, especially this country compared to others. Also healthier equality, equity, in terms of gender. The key words are a healthier, better sustainable earth for everybody. I am standing on that platform, that’s why I’m running, and if elected I can work hard for a better sustainable environment.
As an architect, do you think that enough is being done in terms of planning and development of new buildings, to create the kind of sustainability you’re talking about?
There was a great article in the Boston Globe that showed all of the mayoral candidates on environment issues. Those were all great green items. If I am elected, I will introduce all of these and more. Urban agriculture is coming. We can do more for green, sustainable building. Balance is important. In education, I’m for balanced improvement, whether it’s a charter school, private school, wherever it works. But we also need to pay attention to excellence in the public education system. I am proud of myself, I am the product of one of the best public school systems, which is not in Boston. I grew up in Korea. I went to the best middle school, the best high school, by the exam. That high school is getting too much elite. And somehow, they decided to abolish that, so they can get balance for the rest of the others. It was a crazy idea to me—we have a long list of alumni, it’s probably better than Boston Latin School. They are competitive. You look at Japan and South Korea, how competitive the parents of the students are. To abolish the exam to make it balanced.
So how do you find the equity you talked about, without sacrificing that?
I don’t think it’s going to happen here in Boston that way. What I’m saying is we need to have some neighborhoods and communities brought up, to make them better. Try to have a walking-distance—that’s fine, that a good rule-of-thumb—but some neighborhoods, it’s not independently sustainable. That’s one reason I didn’t send my kids to Boston Public Schools nearby. That’s the reality. We need to have the healthy integration that we need. We can build more, and BRA has done a great achievement, but we need to share all this development in a more integrated way. I collected half of my nominating signatures in Dudley Station, the other half at the West Roxbury Roche Brothers. Those are two different categories of people, so contrasting, and we need to be better integrated. We have come a long way, and we still have a long way to go.
Speaking of a long way to go—you were brought up and went to school in Seoul, and then came here for graduate school at MIT. What do you bring from Seoul that gives you fresh eyes to see Boston in a way that perhaps some of the natives don’t?
Well, I’ve lived here more years than I did there. I call Boston my hometown. I don’t know much about there now, 35 years later.
As you’re campaigning, are there any parts of the city you’ve learned something new about?
In East Boston, I’m asked often about the casino, whether it’s coming or not, and for East Boston to be able to decide their destiny. If it comes to East Boston, we have to make a determination that we have to make this casino a 21st century miracle. We really have to make that kind of commitment, that we have to make a miracle out of East Boston. Historically, you don’t see a benefit to nearby residential communities. So, to make an exception, we need that kind of determination to make a green, sustainable, exemplary project—as a high-tech, 21st century tourist destination.
Read more Boston City Council Candidate Chats. This interview has been edited for length.