Last week, the Boston Globe sponsored a discussion as part of its Building a Better Commonwealth series, Loosen Up, Boston?, where a group of panelists was asked its opinion on how to make Boston a more creative, dare I say “hip”, place to live.
"How can we work together to find the right balance between maintaining Boston's character and needs of local residents while enhancing urban vitality and giving new nightlife venues a chance to take root?"
It’s nothing new to hear a person here or there talking about Boston not being the most interesting, exciting place to live. But, an audience of ~400 assembling to share their thoughts on it? That is something new. People are looking for change.
Here is what I heard people talking about and what I think in response.
Age and Demographics
There was a lot of discussion at the Globe forum about how Boston is losing its young people as college graduates move away other cities.
No data was provided to back up this claim, so I looked into the numbers and found that, no, Boston isn’t losing its young people. In fact, US Census Bureau data shows the number of 20-29 year olds in the city jumped 21 percent during the past decade. Additionally, Boston has the largest proportion of 20-34 year old residents out of any major US city.
Plenty of young people are staying in Boston. Don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise.
But, I agree with the panelists, the perception is that young people are moving away. What’s causing this?
Are we losing our "creative" class?
Perhaps what we’re feeling is that we're losing the wrong kinds of people to other cities - the writers and designers and coders and gamers. The “fun” people. Maybe these are the people we're losing. And whose absence we're feeling the greatest. It would make sense - Mark Zuckerberg left Boston. Eduardo Saverin left Boston. The Winklevii left Boston. I’m sure they took a lot of their friends with them.
And, you and I are being left here with young people who still wear ... suits to work? (Ugh.) Who work at banks? Law firms? Gulp. At insurance companies?
Population and Density
People like to complain about how Boston isn’t like San Francisco and New York City:“Everyone” wants to move to those cities and out of Boston. Why can’t we be more like them?
But, it's not really an apples to apples comparison. Although San Francisco is around the same size at Boston in square footage, SF is denser (and has over 100,000 more residents), second only to New York City, which is twice as dense as Boston (and has 8.2 million people).
And, while Boston may be a (relatively) big city, consider that the next-largest municipalities in Massachusetts are Springfield and Worcester, less than a third as large, while SF is surrounded by cities just as large (San Jose is actually larger), as is New York (Newark and Jersey City).
Why can’t we be more like those other places? Well, basically, Because we’re nothing like them.
A changing business climate
During much of the 20th-century, Boston's economy relied on the “FIRE” industries - Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate. But, things have changed. Big banks such as Bank of America are cutting staff, while mutual funds companies such as Fidelity Investments have moved thousands of jobs out of state.
In some US cities, FIRE industries are being replaced with “ICE” industries: Information, Communication, and Entertainment. But it’s not going to happen in Boston - our strengths are in higher education and the medical/pharmaceutical/bio-tech industries.
Working at one of those companies probably doesn’t seem as exciting as selling sneakers off the back of a truck, but it’s where (most) people are going to get jobs. Well paying jobs with health insurance, retirement plans and paid vacations.
Sorry. That’s where Boston’s future lies. Not with three guys writing an app for an Android smart phone.
A note about housing: People often mention the cost of housing as the major reason they want to relocate cities.
What they often forget, though, is that if they moved to San Francisco or New York City, they'd be priced out and end up living 30 minutes away from the center of activity. In New York City, you'd be living in Brooklyn; In San Francisco, in Richmond. So why is it so hard for you to accept that in Boston, you have to live in Malden?
You can afford to live in the Greater Boston area. You can't afford to live at the Ritz Carlton. Accept this and move on.
It is what it is
Beyond those things mentioned above, people often call for changes to the Boston “culture”. We’re stuffed shirts here, we’re cranky, we’re boring.
But, as a wise friend once remarked to me, “Bored people are boring people.” And, he’s right. Those who are calling for a more exciting city are probably not very exciting, themselves.
Will we ever be as hip as Austin or Seattle? I doubt it. But that doesn’t mean we need to suffer an inferiority complex.
Perhaps we should be thinking less how we can be like other cities and focus more on what makes Boston Boston.
I have my own ideas on what makes our city special.
What are yours?
The Building a Better Commonwealth series continues next Tuesday, May 22, with a forum focused on “[A]re we doing enough to develop, attract and retain our best entrepreneurs and startups?” The Hub of Startup Universe is being held at the Microsoft N.E.R.D. Center, in Cambridge.