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What does ‘One Boston’ signify?

“My mission as mayor is to make Boston the hub of opportunity for every resident. To open the doors of opportunity to a strong and growing middle class and those struggling to get there. To build a community of shared prosperity and a place of equality. … One Boston regardless of where you live or who you are.”
Martin J. Walsh
November 5, 2013.

It’s been fun to read both the numbers and the narratives telling of how Marty Walsh drew together the coalition that produced electoral victory last week. As a campaign foot soldier, I only got a snail’s-eye-view of how these moving parts came together – a positive vibe at different kinds of doors, new attentions from friends who had ignored the campaign – the rest just cobbled together from uneven newspaper coverage and the positive messages coming from campaign HQ. But no sooner was the election in the rear-view mirror than the storytellers and number crunchers were all saying the same thing. Besides uniting the lunch pail labor movement with the activist left, Walsh had brought together a coalition of working- and middle-class voters that swept away supposed racial barriers.

But if a consensus has quickly emerged about how Walsh won, no such unanimity is evident about the significance of this victory. What does this coalition mean for the future of Boston and even for the future of the nation? Does it represent a fundamental shift, a new politics of unity? As the campaign’s reach expanded, Walsh developed a “One Boston” theme to express it – a deft rhetorical turn that helped make the campaign feel like a growing movement. But the ultimate meaning of the Walsh coalition is yet to be known – it will remain a campaign strategy until it starts to produce tangible change. Certainly Walsh’s first move was to invite all Bostonians to be a part of it, whether they voted for him or not.

I think it holds out hope that the naturally aligned interests of working people across all races and the complementary arguments of social activists and labor leaders can merge into a powerful progressive response to the narrative of inevitability around economic insecurity in our age.

Consider the view from the neighborhoods – home not only to the members of this coalition but, now more than ever, to the best-informed and most eloquent commentators on city life. Bill Forry of the Dorchester Reporter explained what the unifying experience of the election meant for the city’s biggest, most diverse, and sometimes most divided neighborhood. Chris Faraone in the JP Gazette said Walsh won because working-class voters saw “someone who believes they deserve a piece of the American pie they’ve helped to build and maintain.”

Folks with bigger platforms didn’t see it this way, just as they didn’t see the coalition itself coming. The Globe’s op-ed pages, for example, have been a cavalcade of cynicism and faint praise. Marty is a “nice guy,” they sniff. A safe bet. The voters “turned inward” in typical Boston fashion. Walsh spurned “big picture” issues and played “interest group politics.”

I don’t want to return resentment for resentment, so I’ll spare you the media-bashing and turn to the larger point: Political coalitions represent common ground among people who might otherwise see their interests diverging. New coalitions thus represent not only political realignments but also, by implication, social possibilities. They are, and always have been, the means by which democracy shapes collective identity. I argued to anyone who would listen to me during the campaign that turning over this kind of new ground was Marty Walsh’s stock-in-trade. He hadn’t had the chance to do it electorally yet, but he had been doing it personally and politically for nearly two decades.
Those who continue to underestimate Walsh and, worse, who diminish his voters as parochial, betray a low opinion of Boston, a sense that our intramural conversations are inherently unimportant.

Contrast this view to the storyline that has developed around Bill De Blasio’s insurgent triumph in New York. Lefty lion Tom Hayden took to the pages of the Guardian to speculate about its promise of a new, populist left. Talking Points Memo took note of a David Axelrod protégé’s brilliant New America image-crafting and its role in propelling De Blasio’s campaign fortunes into the stratosphere. Setting aside New York’s inevitably bigger footprint, why is De Blasio’s election heralded as a progressive revolution while Walsh’s is dismissed as either a melange of “interests” or a parochial turn inward by the neighborhoods?

Pundits are missing the bigger picture if they see nothing of larger significance in Boston’s election. If inequality and insecurity are damaging the general welfare and the economic outlook in New York, and across the nation, then why isn’t that the message voters sent in Boston by responding to Walsh’s underdog message of “opportunity, community, and equality”? In this context, “One Boston” is not just a slogan, it’s a survival strategy. When people are fragmented, they can’t mobilize to solve problems or even adapt to change. The fundamental lesson of the new inequality is that when only the few thrive, society as a whole suffers.

Far from being caught up in parochial concerns, cities may be leading the way forward in America’s response to this challenge. With the federal government paralyzed and many states facing financial crises, cities are being hailed as the new laboratories of innovative policy, economic growth, and social connection.

And Boston always has punched above its weight when it comes to influencing urban and ultimately national policy. Even as recently as the crime-reduction “miracle” of the 1990s, Boston has been a national leader in urban policy that breaks down barriers and gets things done. Combine that tradition with a relatively healthy Commonwealth and a forward-looking partner (for now) in the Patrick administration, and Boston is poised to do great things.

But there are cultural differences among cities that determine the rhetoric and the progress of change. We tell our stories differently and we act them out accordingly. New York might see a more starkly confrontational approach to the class divide, home as it is to both Wall Street and the South Bronx. That’s never been Boston’s style, and it’s not Walsh’s either. Boston can lead the way, but it will do so by its own lights, drawing on its unique strengths.

Among Boston’s distinctive qualities is its cultural life – the commitment to imaginative expression that the venerable nonprofits, the creative entrepreneurs, and the feisty neighborhoods already share in common. Culture is how the stories get told and pictures get painted that help us to imagine our collective future.

This is why I’m especially hopeful about Walsh’s proposed Office of Cultural Affairs. The cultural life of a city exists on many levels: from major arts festivals to out-of-the-way open studios; from university film screenings to grammar school finger painting sessions; from poetry workshops to DJ’d house parties; from the MFA to the MBTA. But perhaps as much as any other realm of city life, Boston’s culture is riven by social and geographic divisions. A dedicated and empowered city agency can support all of these activities in various ways, but it can go further, by creating connections among them that express the unifying themes of the era.

This will be among the first areas in which the story of One Boston begins to be told, and the ultimate significance of the Walsh election begins to take shape.

Eoin Cannon, a former news editor at the Dorchester Reporter, is a lecturer at Harvard University and interim associate Director of Studies in History and Literature.