The Curse of Tsongas

(appeared in Somerville Voices 9-May-2010)

In the late 1970’s I attended the Congress of the Somerville United Neighborhoods, an umbrella organization intended to bring together activists from throughout Somerville. One of the keynote speakers was Senator Paul Tsongas, now deceased.

I have forgotten most of what I heard that day, and S.U.N. disappeared shortly thereafter. Senator Tsongas, however, said one thing that sticks in my mind. He looked out over the crowd with their banners and slogans and said, “I hope you all get some power someday, so you’ll know what it’s like to have to satisfy your constituents’ demands with a limited budget.”

It was years before I realized I had heard a formal curse.

In November 2009, I was appointed to the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, representing the Mystic View Task Force. I asked to be assigned to the subcommittee on Commercial Corridors, Squares, and Growth Districts, as most closely matching my interest in transit-oriented sustainable development. Over the succeeding months there were about ten meetings of the Steering Committee, all open to the public, and five public "visioning" meetings in various parts of the city.

At a meeting this spring, we were given the preliminary draft of the resulting Comprehensive Plan Vision Statement:

SomerVision Logo

Somerville is the most exciting four square miles in New England!

We celebrate our cultural, demographic, housing, and economic diversity.

We foster the unique character of our lively neighborhoods and squares, and the strength of our community spirit as expressed in our history, rich cultural and social life and our deep sense of civic engagement.

We invest in our vibrant and resilient economic base that is built upon a foundation of independent local businesses, is centered around transit, generates a wide variety of job opportunities, creates an active daytime population, and secures fiscal self-sufficiency.

We embrace a dynamic urban streetscape that reduces dependence on the automobile and is safe and accessible for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit riders.

We pursue a sustainable future through strong environmental leadership, balanced transportation options, access to exceptional recreational and community spaces, enviable educational opportunities, a commitment to community health, and thoughtful, effective management of our natural resources.

We commit to continued innovation in all our endeavors: business, technology, education, arts, and government.

(Final version here.)

When it came my turn to speak, I said, "There's nothing here I disapprove of, but it reads like a list of advocacy issues. It's fluff. Tastes good, but it's still fluff. We aren't doing most of these things, and there's nothing here to say how we're supposed to do these things."

Another person from my table said, "Affordable housing doesn't pay for affordable housing. Parks don't pay for parks. Police and firemen don't pay for police and firemen. We can't raise residential property taxes or cut existing services. The only way to pay for these things is high-end office and commercial development."

A few people were nodding, with a rueful look. The rest sat and looked at us stonily. As I looked at their faces, I finally understood the Curse of Tsongas.

An issue advocate's job is saying the right things.

A community organizer's job is getting the public to say the right things.

A political organizer's job is electing officials who say the right things.

Whose job is it to create enough tax base to actually do the right things?

Maybe what we need is a Progressive Chamber of Commerce.