On Real Estate and Innovation

This interview took place in Central Square, Cambridge, MA, and was broadcast over Radio Open Source on November 4, 2015.

Christopher Lydon: This is Open Source with the contrarian John Summers. We’re contemplating the sudden embarrassment of development riches in a long-neglected corner of Cambridge, near Central Square. It’s now the Innovation District, filling up with brand-name buildings. John Summers, in an essay for his Baffler magazine, referred to the funky old railyard back of MIT as “The People’s Republic of Zuckerstan,” alluding to Facebook’s own Mark Zuckerberg, who has reopened offices here near Google’s headquarters on the East coast. On the occasion of our recent radio show on data-driven cities, we are out in the field with John Summers, looking at the boom in building and jobs around MIT. And he’s telling us, “you wouldn’t want all this in your neighborhood.”

John Summers: One thing that’s common to all these, his whole area, is the city councilors who make these deals, the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, they always tell us that they have carve-outs for public access. So, the question is, a patio, like we’re at right now, where we’re surrounded by high-tech office glass and professional workers, is this a public space or not? And, technically, in many cases, the deals include space like this. But many of them, especially as you…if you go into some of these spaces, which are supposed to be open to us, they’re patrolled by security guards and they’re not exactly friendly or welcoming to the general public. So, it’s a…what happens is, they eat up not just the square footage of the buildings, but also the public space around them.

CL: Hmm. John Summers, locate us. Here we are in dear old funky Central Square…Novartis, Pfizer…the drug companies of the world, blossoming all over the place…a new Meridian hotel…where the Middle East, Cheapo Records still survive, somehow. What the hell is going on? And what are we looking at?

JS: Well, off to the distance, we have Maya Lin’s new building, built for Novartis, which has come up very rapidly in the last year…um…year and a half. It looks like it’s almost done. We have a series of big, blocky buildings that stretch behind that, toward Kendall Square, which seems to be taking up huge zone technology park-type zones. And if you turn, then, to the left, you see corridor of Massachusetts Avenue, eventually ending down at the square, turning at the square—Harvard Square. And the question is, what’s going to happen to Cheapo Records and some of the more funky places in the onrush of what they call “vibrant neighborhood,” which is the corporate coinage of the moment to justify the essential ugliness and noise that they’re surrounding us with. Where can we get some quiet in Central Square?

CL: It’s music, John! Jesus!

JS: It’s music that’s more appropriate to Manhattan than our little academic oasis of Cambridge.

CL: John, 25 years ago, if somebody had said to the mayor of Cambridge, “we’re going to have global companies with an industry that serves the whole world. High-tech medical foundations, nothing but ‘good jobs and good wages,’ as Mike Dukakis used to say,” what in the world would he have thought was wrong with this?

JS: Well, I think there was such a thing, wasn’t it? Route 128, the biotech corridor, which stretches back to the 70s.

CL: And the cities were drained and looking for jobs…isn’t this better than that?

JS: What’s the difference? Except for now, it’s right in our face instead of on a highway corridor. Now, it comes back with much greater pretensions, not just to providing jobs, like you say, but also to, kind of, colonizing urban neighborhoods with a certain kind of aesthetic and a certain kind of feel. The industry, I mean, let’s face it, is almost entirely male and almost entirely white, or immigrant professional. It’s not exactly a diverse workforce that they’re putting down in the middle of our communities, which historically have been quite diverse, especially in Central Square, as you know. So, there’s a homogenization going on. Not only in terms of the economic model, because the only appropriate model now is something that flies under the label of “innovation economy,” but also in terms of social diversity. I hadn’t been here that long, I’ve been here for 15 years, but I’ve seen it before my eyes. Fewer and fewer people…the kind of people that attracted me to Central Square and to Cambridge, in the first place…and more of the same type of people. The same type of architecture, same type of rhetoric, politics…it’s invaded the way we talk about social change, the way we talk about government…and one thing that is not often apparent is Silicon Valley has origins in Cambridge, very strong ties, as I’m sure you’re aware, to MIT, and the development of Silicon Valley is a certain type of industry. So, there’s a kind of symbiotic relationship between the two areas, and you can see what’s happening in San Francisco. As you know, there’s great fights right now over building. There’s nothing going on here, though. There’s none of that kind of fight in Cambridge. And that’s what got me interested in this, in the first place—how this steady churn of sameness in the rhetoric, and the same kind of compromises, and the same kind of buildings, and the same kind of people can be accompanied by virtual silence among the city councilors and the local class.

CL: Where are they? Or have they been, shall we say, co-opted?

JS: They’re at the table. Well…co-opted from what? They are at the developers’ table. They’re sitting at the table, making deals. Coming back and telling us that, you know, 15% or 10% affordable housing is a good deal, the best we could get. There’s nothing like 100% affordable housing.

CL: What is the thinking? The real thinking?

JS: The, kind of, fetish for competition? If you had to give it a label, you could talk about it in terms of some kind of progressive, totalitarian effort to capture information about citizens and transform them into some kind of spectators. Make their life easy, install efficiency as the paramount value in life. The vision for politics is…the government is an umpire, so they’re neutral, right? And this is an old idea, actually, in American history, that the government is not a stakeholder, it doesn’t create markets—as, in fact, it does, all the time—but that it is a neutral umpire. And here, with the rhetoric coming out of Boston City Hall, it’s not a metaphor anymore. It’s almost a reality. It’s almost what they want to do, is establish this, kind of, fake objectivity. And pretend as if they’re only making neutral decisions. All kinds of questions haven’t even been asked: who owns the data? What is the…it’s easy to see where a politician would rather deal with a set of algorithms than a grumpy person in a town hall meeting…angry people, right? But just for that reason, we have to ask, what are people actually for in this, if only to generate data that can go in one direction.

CL: Hmm. What do the investors tell you? The Googles of the world, as well as Mark Zuckerberg, as well as the drug companies, as well as…I mean, all the dreamy, new, giant brand names I hear, what does that tell you?

JS: Dreamy? The significant part of the work force of the innovation economy, contributors to this, kind of, way of life, don’t belong to our community. They belong to corporate headquarters. And, you know, there’s also a kind of safety in numbers on the part of the corporations. So, you ask why we would want them—why do they want to come here, right? They all want to come here for the same reason: educated workforce, compliant politicians, business-friendly social policies. But they’ve all sort of come at once, right? They’ve all sort of come in a big cluster. Clustering is the actual term that they use for these endless innovation hubs, and labs, and these horrible metaphors. You can’t make anything in Cambridge anymore if you don’t call it a lab. Well, the risk is that they’ll all go at once. They’ll just go somewhere else when they get a better package deal. I mean, why don’t they just create their own universities, you know, somewhere up in Vermont or something, and all go together? You know, it’s not a very diverse, and therefore discriminant and safe policy to throw in your whole community, your entire city, with a group of multinationals, who are under investigation in Europe. If you start to look…the other aspect of this, the multinational aspect, is the criminal record, which is pretty significant. If you look at what Novartis does on the world stage, their refusal to donate vaccines for pandemics, their extortionate prices that they charge in Africa, they, themselves, are part of a small group of people who are producing a, you know, huge majority of the life sciences products that are claiming to save our lives, or not. And these are not exactly friendly companies, despite their world-saving missions. They’re often ruthless, predatory monopolies. It’s no wonder that they gobble up our space the way that they do—this is how they treat each other.

CL: John, I’m just thinking, what, 10–15 years ago, people started saying, “if a bomb went off at the corner of Vassar and First Street in Cambridge, the life sciences would be set back 50 years, you know? And people loved the thought that this was an emerging capitol of sciences that would affect the world and last forever. I mean, I’m still trying to adjust against that, kind of, techno-economic optimism.

JS: Right. Well, if only it were true. The great, kind of, saving grace of all of these dirty deals that are done to bring these corporations here is that, exactly, some version of what you say. First of all, it’s better than what it was before, socially, because there was a lot of crime and such. But also, because these are the companies that are going to cure cancer. Well, it’s been 40 years. I mean…

CL: And Alzheimer’s.

JS: And Alzheimer’s and autism and all the other things that they don’t have the slightest clue to know what they’re doing about. And so, the great myth that haloes these life science executives is that they’re making progress. When, in fact, we’re in an age of great stagnation in the very fields that they’re working. Where are the results? Where are the goods? If you look at…and cancer is one of the many examples that you immediately intuited. There are many more. The rate of medical advance in life sciences is very slow. And the argument can be made that it’s the very model—the business model—that’s driving the stagnation. Because the stagnation is not just something that doesn’t happen. It’s a, itself, is a process. Like the stalemate in politics, you know, it is…the great secret about the innovation economy is that it’s not actually very innovative.

CL: Hmm. Where are the politicians?

JS: Well, they’re a…a large faction of the Cambridge City Council is united in what they call a Unity Slate, which is, takes positions on almost diametrically opposite to every word that I’ve spoken today. They believe that a city that is already one of the densest in Massachusetts must, can only get more dense. There’s only one solution and it’s to build more places like this, more office parks, more accommodations, and to carve out a public exemption and be grateful for it. I mean, that’s pretty much what it is. Now I say that, having said that, there is no master plan in Cambridge, still. They don’t really have a plan. They don’t really feel, apparently, much of a need to produce one. These things have a way of taking care of themselves. We have a city manager that does most of the business on behalf of the city, sitting on a lot of money. And, so, the people don’t really have much to do with it. Elections happen in a strange system of proportional representation, which tends, oddly, to reward incumbents for some reason I don’t really understand. All I know is that it’s the same thing, election after election, and the whole thing is decided by almost very very few people in Cambridge, a high proportion of which are motivated people, and then a high proportion of those motivated by investments and money and contributions. So, that’s just how the political system works. Odd things is that, in terms of what does an innovation economy, what is it premised on? It’s premised on an old kind of politics, in a way, it’s just trading favors. You’re talking about the old knock on the door. There’s also the trading favors, you know, in the executive suites. It’s the same thing that’s going on now. The political system has not innovated nationally, not locally. There’s just…we don’t do politics in any new way. There’s probably nonviolent resistance in the middle 20th century in the civil rights movement was the last genuinely innovative phase in our political history. The mechanisms are all the same now. Only now, it seems like, with the fading of political imagination, the numbers and the ratings jump to the fore. Look at the way that the Republican debates have been score-carded, day in and day out, by the pollsters. I mean, it always goes—it’s been going on for a while—but I don’t think we’ve ever been more hostage to the ups and downs of the, kind of, stock market-like variations of who’s on top by what two percentage points. It just seems way out of control. So, when there are no big ideas, and the Republican candidates, just like the Democratic establishment in Boston, are all pretty much of the same mind, respectively. You know, there’s not really any difference between the candidates, or not much of a difference. They’re just personality appeals, different facets of the same people. So, naturally, they gravitate to the numbers and the ratings as a way of distinguishing themselves.

CL: What would your standard be for an opposition field What’s the rallying cry of the antis, as you would lead them?

JS: In politics or?

CL: Yeah, in Cambridge politics.

JS: Well, the rallying cry is that…

CL: “Don’t believe the numbers,” or something.

JS: No, the rallying cry is that the first time that this region, where we’re standing, is hit by a Hurricane Sandy-level storm, we will be standing under water. And you can find evidence of that in an Army Corps of Engineers map that one of the city councilors showed me that projects what will happen in precisely these coordinates, and a mile inland, we’re going to be up to their knees. This entire innovation economy plan has nothing, whatsoever, to say about this issue, which is going to make all the other issues moot, sooner or later, because we’re on the coast. And all this lab equipment, it’s a travesty, actually, that we’re losing the opportunity when there’s so much… so many riches and so many forward-looking people and an educated class. There is almost nothing that’s being done in Cambridge to think about an environmental catastrophe. There’s no plan, amid all of this wonderful, innovative, talented, PhD, you know, billion dollar-minted people. It’s shocking. But it’s not…you can’t monetize it right away, and there’s, you know, there’s no big investment class to put their name on a building for climate change prevention, catastrophe prevention.

CL: John, speak to the worship of numbers, in general. First of all, there’s the matter of which numbers are getting into the machine. But secondly, just the idea of quantifying everything when you talk about a city.

JS: Well, not only when you talk about a city, but, sort of, when you talk about all aspects of life, right?

CL: Right, indeed, a country!

JS: Well, you know, it’s a great seduction to imagine that you can reduce an entire city’s organism, if that’s now a proper metaphor anymore, to elementary school-grade reports.

CL: It won’t be elementary, it’ll be more like an EKG readout. It’ll be very sophisticated and will tell you a lot of different things.

JS: Well, it won’t tell you much that the politicians who are programming it don’t want to know.

CL: That’s true.

JS: ’Course the idea comes out of sports, right, which is a good and virtually demagogic way of putting it, you know, in this town. The whole mania for statistics in sports comes right out of business. It’s just management science. It’s the same old Taylorism—Frederick Winslow Taylorism, same effort to harness, kind of, social energy in a diverse place that pays lip service to personal freedoms by crowding it with some kind of matrix that can potentially function as a kind of instant democracy, but could also equally function as a kind of totalitarian grid that is going to be extracting information from us and taking more than it’s giving back. You should always be aware of something that doesn’t have an antonym. So, if they’re after “Smart Cities,” I guess, if you question it, you’re supposed to be for dumb cities or something? I mean, it’s a kind of linguistic sleight-of-hand that they use to try to reinforce the consensus and edge out anybody who doesn’t…wants to raise alternatives, genuine alternatives.

CL: Do we have your alternative on record yet?

JS: You’re going to have to go elsewhere for that, Chris. There’s a lot of consultants around here. I’m sure you can find a city plan somewhere. Peel back the rhetoric and ask hard questions about —not just about what the promises are, but what has happened—where are we in the spectrum of technological development? How much have we achieved, actually? And what are the conditions? How likely is it that they’ll be able to deliver on their promises? These are questions that are not about numbers, about imagination, history, contexts. And that world is so self-enclosed—universities, city halls, municipal thinking—you just don’t have much interest in what the rest of us have to say about these questions. They’ve taken politics, which is about power, and made it into numbers to pretend that it’s not about power. But politics is, the way that I look at things and the way that The Baffler writers look at things, politics is about power.

CL: We’re being overrun with people…

JS: Innovators.

CL: …doing good jobs at good wages. What’s wrong with that, John?

JS: Watch out for the innovators.

CL: No, but speaking of innovation, we know that Cambridge’s own Matt Damon has been to Mars and back, John. Come on!

JS: It’s just a drab and depressing environment. It’s tough enough in the winter around here. To look at these buildings, you just…your heart sinks, you know. There’s nothing for the eyes, it’s all for the, kind of, the head, you know, the, kind of, neurons. It’s all for the smallest possible particle of intelligence, and nothing for the environment, nothing for the, sort of, people who spend their entire existence in front of a computer screen. Imagine if all these people who walk by us now were painters. What would our cities…

CL: What if they were singers? What if they were dancing?

JS: Exactly. Then, what would the place be like? They wouldn’t allow this. [laughter] They wouldn’t allow this architecture, these colors.

CL: For WBUR, my name is Chris Lydon

Unidentified Person: OK, I’m Pete. How can we help you?

CL: We’re just admiring the architecture in this space and marveling at so many people coming back to work after lunch.

UP: OK.

CL: OK?

UP: This is private property. So if you’re going to be conducting interviews here from a radio station, we have to clear it through our public affairs office.

CL: Wow.

JS: This, where we’re standing at is not a public space?

UP: This is not a public space. There’s a public right-of-way, you can walk through, but TV interviews, radio interviews, stuff like that probably should be cleared because it is on private property.

JS: Is it stipulated in the rules that TV interviews have to be cleared on a public walkway?

UP: What I can do is, I can put you in touch with someone from our public affairs office.

JS: We don’t need to be in touch with anybody.

UP: OK.

JS: We’re fine. We’re on a public walkway.

UP: Yeah.

JS: Thank you.

UP: Thanks.

CL: Thank you. Thank you.

JS: Bye bye.

CL: Do you want to join the interview? We should ask some questions.

UP: No, no, no, no. It’s just uncommon. Like I said this is private property.

JS: This is private property? Or this is a public walkway.

UP: This is private property, sir.

CL: Well, which is it?

UP: This is private property. See the gates on the end?

CL: Mm-hmm. We’re not allowed to stand here and look and talk and exchange?

UP: Yeah, absolutely. I said, if you’re going to be conducting any interviews for a public forum, though, it does need to be cleared through our office. So, I can put you in touch with those folks.

CL: We will give them a shot.

UP: Great.

CL: Thank you.

UP: Thanks very much.

JS: It took, actually, longer than I thought. [laughter]

CL: All recorded, right? [laughter] Oh man. Whoo!

JS: Didn’t you say public? Didn’t he say public?

CL: Public walkway on private property. JS: There you are—an oxymoron.