Downtown View:A Modest Proposal

By Karen Cord Taylor

The noise is always a surprise. Your cab stops in the street to let you out. The driver can’t pull over because parked cars line both sides of the narrow street. A short time passes while you pay and get ready to climb out.

Before you have time to count out the money for the driver or swipe your credit card, the guy in the SUV behind you lays on his horn. With him, it’s me first, all the time. Who are you to stop in front of him? Who do you think you are to delay his trip?

You know who you are because you live here. You know that streets must be shared. This means sometimes we have to wait, and we usually do it willingly because we understand the situation.

The guy laying on his horn in his gas guzzler is probably from the suburbs and doesn’t know how to behave in a city, you think. That’s the most insulting thing—being from a suburb, the “S” word—that long-time city dwellers can think of. It’s obvious because we know in the city, we must share all kinds of things, including time on the streets.

But there has been good news recently on the sharing front, on the behavior that says, “not just me first, but everyone that is in this with me.”

Take the World’s Greatest University, as a Boston Globe writer used to call it and others still do. A couple of weeks ago Harvard said yes to its dining hall workers, agreeing that all should make at least $35,000 a year, that their health care costs will not go up and that the university will provide compensation for workers laid off in the summer months when fewer students need a dining hall. Whew.

Perhaps Harvard capitulated to its dining hall workers because it looked in its heart and saw it was the right thing to do. It is also possible that it couldn’t take the criticism after the world learned that its portfolio managers were earning from $5 million to $8 million a year for performances well under those of their counterparts at other wealthy universities. Whatever the reason, Harvard shared.

The MBTA isn’t doing so well at sharing. Janitors at its stations have faced reduced hours, which not only means lower pay but also reduced health and other benefits. Privatization may reduce costs for government, but it can also end up making life miserable for employees.

I’m not defending the MBTA’s counting house privatization, since it seems as if workers there were not up to the job. But the janitors seemed to be doing their jobs just fine.

When we cut spending, does it have to be on those most vulnerable? What if we simply took a lesson from Harvard and shared more?

For example, that playspaces on the Esplanade are beautiful. The Esplanade Association and other local people raised the money to have those places built, and they were sorely needed. Good for them.

Wouldn’t it have been nice, however, if, as they raised funds for the Esplanade, they also raised funds for a playground in some park in the DCR system that is not surrounded by wealthy residents who can build their own playgrounds?

The Friends of the Public Garden could also afford to share. They have done a superb job of supplementing the city’s efforts to keep the Common, the Public Garden and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall in fine shape. They are a lovable organization. Taking care of other parks is not their mission. A newer organization, the Friends of Christopher Columbus Park, is also a lovable, successful organization that has become good at raising funds and caring for a park.

But there are 157 park friends’ groups and 331 public green spaces in Boston, according to parks spokesman Ryan Woods. What if the more successful friends groups partnered with a friends’ group with fewer resources? It might be in work days. It might be sharing funds. If contributors knew their checks would be going, not only to the park next door to them but also to a needier Boston park, it might increase fund-raising for the more successful friends’ groups. Some people probably don’t write the biggest check they could, figuring that downtown friends’ groups have many resources already.

The idea of pairing an entity with more resources with one with lesser came from a series of meetings a couple of years ago with local parents who were trying, still unsuccessfully, to get a new school for downtown kids.

They seemed excited about mixing it up with kids of all races, ethnic origins and income levels. They asked, why not pair a successful school with an unsuccessful one and see if the two together could make headway in giving all children a fine education? They were ready to give it a chance, putting kids together and busing them between schools because they thought that kind of busing would be worth it. So far nothing has happened.

            This could be Pollyanna talking. But after today, when this hate-filled election will be over, we should reach for something more, something that speaks to our better selves. Sharing is a good place to start.

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