Globe Editorial

State’s gateway cities need a new opportunity to flower

The Market Mills in downtown Lowell is the site of one of the city’s original textile mills. The Market Mills in downtown Lowell is the site of one of the city’s original textile mills. (The Boston Globe)
November 28, 2010

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First in a series of gateway-cities editorials appearing on Sundays.

THE COMMONWEALTH’S “gateway’’ cities, the mid-sized metropolises that dot the shores and heartland of Massachusetts, wear their aspirations in their architecture. In these two dozen former factory towns and commercial ports, there are art museums with roomfuls of Hudson River School masterpieces, and train stations designed by the most famous 19th-century architects. Giant brick factories line dramatic riverfronts, and hilltops are settings for grand homes with unique moldings.

Built to be important places in the world, cities like New Bedford, Brockton, and Haverhill are now struggling to make their presence felt in a state that caters far more to its capital and suburbs. Thanks in part to state housing policies, many of the gateway cities lack any hint of an upscale neighborhood. They serve instead as clearinghouses for the Commonwealth’s neediest — people evicted from Boston, priced out of the suburbs, unable to find services in rural areas.

While larger economic forces conspired against them, they are also the victims of the state’s tradition of tight boundaries between cities and their suburbs, which separates needs from resources. They are the losers in decades worth of economic policies that nurtured a blossoming knowledge economy in Greater Boston, while failing to retain manufacturing industries.

And yet each of the gateway cities contains the seeds of its own rejuvenation. Priceless architecture is a resource in itself. So is history, setting, and proximity to hospitals, universities, and transportation. Retiring Baby Boomers are leaving their empty suburban nests, eager for the vitality of urban life; the most successful of the gateway cities — Lowell, Salem, and Newburyport — have remade themselves as bedroom communities. But opportunities don’t begin with immigrants and end with retirees: Environmental consciousness has made older downtowns targets of “smart growth’’ policies that reap the efficiency of higher-density living.

At the same time, though, new leaders in places such as Lawrence, Chelsea, and Springfield are suffering under the weight of their cities’ histories, when economic decline begat cultures of patronage and favoritism within city government. If the state is to seize this moment of opportunity to rebuild, it must demand a more comprehensive compact. The quid pro quo should be clear: State aid can be given in exchange for municipal reforms that pare waste from payrolls and apply tough love to languishing school systems, some of which are staggering under the weight of two-thirds or more students from low-income homes.

The test of any commonwealth must be its ability to serve all its regions, and all its citizens, in their own manner of need. If the gateway cities flower again, all of Massachusetts will share the bounty in the form of lower taxes, less crime, and more jobs.

The compact should start with local aid. In Massachusetts, state dollars cover 37 percent of municipal budgets. Whatever the overall level of local aid — and it’s not likely to rise in the next revenue-strapped budget — it should be divided in a way that minimizes inequities, but doesn’t reward waste and corruption.

A major study this year by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston sought to factor out local inefficiencies and determine the proper cost of services in each municipality, and then to balance it against each municipality’s ability to raise money on its own. The places with by far the biggest gaps between what they must spend and what they can raise were smaller urban areas, with Springfield, New Bedford, Fall River, Lowell, Lynn, Worcester, and Brockton all ahead of Boston in the size of their gaps. The study found that already complicated local aid formulas have been further scrambled by reductions in certain programs but not others. The net effect, according to the Fed report, was “deep and uneven’’ cuts that burdened many of the gateway cities far more than Boston or the suburbs.

Transportation funding, another source of outside assistance, should be tied to economic development strategies. For instance, the long-delayed $2 billion South Coast rail, a potential lifeline to Fall River and New Bedford, must be coupled with a realistic strategy to turn both cities into housing markets from which people can commute to Boston, and an aggressive plan to convince Boston firms to locate back-office work on the South Coast rather than out of the state or nation.

In housing, Massachusetts spends hundreds of millions of dollars building and subsidizing affordable housing, a crucial need in Boston and its suburbs. Gateway cities utilize the same programs because they’re the only way to repair blighted neighborhoods, but end up shoveling more affordable units into neighborhoods that are already choking on them. Instead, the state should redeploy some of its housing money to expand the tax credit for renovating historic buildings, the key to revitalizing downtown neighborhoods in gateway cities.

The state need not be spending more overall, but it should be contouring its programs more creatively, with an eye toward addressing needs beyond Boston. The betrayal of the gateway cities has been at the policy level, not necessarily funding. And by demanding long-overdue reforms from many of the cities, the state can free up more money for revitalization.

While Governor Patrick has largely embraced the need to help gateway cities, and the think tank MassINC is diligently devising proposals to improve them, the Boston-centric Legislature must be brought on board as well.

In most states, a special bond exists between the state government and its largest city. Big cities are economic engines, and thus presumed — fairly — to deserve a larger share of resources to make up for the millions of commuters who come and go without paying taxes.

But this assumption is balanced, in almost every state, by a decision to separate the seat of government from the seat of commerce. New York City isn’t the capital of New York state. Los Angeles isn’t the capital of California. The same is true of Chicago, Houston, Miami, St. Louis, Seattle, Cleveland, and almost every other American metropolis.

In Massachusetts, unusually, the largest city dominates both commerce and government. Legislators identify with Boston as a second hometown. The result is a series of disparities that smaller cities point to through gritted teeth: In Springfield, for instance, the Friends of the Homeless shelters serve men and women at a state reimbursement rate of $13.97 per night; Boston’s Pine Street Inn, a statewide symbol of charitable good will because of its prominent location, collects $63.32 per night for its women’s unit, and $41.27 overall.

But the ultimate source of the disparity is in the state’s vision for its own economy. Massachusetts is a high-income, high-cost market — an approach that’s grown payrolls for Boston and its suburbs, led by innovations from world-class universities and hospitals. But smaller urban areas carry the same economic debits — relatively higher taxes, higher energy costs, aging infrastructure — without any of Boston’s compensating assets. It’s a strategy that simply doesn’t work for much of the state.

The solution, of course, can’t be to weaken Boston, but rather to mold a collective approach that regards the vitality of the gateway cities as no less important. The promise that was built into the gateway cities by the great captains of industry, and validated by generations of immigrants, endures. It’s time for Massachusetts to tap it.