In many cities, the era of Ronald Reagan was a time of conservative ascendency. But in Boston, the legacy of the '80s was just the opposite.
From an urban standpoint, the policies embraced in the Reagan era were negative: tax exemptions and deregulated “enterprise zones” in blighted neighborhoods, and cuts to municipal government funding. In most cities the result was a retreat from a public vision, replaced by "public-private partnerships" that ceded initiative to real estate developers — often with dubious results. In the general move away from government activism, there was little room for a more balanced approach that might encourage private initiative while ensuring that functions that could not be performed by the market, would be performed by invigorated city halls.
But even as many cities adopted this agenda, Boston responded differently. Like a few other cities in the Reagan era — Chicago; San Francisco; Burlington, Vermont; Santa Monica, California — Boston sought to strike a different balance between public and private initiatives.
Raymond Flynn and Mel King fought an exciting election in 1983 that put new goals — inclusive of minorities and neighborhoods as well as downtown development interests — on the table. Flynn, after a run-off victory, carried out many of these goals in ten largely successful years in office before resigning to take an ambassadorship to the Vatican in 1993. With savvy real estate veteran Stephen Coyle as the new planner to head the Boston Redevelopment Authority and an infusion of neighborhood activists in city hall, Flynn's administration nurtured and managed a boom in office and commercial space, transforming the downtown. But they also balanced the development push by establishing a trust fund for affordable housing fed by "linkage" fees attached to the square footage of large downtown buildings. Developers resisted — as they did in other cities — arguing that regulating and taxing developers would discourage further private investment. But Flynn stood up to them, linkage worked, the trust fund prospered and further progress toward affordable housing ensued — notably in a series of massive commitments by local banks, responding to community and city hall pressure under the federal Community Reinvestment Act enacted in 1977, before Reagan took office.
None of this "balance" came from Reagan or his presidency. It did represent an advance over past municipal practice, and provided a measure of redistribution in an era of increasing inequality. Thus Boston fought the national trend, one that accelerated during the Reagan era. Boston’s progress in the 1980s doesn’t reflect the legacy of Reagan or his policies — but instead that of a city that consciously decided to go in a different direction.
Pierre Clavel is Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, Cornell University; and author of Activists in City Hall: the Progressive Response to the Reagan Era in Boston and Chicago.