Boston, the B+ City

Edward Glaeser likes Stephen Puleo’s A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900, even though Puleo oversells Boston’s accomplishments. The city brought together a lot of smart people and served as an important transportation and manufacturing hub. Glaeser points out that those are the kinds of things cities do.

It is not at all clear that Boston really distinguished itself in the late nineteenth century compared to other great cities in that remarkable urban epoch. London was the world’s largest metropolis, the nerve center of a great global empire; decades before Boston it had subways that were filled with the smoky engines of the pre-electric age. Paris was the great city of light, rebuilt by Baron Haussmann, and the cultural capital of Impressionism. New York made room for hundreds of thousands of new immigrants and built infrastructure, like the Brooklyn Bridge. Chicago changed from a small town of 30,000 to a massive metropolis of 1.7 million, giving humanity its first true skyscraper as well as millions of pounds of frozen rail-shipped beef.

Graded against its peers, nineteenth-century Boston was a B+ city. It had great intellectuals (Emerson and his crowd) and ardent abolitionists (its senator got beaten up on the U.S. Senate floor by a Congressman from South Carolina). For some reason, Glaeser is very impressed with the Back Bay landfill project, which as an engineering challenge was relatively modest–and repeated by a number of cities. Outside of its considerable human capital and genius for filling marshlands, Boston was an average maker of things.

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