Gentrification at City Hall--Political Guesswork

Many things frighten politicians, but none more than change forced upon them from below by a shifting electorate. But change is coming to Cambridge--fundamental new developments that may realign the city's politics, force new alliances, move the sources of power.

Shifts in demographics are by their nature slow. Cantabrigians will not wake up one morning to find all the Irish and Italian working-class residents leaving and a wave of laser technicians and econometricians moving in. But in a city where voters go to the polls only once every two years, and where the switch of one seat on the City Council would mean control of City Hall, the changes in power could literally occur overnight. They have before--Councilor Alfred E. Vellucci, the senior member of the City Council, says at least twice in the city's history the balance of power changed in a single election. "Until 1892, the Harvard Yankees, the people with the high fences around their yards, controlled the city of Cambridge. But then came the Irish. They came pouring in like crazy. The ships were docking in Boston and they were arriving by the thousands." And they seized control of City Hall, control they never relinquished throughout the first half of the century. The father of House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass) was sewer commissioner, while Eddie Quinn ran the city. In 1941 a coalition of "good government" reformers changed the city again. They amended the city charter, changing the mayoral form of government to a city administration and the ward voting to citywide elections for a council. The move gave the power of the neighborhood politicians to those who could command citywide allegiances, spawning the slate efforts of the more liberal Cambridge Civic Association and the more old-line Independent councilors.

Now the city may be near a new realignment. How soon and how dramatic it will be depend largely on one factor--the rate at which Cambridge is "gentrified." As condominium conversion lures professionsals to homes that once belonged to the ethnic working-class and the elderly, the chance of a substantial change in voting patterns is high. "There is an emerging constituency. It's almost a John Anderson constituency--liberal on social issues, but quite conservative on economic questions," Councilor David Sullivan, who collected the second highest number of votes during the last City Council election, says. Without regulation slowing condo growth, that class could be huge by the end of the decade; with the current controls it will still be sizeable and powerful.

The real question is how the new voters will behave. There are three distinct possibilities. The new class could merge easily into existing political coalition and not change the basic political cleavages in the city. They could infiltrate the current alignments and change them slowly from within. Or they could emerge as a new political force on their own, perhaps creating a new slate to join the battle with the existing camps. And whatever form the new challenge takes, it may provoke reactions from today's power brokers that will independently change the face of Cambridge politics.

The first possibility seems least likely. The new professionals moving into the city don't share the concerns that form the basis of existing political alignments. The Independents depend on familiarity, friendships, and the old order. Their votes come from the same places every year. And because the networks of their power are woven among those who know and remember, they will be hard pressed to win support from those whose memories center on the suburbs. Meanwhile, the liberal activists have concerns in some ways antithetical to new residents. They oppose condominium conversion, favor rent controls, and thus are fighting the wave of gentrification these new residents are part of. Thirdly, the traditional defenders of well-run government, the CCA, may also find only lukewarm support. "They are professional people who don't use public libraries or the pools and basketball courts," Mayor Francis H. Duehay '55 says. "They don't have any kids, so they're not involved in the schools; they rarely call the police. They are remote from what's going on in the community," he adds, saying, "That is the kind of mentality that can lead to budget-cutting at any cost."


The city's current porfessionals, who are by and large liberal, may not necessarily be indicators of the politics of this new condo class. Those lured by the condo lifestyle, as opposed to those who came to Cambridge to be near the universities, seem less likely to be liberal. The Cambridge upper class, which comprises the backbone of the CCA, is "not like those who may move in from Lincoln and Weston," Duehay says, adding, "There may be a liberal tinge, just because this is Cambridge, but I think they will be more conservative."

The second possibility for participation by new residents--nominally joining the existing political coalitions and reshaping those groups internally--seems more probable. The existing institutions are well-known and good at organizing, and in Cambridge that is requisite for electoral success, since the proportional representation system makes it important for voters to rank candidates. The CCA, and to a lesser extent the Independents, have created slate loyalties that allow them to dominate the powerful City Council even if others in the city elect one or two rising stars with allegiances to neither group. "This new type of voter will spell the doom of the Independent control of the City Council (currently, Independents hold a 5-4 edge over CCA members)," Vellucci predicts flatly. "It would make sense for us to be fighting condos and the CCA to be supporting them," he adds.

Many CCA leaders agree that condo owners are likely to swell their ranks--some hint that may be one reason the group, which has strongly favored rent control, has been less fervent in its efforts to halt condominium conversion. But should it gain many fiscally conservative members, the CCA could change dramatically, just as it swung to the left in recent years. Municipal spending and its effect on city tax rates will dominate city politics during this decade, along with the older issues of preserving ethnic and income diversity in the city, and tailoring development to meet the needs of both low-income and professional Cantabrigians. So far, the CCA has opposed gentrification. It has effectively stood for big government, with public housing, recreation and good schools among its tenets. But with condo owners influencing the CCA's decisions, the association's direction may well change.

The third possibility is even more frightening to liberal activists. If the new voters coalesce into a third bloc, perhaps running their own slates for City Council and school committee, they may go even farther to the right. "At least if they're in the CCA, there is an anchor from the people already involved there," Sullivan argues. The chances of success for a coalition in the city are debatable. Eventually the city may have enough voters for a third group, especially if they pick up support from traditional Independent voters no longer bound by the bonds of patronage and tradition, and from disenchanted CCA members.

Organizing such a drive would be hard work, but it would likely have money and the strong support of city bankers and real estate developers. Perhaps the best test case was last year's attempt by a group calling itself the Concerned Cambridge Citizens (CCC) to run a council slate. The group--whose founders were almost all condo owners newly arrived in the city--took few official stances on issues, saying instead that it stood for sound government and reasoned debate. But its slate and membership rolls indicated the group would not support rent control or limits on condominium conversion. Although the few candidates identified solely with the CCC didn't win, some did fairly well, and as one observer adds, "They could easily do better." With one election under their belts, the CCC could come out with one or two winners in 1981, and that success might provide the impetus and respectability for further growth.

Faced with possible erosion of their own political bases, some city politicians have begun to shift their own stances. One possibility is a fusion of current powerholders--CCA members and Independents alike--against the new voters in the city. The best example may be Vellucci. Once a traditional ethnic neighborhood politician, Vellucci has slowly shifted toward the CCA on most substantive issues, voting against condo conversion and for rent control. And on the CCA's part, Sullivan may be doing more than any of his colleagues to expand the organization beyond its Brattle St. roots and elitist reputation. His last campaign was a coalition triumph--he won with votes from tenant activists, CCA regulars and elderly voters pried from a lifelong habit of voting for Independents by their fear of condominium conversion. "The initials CCA strike fear into too many hearts in this city to make me think that the CCA per se will ever make major inroads" into building a new coalition, Sullivan says. "My hope is that someday there could be a forum in this city where people like Al Vellucci and people like me could get together to work without social ostracism," Sullivan says. Should such a new coalition develop, it would probably be strong enough to resist the power of the new professionals, the condo owners, for many years.

And that may be the biggest effect the condo class will have. If anti-gentrification legislation stays in place, the politicians' fears may prove groundless. But even so, those fears may trigger a realignment of city politics away from the old vested interests that influence both the CCA and Independent camps and toward a new coalition more interested in the city as a whole.