There Goes the Neighborhood

This interview by Emily Rooney was broadcast on WGBH-TV in Boston on March 6, 2014.

Emily Rooney: Back in 2011, Mark Zuckerberg had all of us swooning. The Facebook founder made big news when he visited the People’s Republic of Cambridge to herald the opening of a local office. Most civic leaders called it proof that Cambridge was indeed a major player in the Innovation Economy. But for one Cambridge resident, the reaction was, “There goes the neighborhood!” And that’s the thrust of his recent article, “The People’s Republic of Zuckerstan,” which appears in the latest edition of The Baffler magazine. And with me now is the author of that piece, John Summers. He’s also the editor-in-chief of The Baffler and a long-time Cambridge resident. Welcome to you, John.

John Summers: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

ER: So, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody take on the innovation economy the way you have, so it’s…you’re pointing out that not everything is so great about it.

JS: Innovation economy is bad for Cambridge.

ER: Period.

JS: That’s the thesis of the essay, yes.

ER: And how do you justify that?

JS: Well, I justify it by immediately qualifying it [laughter] to say that it seems to be very good for a very small number of people in Cambridge: white, male, people who are already wealthy, those who call themselves entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, university managers, and, in fact, construction crews who are breaking ground and doing lots of in major commercial development attached to MIT, who nonetheless cannot afford to live anywhere near the sites that they’re building. They’re building laboratories, and they’re building corporate office parks.

ER: So, who, specifically, is negatively impacted?

JS: Everybody who can’t afford to compete in the housing market. The Greater Boston 2013 Housing Report showed that we’re in the midst of a housing emergency. We have massive numbers of middle-income families and lower-income people who are either leaving or being squeezed or, in some cases as the report showed, being sent into motels with their families.

ER: Yeah.

JS: The number of homeless people in Massachusetts has risen by 14 percent over the same period that the Innovation Economy program, as a public policy, has taken flight. So, the point of the article is to fill in some of the connections that have been left out.

ER: So just, by chance, we sent a camera down to Central Square today. We were looking for, sort of, examples of what you might be talking about. And this is the new Novartis complex.

JS: Oh yes.

ER: Is this the kind of thing you’re talking about?

JS: Well, this is the kind of thing…yes, that’s an example of commercial development that’s happening next to MIT and is, really, kind of destroying the public space that had once separated Kendall Square from Central Square. So what the residents that I spoke with and the small business owners that I spoke with in Central Square worried about is that what’s happening in Kendall square—which is really, nothing short of an aesthetic catastrophe—is going to become what Central Square is going to look like. Of all the idiosyncrasies of Central Square, all of the, many of the small businesses, the call it “the funk,” you know, in Central Square, will all simply disappear. And the human diversity, as well as the public look of the place, will change to accord with Kendall Square.

ER: Right. I want to pull a little quote out of your article. You write specifically about Central Square in Cambridge, but let’s look at the…well, here it is: “…we can expect the Innovation Economy to send more of the region’s poorest and most vulnerable residents scrambling with their children into temporary shelters and motels. Housing is the hinge of class formation.” So it’s all about that.

JS: Well, it is not all about that. Those are the consequences for people who live in Cambridge and do, in fact, live in the greater Boston region and who aren’t rich, already. That’s what Innovation means for the Innovation Economy. Of course, nobody is against innovation, nobody is against progress, nobody is against higher education. Nobody is even, in theory, against liberalism. But none of these things seem to…all of these things seem to push in the same direction, which is to allow the major players in the Innovation Economy to seize control over the local housing stock. Now, if you look in Central Square, as I know that you have, you’ll see that many of the city’s poorest live right next to where these massive…

ER: It used to be a terrible place to live, it wasn’t that great.

JS: Which part?

ER: Parts of Central Square.

JS: Well, I suppose it depends who one is.

ER: Yeah.

JS: Right, I mean, people have been living there for a long time. I think it’s had its ups and downs. And, I gather that part of the resistance that I’ve heard is that, well, some version of this, which is that it used to be dangerous, it used to be…there used to be more crime, and it used to be, well, somewhere that you wouldn’t want to take your children at night, after it had had this, kind of, family vibe in the 50s and the 60s. And that’s a fair point. My question is, why does the only answer to that problem have to be: let’s install thousands of corporate professionals and drive out all the poor and middle-income people. In other words, there must be a third answer somewhere in there. The reason I wrote the piece is that there doesn’t seem to be one on the agenda. The problem, or among the problems, is that there is no master plan at all from Cambridge public officials to address the problem.

ER: This is their master plan.

JS: Not only that, this is the master plan that caused it, yes. So, Cambridge is rapidly changing. Of course, it’s not the only place in the country where this is happening. There are lots of articles now that are coming about what’s happening in San Francisco and what’s happening in New York. This current wave of gentrification, of course, is not, in kind, new. But the pace and the ferocity of it seems new. And it seems to be accelerating very quickly. And it’s disturbing to me that there’s virtually no pushback in an area that prides itself on being progressive and liberal. So, I wonder what has happened—where are the politicians speaking about this?

ER: John, I think you’re bursting everybody’s bubble here. No one even imagined that this was a bad thing. I mean, the governor has been touting this, saying we want to take on Silicon Valley. And he’s you know, done the Innovation District in the Seaport area, as well. So people are looking at you—really, really? I never thought of this.

JS: I understand. No, I understand. But it is actually, technically, not counterintuitive. OK? People do understand this. Those are the people who are leaving and being pressed out. Talk to the people in Central Square who own businesses. If the governor would like to interview some of the homeless people who live in Central Square, they might give him a different story than when he went to the Cambridge Innovation Center in 2009 and proclaimed this real estate company, you know, the future savior of the region. Obviously, some kind of revitalization program is in order, but why do the rest of us have to suffer because of it is my question.

ER: John Summers, provocative, as always. And the latest issue of The Baffler is out, and you say it’s your best issue yet.

JS: I think it’s the best issue yet. We’ve got lots of good writers.

ER: Alright, I’ll take a look. JS: Thank you so much.