Special Report

Not Enough Edges

Thanks to its politicos, Massachusetts is the only state losing population.

By 1.27.05

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NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. -- The Massachusetts political elite has had its nose twisted by the latest Census Bureau estimates, which show Massachusetts the only state in the union to actually lose population. Local pols and pundits have made the usual commentary, sniffing around the problem, but only barely coming close to why.

Secretary of State Bill Galvin wrote a column in the Boston Globe correctly identifying one key element of the problem: "…the largest age group leaving Massachusetts (is) men and women 30 to 49 -- not just recent college graduates looking for a career but more established younger people who were the most productive part of our workforce." ("Stemming Population Loss in Massachusetts," January 2.)

Globe columnist Joan Vennochi responded to Galvin with an essay of her own, in which she brushed by another reason, giving it short shrift: "In 'The Changing Workforce,' Northeastern University researchers found that since the mid-1980s, foreign immigrants, not native-born workers, accounted for 82 percent of the growth in the state's labor force. The population would have shrunk every decade since the '70s were it not for immigration." ("What's the Matter With Massachusetts?" January 11.)

Both, however, fell back on the same old nostrums for improving the situation: More affordable housing, better public transportation, more affordable healthcare. Both missed the point. Massachusetts has for decades pursued policies designed to create a specific
"quality of life" around its commercial and political capital, Boston.

The quality of life types point to the usual desiderata: Highly educated people, vibrant neighborhoods, intellectual stimulation, all the old models of the nineteenth and early twentieth century urban intelligentsia. Those policies have worked. But they have also made Eastern Massachusetts a closed cluster, like the center of a highly competitive Scrabble game, with interlinking words and meanings -- and few edges left to play on.

JOEL GARREAU, AN EDITOR AT THE Washington Post, published Edge City in 1991(Doubleday). To an educated person in the post-war era, it is one of the most profoundly shocking and iconoclastic books of the last 50 years. Edge City, which started as an angry impulse to investigate suburban sprawl, gigantism, and alienation ("I wanted to get somebody indicted," Garreau told me some years ago), developed into a dispassionate chronicle of exactly what most people love to despise: Mall cities. Office parks. Developer's pods. Row houses.

In short, Tyson's Corner, Burlington Mall, Westwood Village, the edge cities that give the book its name. That's where the jobs are, the people are, and the future is.

And that's why Massachusetts doesn't grow.

"There are now 180 edge cities, each of which has more white collar jobs than Memphis," Garreau told me last week. "These urban cores that are brand new, 30 years old or less, are the real bellwethers of what constitutes a genuinely American idea. This is where you find people who are really slogging it out."

Since publishing his book, Garreau has kept track of what he calls "endangered downtowns." All share a common characteristic -- a characteristic both Vennochi and Galvin did manage to mention about Boston. "They're really bad at producing places for their cops and teachers," as Garreau put it. Edge cities, by contrast, operating in a free market environment, are quite adept at creating a diverse economic and cultural mix, essential for growth.

Massachusetts touts its universities and "highly educated" population and job market. But, as Garreau said, "Every one of those high rolling six digit jobs has to be supported by 20 people who make sandwiches, fix Xerox machines, etc. You can't do without those people."

SO HOW DID MASSACHUSETTS get this way? Easy. For at least 20 years, Boston and Beacon Hill pols have refused to vote for expanded airport capacity anywhere other than Logan Airport, which is (perversely) stuck right in the middle of Boston Harbor.

One of Joel Garreau's favorite conversational gambits explores the evolution of the nineteenth century city from the intersection of harbors and railroads. "Warehouses lead to whorehouses, whorehouses to a police force, a police force to courthouses." Voilà, civilization. "Blow it up seven or eight times, and you've got Boston or Paris."

But today's modern port is the airport. Massachusetts has a good one in the midstate city of Worcester, now pretty much a gentle joke in Commonwealth affairs. A new runway or two and expanded terminal capacity in Worcester, located directly west of Boston about 50 miles down the Mass Pike, would create the edges to open up Massachusetts' Boston-centered Scrabble cluster. Extend the suburban rail links to Worcester, and the state could blossom.

Route 128, once the touted boom loop, now stalled, would boom again. Further out, Route 495 would begin to develop, too.

But it all goes against the grain here. Because what would open up Massachusetts is just what Massachusetts pols don't like: the free market, doing what it does.

Government has to be willing to invite development in. Not shut it out. Can Massachusetts do it? Sure. Will it? Probably not.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.