Thursday, April 5, 2012

God Bless Fred Salvucci, for he is funny

With today's Boston Globe report that the Big Dig needs $54 million in a "light fix", and the ongoing battle over the MBTA's 23 percent fare hike, it was a pleasure to spend last night listening to Fred Salvucci remember the days when talk of transportation was a call to arms and war was in the streets of Cambridge and Boston.  The Inner Belt was coming, the Inner Belt was coming, and during the mid-1960s, the citizens of these two cities rose up to slay the mighty dragon of unlimited highway funding -- at least unlimited to the point where the federal government picked up 90 cents of ever dollar spent on new roadways. 

Salvucci, now a lecturer in the civil engineering department at M.I.T., is a silver-haired raconteur, and a man of big ideas.  He is rightly considered the Father of the Big Dig, and today's report notwithstanding, his accomplishment there was one of the great coups for real urban improvement in America in the last 50 years, reversing a trend of utter destruction that was the mark of roadway projects across this country.  It was a mark of genius both political and engineering, and an act that required great determination and courage to see it to completion. 

But he cut his teeth as a local activist some 20 years earlier when the proposal was to run a large elevated roadway up through Central Square in Cambridge and displace 1,500 families in the process.  Last night's event was put together by the Cambridge Historical Society, and it was a chance to reflect on this era and its impact.  Also on the panel were MIT professor Tunney Lee, Bob Goodman of Hampshire College, and Cambridge mayor Henrietta Davis.

Salvucci speaking at last night's forum, not that small in real life

The Inner Belt scheme was monstrous, but not unheard of in cities across the country at the time.  The auto was seen as savior, even to the Cambridge Planning Board in 1950, which released a report lauding the role the car plays in our society.  By 1965, Cambridge's thinking had changed, and many, many Cantabrigians rose to the occasion.  Last night's get together was both a chance to reflect and listen, to some people who moved mountains back at a time when such accomplishments were by no means commonplace.  It was history by the people who made it.

Salvucci offered many wise words:

"Culture eats policy for lunch."  This phrase Salvucci attributes to Jeffrey Mullan, and it means that the culture of your agency always trumps rational policy making everytime.  This means that if you're a bridge builder then the answer is always to build another bridge, if you're a road builder, then of course another road.  As Salvucci put it: Here's the answer, now what was the question? 

"Bad public policy is like measles, once you've experienced it, the antibodies build up so strong that it doesn't happen again."  I liked this image that the body politic can react so strongly to a bad idea, that it just won't occur again.

Finally, Salvucci relayed the tale of a meeting in the second floor of the old Wursthaus restaurant in Harvard Square.  It was a planning meeting of those opposed to the Inner Belt, and it included John Kenneth Galbraith and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  Moynihan argued that while the Inner Belt was an atrocious idea that needed to be opposed, nevertheless the displacement of these 1,500 families might change the urban politics in Cambridge for the better and lead to a more progressive local government come election time.  Galbraith, just back from a long plane flight and barely focused on the local issue at hand but briefed upon his arrival on the content of the debate, rose with great and venomous passion, unfolded his incredulous pterodactyl-like arm and pointing an accusatory finger as he did, gestured emphatically in Moynihan's direction saying that in a time of great racial discord, the neighborhood slated for removal was one of the few where races lived side by side in peace, and this roadway would destroy all of that.  After Galbraith's argument, "everybody fell into line" according to Salvucci.