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Spotlight Report

  Joan Vennochi  

Boston's dinosaurs hang in there


ERAS DON'T DIE any easier than people do.

That thought first cropped up after the recent memorial service for legendary Globe editor Thomas Winship. To journalists of a certain age, the Winship era was golden and seductive, even with clear and personal knowledge of its imperfections. At its height, it represented a period in this city's history when power rippled, surged, and, in some instances, like the struggle over forced busing, exploded along every institutional axis, political, business, religious, and media.

It was intoxicating, even from the sidelines. Today the power in each institution is more diffuse than it was 20 years ago. But those who hold it still, cling to it and fight for it, whether they preside over a city or a newspaper, a bank or a baseball team, a legislature or an archdiocese. In those fights lie the physical and cultural outlines of the future Boston and the city's next, undefined, and as yet unnamed era.

The ongoing struggle over the current leadership of the Boston Archdiocese represents just one area of conflict in today's Boston. The front lines range from the waterfront to the neighborhoods, from the lofty to the mundane, from how the city looks to how it runs and, of course, to who runs it. ''It'' is not just City Hall, but the overlay of political, business, and cultural institutions that make up the fabric of Boston.

In Boston these days, some old sensibilities are losing to new ones. You can see it quite dramatically in the turn of events regarding Cardinal Bernard Law. Taking its cues from the media, the business community put down its fear of offending one very sacred cow. The heart of Boston Irish Catholic power - Jack Connors and Tom O'Neill, for goodness sake - is publicly denouncing Law's regime. What further proof of changing times is needed?

It makes sense for the private sector to lead the way on this. Flexibility is the template of corporate success. To survive, businesses must adapt; only the most adaptable flourish. In the private sector, the new wins automatically whenever a company sells out to the highest bidder. That is what drew the curtain on the Winship era, although in an ultimate testament to the man behind the era, it did not finally die until he did. Pushed by the demands of Wall Street, John Hancock will be the next grand local corporate entity to go.

But strong pockets of resistance remain. For example, in the early promise of this Boston Red Sox season it may seem that the transition from the Yawkey era is complete and easy. Don't be fooled. The local forces that rallied behind the scenes to stop the sale to the new owners are not giving up. They are merely in retrenchment mode, analyzing how best to get a future piece of the action, most likely through development of a new ballpark.

Where it will be built and who will control it are as much at stake as ever. Because of the intersection of public and private interests, development remains an area where the powerful interests of old Boston can still dig in their claws. And they will.

Old Boston draws its greatest strength from the political world. The city and its neighborhoods are undergoing dramatic demographic changes. But the same old people are voting. Until the newest, more diverse citizens of Boston start voting, old Boston will continue to win at the polls.

That means old Boston sensibilities will continue to prevail when it comes to priorities and overall agenda. A white elephant of a convention center will go forward, and the mayor will blame poor marketing rather than poor planning and himself. Developers will push and pull the same old strings to win tax breaks and other incentives on the waterfront and elsewhere in the city. The mayor will call in every chit and spare no expense to bring a political convention to Boston while the schools remain something to wring his hands over. He will work to keep a friendly regime in power on Beacon Hill, because outside political forces spell death to the entrenched ones.

The city bursts with beauty, knowledge, and grace, which will be ever more apparent when the cloud on Lake Street finally lifts. Boston's sleek skyline beckons stylishly and invitingly. Yet dinosaurs still lurk on the streets below. They die hard.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

This story ran on page A11 of the Boston Globe on 4/18/2002.
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