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. Linden Lane
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Neutral territory

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At age 50, BC's Citizen Seminars remain a place to work through Boston's problems

Boston's Menino and BC's Leahy at the anniversary lunch. Photo by Lee Pellegrini

Boston's Menino and BC's Leahy at the anniversary lunch. Photo by Lee Pellegrini

Back in the middle 1950s, Boston had a bad case of urban malaise, with traffic-choked streets, economic stagnation, punishing real estate tax assessments, rusting railroad yards, rotting piers, a filthy harbor, decaying buildings, and a staggering loss of population. These mutually reinforcing symptoms were exacerbated, if not caused, by a famously divisive political culture. Republicans didn't talk to Democrats. Catholics didn't talk to Protestants. Yankee business owners and managers didn't talk to Irish-American labor leaders and politicians. Between 1915 and the early 1960s, while most big-city downtowns were expanding skyward, only one office building of any size went up in Boston, and at 26 stories it wasn't much of a skyscraper.

Into this unhappy situation stepped W. Seavey Joyce, SJ, then dean of Boston College's fledgling business school. A policeman's son from Boston's Dorchester neighborhood who nevertheless had friends among the business elite, Joyce founded the Boston College Citizen Seminars (BCCS) and brought the city's business, political, and labor leaders to the Chestnut Hill campus to hash over common problems and afterwards to chat over drinks and dinner. "It was the first time these people had ever . . . fought together, presented views to one another, and maybe at the end said, 'He isn't such a bad guy,'" said Thomas H. O'Connor, the University historian, who spoke at a March 30 lunch celebrating the seminars' 50th anniversary. According to O'Connor, proposals for many now-familiar features of Boston's physical and civic landscape—the Hynes Convention Center, the Prudential Center, Government Center, the Downtown Crossing pedestrian mall, the revitalized theater district, expanded rapid-transit lines, the Massachusetts Port Authority, and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council—were conceived, unveiled, or at the least given early airings at the seminars, which also provided the social lubricant to help these projects along.

There's no question that the seminars drew people with the clout to get the job done. Speakers and panelists in the first 15 years included every Boston mayor and every Massachusetts governor, along with U.S. Senators John F. Kennedy, Harrison Williams, and Claiborne Pell. The heads of Boston's teamsters and longshoremen's locals and the CEOs of Gillette, Bank of Boston, Stop & Shop, and other local corporations spoke and debated at the seminars, too, as did intellectuals like John Kenneth Galbraith, Lewis Mumford, John Updike, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

In 1964, a decade after the first seminar, Globe reporter A.S. Plotkin plausibly asserted that the central city was probably "over the worst of its long crises of erosion." And in 1969, James McCormack, a former president of Boston's chamber of commerce, told the Globe that the so-called New Boston, the forward-looking, shiny, business-friendly city that was more and more in evidence as the decade ended, had gotten its start at the seminars.


AT THE END of his talk, O'Connor invited the audience, some 300 of the city's leaders from government, business, academia, and nonprofit agencies, to emulate the crowd at the early seminars by taking on the challenges facing today's Boston. The speakers who followed O'Connor to the podium, including headliner Mayor Thomas Menino, took up the theme, identifying challenges such as global and domestic business competition; high housing costs; public schools of uneven quality; the loss of population in the state, if not in Boston proper; and the loss of important civic leaders as a result of corporate takeovers from afar (most recently, the absorption of home-grown Gillette by Ohio's Procter & Gamble and the purchase of local Fleet Bank by North Carolina's Bank of America).

Standing against a backdrop of sun and blue water—the lunch was held downtown in a banquet room facing the harbor—Menino touted Boston's gains in housing construction (nearly 8,000 new units approved in three years, with another 10,000, some 20 percent of them affordable, expected by 2007) and the city's education goals, including plans for a full day of school for all four-year-olds and for subdividing high schools into smaller, more effective "learning centers."

"I don't mind being the leader," he said at one point, "I just can't be the loner"—presumably a call for the state legislature to help out. Menino blamed "unfair loopholes" in the state's tax code for the city's excessively heavy dependence on property taxes—a problem that recalled, though Menino didn't mention it, the tax-assessment woes of the 1950s, which were heatedly debated at the first few citizen seminars.

Menino was followed by a panel discussion led by Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, a research and advocacy organization. When it came to the question of who will lead 21st-century Boston, panelist Linda Whitlock, president of the city's Boys & Girls Clubs, said, "We need to define leadership far more broadly [to include] individuals who are much younger, less well-off, and more colorful—you know, melanin in their skin—than most people in this room." (While men at the lunch had a small numerical edge over women, Caucasians had a huge edge over everyone else.) Pointing to the increasing time demands of work and family, Whitlock also argued that "civic culture relies too much on face-to-face meetings." Where such meetings are absolutely needed, she said, "they need to be very time-specific, very focused."

Judging from the words of panelist Paul La Camera, MBA'83, president of WCVB-TV, Whitlock's vision for the future was already being borne out by events. Multi-ethnic leadership, he said, is "a natural scenario for conflict, but I don't think that's necessarily going to be the case" in today's Boston. He pointed to the recent primary-election victory of Haitian-American Linda Dorcena Forry '98, who is running for the seat vacated by former Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas Finneran, JD'78. "It ignited and excited that community, and the whole city," said La Camera. "This generation isn't going to be burdened with the kind of playacting that burdened the past."

On the matter of out-of-town and overseas business competition, panelist Ranch Kimball, Massachusetts secretary of economic development, also evoked the city's past, saying, "One of our weaknesses is a little bit of the old Yankee 'Hub' mentality. We don't engage the rest of the world as much as we should." When out-of-town businesses send representatives to look into doing business in Boston, "they feel the culture here envelops them and kills them," Kimball groused. "Massachusetts is the slowest state in the nation to grant permits for new businesses—not by a bit but by a factor of four."


LIKE THE CITY it serves, the BCCS has encountered some rough patches in its 50 years. In the 1980s, attendance at the seminars was down compared to earlier years, and the discussions were less likely to result in action. Groups with similar goals, such as the Vault, a business coalition started in 1959, had come into existence, increasingly drawing people, particularly powerful people, away from BCCS.

Then, Peter Rollins, executive director of BC's office of corporate and government affairs, who has overseen the seminars since 1992, forged a partnership among the seminars, the Boston Foundation, and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), a public agency that got its start as an offshoot of the early seminars. These days, the presence of representatives from the nonprofit sector is more marked than in the 1950s, Rollins said, and the BCCS's role "has changed, from bringing people together with [a preordained] agenda to being a catalyst for bringing people together and letting them generate the agenda."

Marc Draisen, MAPC's executive director, said he uses the seminars as a source of inspiration and as a sounding board for the council's regional plans and as a recruiting pool for its volunteer task forces. The Boston Foundation, for its part, unveils its biennial Indicators Report— which tracks economic, demographic, educational, and other trends—at the BCCS. Findings from the 2005 report will provide grist for discussion at four upcoming seminars, says the foundation's Charlotte Kahn, who explained that "there are almost no venues like [BCCS] in Greater Boston—very few ways to bring people together across sectors to reflect on key challenges and opportunities and devise strategies to address them. The seminars played that role 50 years ago, and they are as needed today as they were then."

David Reich


David Reich is a writer based in the Boston area.

 

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