Rowes Warf on the South Boston waterfront. (Photo: castevens12 / flickr)
It has been a rough economic year for the city of Boston. The most recent case in point: a flap has erupted between Gov. Deval Patrick and officials in charge of the Franklin Park and Stoneham zoos. Patrick, faced with daunting budget shortfalls due to the current recession, has been compelled to slash public funds almost across the board. The Franklin Park and Stoneham zoos, beloved by generations of city residents, announced the budget cuts would force them to close, and worse, would force them to euthanize many of the animals in their care.
Patrick was obliged to release a statement saying no, no, we're not killing any animals, after the Boston Herald carried a front-page photograph of Little Joe, a gorilla housed at Franklin Park, beneath a gigantic block-lettered headline reading, "PLEASE DON'T KILL ME."
Yeah, it's been that kind of year in Beantown.
The city, ancient by American standards, has been plagued with a crumbling infrastructure and moldering faÃ§ade for some time now, with huge swaths of the state budget given over to holding everything together with spit, bailing wire and used chewing gum. Just this past Monday, vibrations from trolley cars on Huntington Avenue caused slabs of concrete from a roof cornice to fall off a Northeastern University building and crash onto the sidewalk below.
Miraculously, there were no injuries, but everyone in the city spent the following Tuesday looking up at the buildings around them to make sure nothing heavy was hurtling towards their heads. Add that to the massive graft and waste that comes with a city run by one of the oldest old-boy networks on the continent, combine it with the darkest recession we've seen in almost 100 years, and you've got a nifty little recipe for municipal blight on an epic scale.
While Boston certainly has some unique difficulties along these lines due to its advanced age and incredible corruption, the problems being experienced here are happening to one degree or another in every city, town and hamlet in the country. Repairs to infrastructure on both a state and federal level have been neglected for a very long while now, and this grim new economic reality has left thousands of municipalities in a terrible bind: they don't have the money to fix all this stuff, but if this stuff doesn't get fixed, the economy will be damaged even further.
But a funny thing started happening in Boston several weeks ago: The stimulus money kicked in.
The Obama administration's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law this past February, apportioned nearly a trillion dollars for national improvements in education, health care, unemployment benefits, tax relief and infrastructure. The Act was, and remains, a highly contentious subject for Republican opponents of President Obama. Lately, newspapers and news channels have been flooded with GOP spokespeople crowing their opinion that the stimulus was a failure, and this failure is proof positive that Obama cannot be trusted to govern responsibly.
Kevin Hassett, an economist for the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute and former adviser for John McCain's failed 2008 presidential run, penned an article for Bloomberg this past week that was representative of this criticism. "While the president's favorite partisan economists held hands and chanted in unison from the Keynesian prayer book," wrote Hassett, "Warren Buffett captured the mood of the American people when he said that the first stimulus package 'was sort of like taking half a tablet of Viagra and then having also a bunch of candy mixed in.' The simple arithmetic of the February stimulus suggests that Buffett got it wrong. It wasn't half a tablet of Viagra with candy; it was a tiny dose of a mysterious herbal remedy, with a stick of sugarless gum ... That's a big reason why the economy still stinks."
If Mr. Hassett took a walk around Boston, however, he might be forced to change his tune. There is construction work going on all over the city right now; one cannot walk two blocks without coming across cranes, pavers, diggers, hard hats and paint details. Virtually the entire city is undergoing a magnificent transformation: Roads that have been hellishly potholed for decades are being completely repaired, cracked and crumbling sidewalks are being ripped out and remade, everything is getting a new coat of paint, and a whole lot of blue-collar workers are drawing paychecks for the first time in a while.
In short, the stimulus has come to Boston, big time.
Recessions are tricky things. There are a zillion economic-textbook reasons why they come, why they stay and why they go. The most intangible factor in the depth and duration of any recession, however, cannot be quantified or predicted: mood. If people start to feel better about how things are going, whether or not their wallets actually show it, the economy improves. The recession that hit during G.H.W. Bush's administration, for example, started to lift almost immediately after the election of President Clinton. Clinton didn't do anything in particular besides win, but the arrival of a fresh face after 12 years of octogenarian conservatives in the Oval Office sparked an elevation of public optimism that became the beginning of the end of that recession.
President Obama, it appears, understands this phenomenon quite well. People in Boston are going to see their elderly old town in a whole new, better light once these projects have been completed. The money paid to the workers is going to boost the economy, like it always has before. These repairs are going to dramatically diminish the state's municipal repairs budget, which will free up funds and ease its economic burdens.
This grumpy old town is going to have a fresh new face before the snow flies, and people are going to feel better about the future because of it. The stimulus money may not yet be working this odd civic magic everywhere in the country, but it's coming. In Boston, it's happening right before our eyes, and it's a hell of a thing to see.