Whose City? Whose Olympics? (Part I)
Lack of Transparency and People's Participation Hallmark of the Boston 2024 Effort
The first ever Olympics 2014 outreach meeting organized by the city of Boston on Feb 6 at the Suffolk Law School resounded with buzzwords like "legacy," smart city," "smart planning" and "innovation." The meeting, moderated by a member of Mayor Walsh's staff, was kicked off by presentations by the chairman of "Boston 2024," John Fish (head of Suffolk Construction company) and a duo made up by the chief architect of the project, David Manfredi and a former participant in the Paralympics, Cheri Blauwet. The presentation gave the attendees an idea of the proposed location of the Olympic venues throughout the city of Boston. with the main Olympic stadium somewhere in "mid-town Boston." Various other venues are proposed in two major "clusters" - the waterfront cluster and the university cluster.
From the presentation (even if in "concept stage," as stressed by the presenters), it is quite obvious that a lot of work and planning has already gone into the effort of making "Boston 2024" happen. Just look at the website of this effort and one can get an idea of the pieces that are already in place, including a wide variety of committees in place, including "College and University Engagement," "Innovation and Technology," and "Fundraising and Finance".
One-sided format and the lack of transparancy
But as several of the attendees at the meeting pointed out, the people of Boston come into the picture only now. That too, for this meeting, in a one-sided setup, with a panel comprised of those who are in charge of conceiving and planning the Olympics making a presentation to the people at large, in a very top-down manner.
As attendees at the meeting suggested, the proper format would have been two panels, the other representing the common people who would make their own presentation. And how exactly this group of people came together, formed a committee to manage and deliver the Olympics is also a case-in-point in the sheer lack of transparency in this whole process.
The Globe's gushing article on how business executives came together to lobby and form the group that bid for the Olympics is instructive in how the common people were nowhere in the picture (and it is worth quoting from extensively): "They filed in quietly, one by one, to the first two rows of chairs facing the stage at the Boston 2024 press conference Friday. The lawyer. The private equity chief. The architect.
"They’re some of the brightest and busiest in their respective fields — Bob Popeo, Steve Pagliuca, and David Manfredi . . . .
"The show of force over the last year made an impression on the US Olympic Committee, whose chief executive said its decision to pick Boston over three rival cities was related in large part to the deep, interlocking involvement of the city’s business and political leaders."
The article then tells us why these people came together: "There are many reasons why Boston’s business leaders came to the table. The fortunes of their companies and institutions and those of the city are inextricably linked — a successful Olympics could promote the Boston brand like nothing else. Some see potential profits down the line. Some, however, have made their money — now they’re looking to solidify their legacies, to make their lasting mark on the city they love."
How the various pieces came together and the state lawmakers came into the picture is then laid out: "To understand how the business community rallied together, you have to go back to the fall of 2012 when two strangers met for drinks at the Omni Parker House. . . .
"Reddy and Dinopoulos created a nonprofit to help investigate an Olympic bid. But few took this effort seriously — until O’Connell, then the president of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, and Suffolk Construction chief executive John Fish came along.
"After Dinopoulos persuaded state Senator Eileen Donoghue to file a bill at the State House that would create a commission to study a Boston Olympics, Donoghue drew O’Connell into the discussion to gauge the business community’s potential support.
"O’Connell took the idea to the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, a group of executives that meets regularly to tackle civic issues. Fish, the group’s then-chairman, had initially been a skeptic but began to see the Olympics as a way to leave a larger legacy for the region than anything his company could create. More importantly, he saw a way to pull it off: by reaching out to his vast network within Boston’s business elite."
So, "the deep, interlocking involvement of the city’s business and political leaders" is clear to us now, just in case anyone had any doubts. The article gives one a quick idea of the way things work and move at certain levels, with nary a thought of wider public opinion and involvement right from the beginning. It reeks of assumptions as to who are capable of making certain decisions - the "brightest and busiest" - and how the select few take it upon themselves to decide for everyone else.
From another Globe article we get more details about the people who make up this effort: "Organizers of Boston’s 2024 Olympics campaign are wooing wealthy business executives to join an elite group of private financial donors known as the “Founders 100.” Entry to the club starts at $50,000.
"The Founders, numbering about 30 so far, are a microcosm of the city’s prosperous and powerful: male, white and at the peaks of their careers. They hail from private equity, health care, finance and sports, and include the heads of familiar companies like EMC Corp., Staples Inc. and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts. Well-known philanthropists like the families of Amos Hostetter and Peter Lynch also are on the list."
So, this is not about you and me, Average Joes - especially those of us who do not have $50,000/- to spare. This is about the rich and the mighty, "the city’s prosperous and powerful: male, white and at the peaks of their careers."
This exclusivity and elitism is further highlighted in a seeming unashamed, pragmatic note further down in the article:
"Fletcher 'Flash' Wiley, a longtime Boston lawyer and civic leader who was part of a 2004 effort to bring the Olympics here, said he is not aware of any people of color being approached.
'The fact is that in 2015, you don’t have a lot of African-Americans running organizations that mean something to the city. I think John was focused primarily on people that could come up with money quickly,' said Wiley, who is black.
“I think the optics of this will drive the need to increase the diversity, and I think they understand that and want to do that. But first things first — first they want to win the deal.’’
The lack of representation and transparency extends not just to the business sector but to the educational sector also. After all, the "university cluster" is a crucial part of the city's plan to host the Olympics by utilizing existing infrastructure, mostly at Harvard, MIT, and BU - plus, of course, at UMass Boston. To that effect, representatives from Harvard, MIT, UMass Boston and Bentley University are already listed, as part of the "College and University Engagement" committee. However, have the student bodies at these institutions been consulted? Have they been widely informed of their university's role in the Boston Olympics? There does not seem to have been any wide-ranging conversation on campuses.
The Olympics conversation also has to do, more fundamentally with what the city is and whose it is. A handful few who control business interests and have money cannot assume it upon themselves to make decisions on behalf of the vast majority. As a recent report shows (Lacking transport, low-wage workers take a hit), city planning and the functioning of its infrastructure affects those who are at the bottom of the ladder the most. Thus it is imperative that there is transparency and inclusivity in planning an event which will likely have far-reaching impact on the city - and the residents that comprise it and make it thrive.
Umang Kumar is an activist in the Boston area interested in urban economics and the geography of inequalities.