Occupy (Neoliberal) Boston

10/13/2011 08:10 pm ET | Updated Dec 13, 2011

The Rose Kennedy Greenway was supposed to be the crowning aesthetic achievement of a twenty year project to bury Boston's Southeast Expressway in tunnels beneath the city. Where a towering, multi-lane concrete monstrosity once stood, politicians planned a parkway extending from the north end of Boston, south to the financial district.

Yet the project was never completed. Intended to serve tourists, financial company employees, and officials in nearby Government Center, the greenway instead conjured images of the muddy, meandering cow paths that led to Boston's infamous three hundred year old winding road system.

In April, 2010, The Boston Globe ran a front page exposé on the failed project. Their analysis found that the conservancy established to develop and maintain the interlocking parks was nearly bankrupt and one-third of the park was completely unfinished. Feigning outrage that the project had been grossly mismanaged, and truly outraged at the implication that they were culpable, officials moved rapidly to fund the completion of the greenway.

Over the last year, an emerald swath of perfectly landscaped pathways emerged. Few people used them until Monday, when scores of protesters from Occupy Boston extended their reach from a small patch of grass across the greenway. Ironically, just after midnight on Tuesday, they were arrested for using the park and for putting at risk the $150,000 worth of shrubs the greenway conservancy had planted.

The arrests at the greenway signify something of a last stand in Boston. Over the last decade, the metropolitan Boston area has suffered from a dramatic decline in what sociologists call "Third Places"-- public spaces and independently owned businesses that encourage social interaction at little or no fee for entry. Rising rents have eradicated cafes, bookstores, and low-cost restaurants at the same time that ambitious building projects have rapidly reconfigured the landscape of the city. Residential neighborhoods have been pushed out in order to create heavily controlled landscapes across the region.

Among the starkest examples, the complete redevelopment of the Copley Square area surrounding Fenway Park consolidated an array of individual properties into a series of monolithic managed buildings. Cost-prohibitive leases made the return of the previous tenants nearly impossible. The Copley development borders a large section of Boston University, which recently completed its own ambitious thirty-year campus re-development initiated by former president John Silber, who explicitly set out to create a campus that discouraged public gatherings.

Across the city, universities, corporations, and hospitals have seized so much land for redevelopment that their projects overlap, leaving little room for residential populations and neighborhoods. Residents of the city are now confined more than ever within manufactured, subsidized, and managed environments that are owned and governed by the fewest number of people in generations. And these changes appear to be driving residents out, as a disturbing statistic indicates. Last year over 27,000 residents left Boston -- a 4.3 percent decline.

The political structure has made much of this possible, gradually turning Boston into one of the least constitutionally faithful cities in America. Now in his fifth term, Mayor Tom Menino espouses beliefs sympathetic to residents while steadily restricting the rights of citizens to use the public landscape for organization, protest, music, art or entertainment. In one particularly heated instance, he ordered police to remove musicians and performers from Government Center (itself built on a neighborhood that was forcibly evicted half a century ago) citing their rights to free speech only in government-designated "Free Speech Zones."

The recent weeks have seen an explosion in speculation about the role of social media and technology in facilitating the Occupy protests across the country. But these essays, articles, and prognostications obscure the fact that most of the people at Occupy Boston are not moved by anything digital. Their actions are fueled by the frustration that after being robbed of their livelihoods, they have been denied places in which to address injustice -- effectively stripping them of agency in a society where voice has existential importance. In this way, the protests inherently accept that digital spaces have failed to impact the system that has so greatly degraded the population.

Boston, like so many other cities across the country, has become a neoliberal landscape, refabricated to eradicate the visibility of the disenfranchised. It is, in turn, an evident and direct target for the protestors in nearly every regard. One need only see the number of homeless people sleeping well in these encampments, to recognize the undercurrent of empathy that makes "occupation" the operative word of these protests. In that way it is clear that the Occupy movement is more about the seizure of the few remaining urban public spaces in America, than it is a movement of Androids, Tweets, and iPhones.