Newly ascended sultans of the Ottoman empire traditionally celebrated their good fortune by murdering all of their brothers. In later years they settled for imprisoning them in the imperial harem where—like the people who dared challenge Tom Menino over the past two decades—they descended into irrelevance and insanity. This practice was simple common sense, actually, because whether you’ve just been elected president of the United States, mayor of Boston, or even just the grand poobah of your local Elks lodge, your first concern must be to consolidate your authority, preferably with a demonstration of raw power that puts the fear of God—or, better yet, the fear of you—into any potential usurpers.
It’s a lesson Marty Walsh and John Connolly would do well to study, because after 20 years of Menino, whose reign was routinely described as imperial, the stakes for his successor will be as high as the towers rising around the city. Come November 5, that successor will be known, and whether it’s Walsh or Connolly, the entire city will be watching closely to see if Boston’s vast machine—the BRA, the police and fire departments, the public schools, everybody right down to the clerks in the parking-ticket windows in the bowels of City Hall—falls in line to carry out their new leader’s bidding, or, left rudderless and skeptical, collapses into a grotesque circus of chaos and corruption. In other words, this is no time for the sort of small, gradual, and pragmatic thinking both men campaigned on.
No, what the next mayor needs is not simply a bigger vision but a bigger city—epically bigger. And that means we’re coming for you, Brookline—and while we’re at it, for everyone else in the 617 area code, too.
In this time of transition, Boston needs to expand, and Mayor Connolly or Walsh won’t have the lay-up Tom Menino had when he campaigned to convert a bunch of downtown parking lots with harbor views into luxury condos and offices for the one percent. The kind of stratospheric growth we’ve seen in the Seaport won’t be sustainable forever. Then again, maybe it doesn’t have to be: Truth is, the idea that all of Boston’s growth ought to occur within our own borders, rather than through regional conquest—er, annexation—is a fairly recent one.
Cities grow to greatness for many reasons. While Boston eventually dominated the economic, political, and intellectual life of the U.S. through much of the 19th century, in 1800 the city was a dollop of marshy land between Mass. Ave. and the North End, home to barely 25,000 people. It was landfill, of course, that over the next century expanded the downtown waterfront and gave us most of the Back Bay, South End, and Fenway neighborhoods. But if we’d limited our expansion to just those parameters, Boston today would cover merely 9 percent of its current land area and, with a population of 120,000, would rank as the ninth-largest city in New England, just behind those jewels of the Nutmeg State, Stamford and Hartford.
Our great expansion didn’t begin until around the same time as the rest of the country’s, with most of Southie joining the city in 1804, just one year after Thomas Jefferson closed the greatest fire sale in history, otherwise known as the Louisiana Purchase. East Boston was added in 1836 (inaugurating a long tradition of everyone else in town asking, “Where is that?!”), followed by Roxbury and Dorchester shortly after the Civil War ended. The watershed year, though, was 1873, when the municipalities of Charlestown, West Roxbury (which also included J.P. and Roslindale), and present-day Allston-Brighton all wisely voted to submit themselves to Boston’s dominion.
And yet the most important vote of 1873 may not have been the “ayes” of all those that joined, but the “nay” of the one town that didn’t. Founded in 1705, Brookline had by the late 19th century grown into its present status as a walled garden where Boston’s wealthy and powerful could fluff their pillows safe from the predations of the city’s teeming horde of Hibernian hooligans. Flush with cash and self-regard, Brookline’s Brahmins turned up their noses at Boston’s embrace by a vote of 707 to 299. (Bostonians, on the other hand, favored the annexation 6,291 to 1,484.) In his 1985 book Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, the Columbia University historian Kenneth Jackson calls this vote “the first really significant defeat” for the urban consolidation movement nationwide.
Brookline’s demurral didn’t put a stop to talk of further expansion, but it essentially turned the tide against Boston’s imperial ambitions. An 1892 story in the New York Times reported on a proposal to absorb Cambridge, which, like many other second-rate towns of its day, found itself struggling to pay for modern roads and sewer systems. The Times story noted that “the overburdened taxpayers are strongly in favor,” but that “principal opposition comes from Cambridge City officers and would-be officers, who dread the passing of their glory.”
The grandest plan of all, though, came from the Brookline lawyer Daniel Kiley, who submitted a bill to the General Court in 1912 that would have combined every city and town within 10 miles of the State House into a 327-square-mile Überboston larger in area than New York City or Chicago—a footprint that today holds nearly 2 million people. Alas, Kiley’s bill fared little better than the Titanic, which sailed a few months later, and the annexation of Hyde Park on New Year’s Day would be Boston’s last. Opportunity briefly flashed again in 1991 when Chelsea went bust, fell into state receivership, and Boston Mayor Ray Flynn extended the offer of annexation, but the city’s leaders managed to wheel and deal their way through the crisis without selling the farm.
Surely there’s no better way for a new mayor to establish his dominance than by demonstrating to friend and foe alike that what he wants, he takes. And, really, now is the perfect time for Walsh or Connolly to make such a demonstration—with more than a century free of border skirmishes, the last thing anybody inside 128 expects is an invasion—er, annexation campaign—by the city of Boston.
Just look at how effectively the strategy has lately been employed elsewhere in the country. Houston, a dusty port town of about 45,000 people in 1900, grew to more than 2 million, spreading like an oil spill over a land area 12 times the size of Boston. Phoenix expanded in similarly weedlike fashion. If population growth is a fundamental measure of success, how are we supposed to compete with two-bit upstarts in Texas or Arizona when we’re still bottled up inside the same borders we had back when our factories—located in what’s now called the Innovation District—were making steam engines? Forget Houston—Boston barely makes the list of the 25 largest cities in the U.S., breathing from the tailpipes of such global destinations as El Paso, Fort Worth, and Austin, the last of which is growing at least twice as fast as we are. Kiley’s vision for a Super Boston may have been overly ambitious—think for a second, do we really want Wellesley and Saugus, anyway?—but a modernized version of his plan would have the region trembling in the presence of Walsh or Connolly, and would restore Boston to its rightful place among the list of America’s 10 biggest cities.
So what would this new Boston look like? Let’s start by gobbling up Cambridge, which nets us 105,000 people and settles the ridiculous competition for corporate headquarters between Kendall Square and the Seaport District. We’d be doing Cambridge a favor, anyway. Across the river, they can barely figure out how to govern themselves—their mayor is elected by nine city councilors, who took 10 ballots in 2012 to settle on a winner, despite the fact that the position is largely ceremonial. The city manager pulls the real weight over there, but gets paid north of $300,000 to run a place barely larger than Dorchester. It’s precisely the sort of overly complicated bureaucratic boondoggle you’d expect a bunch of ivory-tower intellectuals to dream up. Post-annexation, the whole lot of them could be cashiered and replaced by a seat on Boston City Council, which operates with just as much irrelevance, but does so at a much lower cost per resident.
From there, it’s onward to Brookline, adding roughly 60,000 residents and an instant boost to Boston’s public school system. Brookline residents, who voted for Barack Obama over Massachusetts’ own Mitt Romney by nearly four to one, would surely agree that with great wealth comes great responsibility to open their hearts—and school doors—to the underserved children of neighboring Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. As for Chelsea, they had their chance in 1991, but we’ll give them another shot. And with those social climbers next door in Everett trying to steal our casino, it’s time we make a move on their turf, too. Just north, Malden can provide much-needed affordable housing. Of course, no self-respecting city can sustain a sufficiently self-aggrandizing foodie culture without a Chinatown, and with ours disappearing in a wave of gentrification, Quincy and its emergent Asian population—and attendant restaurant scene—beckons.
So far we’re still a little shy of a million people in what we’ll call Great Boston, but wait, there’s more! While no one expects Cambridge to put up a fight—the city’s nonviolent resistance could be easily dispatched by a postgame crowd of Bruins fans marching over the Longfellow—Somerville mayor Joe Curtatone can be counted on to mount a defense worthy of the Alamo. So for strategic purposes, we’ll begin by absorbing Arlington and Medford, thereby completely encircling Somerville, whereupon we can lay siege to the city. No ammunition necessary: We’ll simply direct Inspectional Services to quarantine all shipments of organic produce on suspicion of potato blight or boll-weevil infestation, and see how long the locavores last when they’re forced to subsist on chain restaurants. Once Somerville falls, we’ll mop up the remnants of Belmont, Watertown, and Milton, resulting in a Boston with a pleasingly rotund shape and a population exceeding 1.25 million people, displacing Dallas as the ninth-largest city in the U.S.
A mayor who proposed an assault such as this would no doubt be catapulted directly into the history books, though critics could be counted on to lodge the predictable and boring objections, like the fact that the whole thing is utterly impossible. These naysayers deserve to be ignored. But the more wily members of the peanut gallery might protest on more interesting grounds: The last time a metropolis went on an acquisition spree, the result was a dysfunctional city, hemorrhaging cash, run by an allegedly crack-smoking mayor—and this was in Canada. In 1998 the provincial government of Ontario forcibly united the central city of Toronto with five other municipalities in a scheme bitterly opposed by virtually every person who lived there. The plan was sold as a way to save hundreds of millions of dollars by streamlining government redundancies, but the result has been the opposite: The influx of new residents actually resulted in the city needing to hire more civil servants.
But even Ontario’s failed experiment can offer lessons for Boston’s urban growth: Just as Toronto is struggling to reconcile a suburban voting bloc with the need for urban planning in a dense, world-class city, Boston’s history of growth by annexation helps explain why our politics are too often dominated by warring neighborhood factions. As we embark on our plan to grow the base by annexing our neighbors, we should also be prepared, in some cases, to prune.
So listen up, West Roxbury, or any troublesome ward of the city: You’re either with the next mayor or you’re against him. Toe the line or else pack up and join Dedham, or anywhere else that will take you. Connolly and Walsh may have gotten to the doorstep of the mayor’s office thanks to the luck of the Irish, but whichever one wins, if he wants to fit the shoes of his predecessor, he’d better listen to the Italian guy who wrote that it “is much safer to be feared than loved.”
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