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The Two States Of Massachusetts


By Richard M. Burnes

I hadn't expected that coming home this summer would be too much of a change from school. Dartmouth, Massachusetts, the town I've grown up in, is only an hour and 15 minutes south of Boston and just like in Boston, everybody here has stopped talking about the Red Sox. But even though our lives revolve around the same sports teams and our taxes are collected by the same bureaucrats, it hasn't taken long to realize that I'm spending the summer in a different world.

The six lanes of Route 495, Boston's outer ring road, split the Commonwealth in half. On the inside, the Boston metropolitan area is booming. Shiny new buildings are going up everywhere, employment rates are climbing and rumor has it that crime is dropping. But on the outside of Boston's hustle and bustle, smaller cities such as Springfield, Fall River and New Bedford are struggling to survive.

Anyone who has taken the American Eagle bus from Boston's sparkling new South Station Terminal to crumbling downtown New Bedford understands the gap that exists in Massachusetts. Standing on Atlantic Avenue in downtown Boston during rush hour, life whips by as throngs of commuters cross paths with jack hammers and cement truck rebuilding Boston.

Walking down the streets of New Bedford in the early evening, one sees no such vibrancy. In place of the drills and dump trucks, the streets are lined with boarded-up shop windows and occupied by the wandering homeless and jobless.

The statistics tell the same story. From 1985 to 1994 (the last year of available data from the Massachusetts Department of Employment and Training) total employment in New Bedford fell by over 10,000 jobs; a drop of about 21 percent. Meanwhile, during the same period, total employment in Boston dropped a mere 2.5 percent, or about 14,000 jobs.

While such disparity seems outrageous, it is the inevitable outcome of an historical chain of events. In the 1800s, New Bedford's whaling industry made it the wealthiest city, per capita, in the nation. As the whaling died out, the city, like most of its neighbors in the Northeast, began to focus on the tremendous textile industry. All over New England, towns like Lowell, Lawrence and Fall River sprang up around the new mills that were pumping out cotton cloth.

But at the turn of the century, many mills began to move south. No longer could the benefits of deep harbors, access to capital and an abundance of energy offset the virtue of cheap labor. Cities across the northeast--Boston as much as New Bedford or Fall River--became decaying monuments to the industrial revolution and the region's past glory.

Throughout the 20th century, these cities have been searching for the competitive advantage that will allow them to restore their classical dynamism. For years, New Bedford flirted with the fishing industry. Other northeastern cities are now attempting to rebuild their economy with historical tourism, outlet shopping or a new industrial base. Faced with unionized labor, large wages and the high cost of utilities, none of these endeavors are taking off.

But Boston, thanks to its unparalleled system of higher education, continues to successfully pull itself out of the early 20th century gloom. Today companies like Rathyeon, Digital and Fidelity--out growths of institutions like MIT, Harvard, Boston College and Boston University--are the major employers in the metropolitan Boston area. In an era when corporations can easily pick up their operation and move across borders, the educated work force has rooted industries in the Boston area.

While this economic chasm is highly visible, the Commonwealth also harbors a more subtle inconsistency in perspective. Those who live on the inside of Route 495 have a unique conception of Massachusetts. Ultimately, it is this difference that allows unequal economic development to continue.

The people of New Bedford may not make it up to Boston very often, but they certainly know what's going on up north. While most people in the city read The Standard Times instead of the Globe and are loyal to the local high school football team before the Bruins or the Red Sox, Boston often dominates the local news. As a result, the people have developed a sort of local identity at the heart of a regional loyalty. Moreover, they see Massachusetts as more than one city.

Rarely do those who live inside the 495 loop have such a dual state and local prospective. The people of Medford, Dedham, Canton and Newton commute to Boston everyday, go to a restaurant in the city on the weekend, spend a week of their summer on the Cape, and if they don't read the Globe, they read the Herald. Some still hold onto a local spirit, but the overwhelming majority have only a metropolitan identity. To them, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is Boston.

For state policy makers in Boston, this myopia is often difficult to overcome. Yet there are some bright spots. At UMass Dartmouth there are now several marine laboratories being formed that will help make the New Bedford area a center for the aquacultre industry. Other projects now under consideration such as commuter rail and dredging are also important investments.

But this type of planning is the exception to the rule. While politicians rarely forget voters, projects in peripheral parts of the state often seem designed to appease the people. Rarely do they show any vision or genuine commitment. For Governor William F. Weld '66 the proposed casino in New Bedford is typical.

As many in the city admit, a casino is not the type of long-term investment that could help build an anchor industry. Yet in response to polls indicating support for gambling, the Governor has suggested that the initiative is the solution to the city's problems. While such political maneuvering has won him some support in the city, others see it for what it is: a bone thrown to a dog with the hope that it will shut up.

Boston's inward focus allows many of the state's politicians to treat the peripheral parts of the state like a useless appendage. Until this perspective is changed, cities like New Bedford and Fall River will only be the backwater that the people of Boston think they are.

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