1. Governance
August 19, 2015updated 19 Jul 2021 10:23am

How #10PeopleOnTwitter took on Boston’s Olympic bid and won: The games begin

By Drew Reed

Drew Reed is CityMetric’s occasional western hemisphere correspondent. In this three-part series, he takes an in-depth look at Boston’s failed bid for the 2024 summer Olympics – and talks to some of the community groups that helped to bring it down.

In the Olympics, there is no gold medal for community organising. Even if there was, there’s no way Olympic higher-ups would ever hand one out to the activists who recently defeated Boston’s bid for the 2024 Olympics – and in the process, revealed some of the closed door dealings Olympic organisers would rather not talk about. But even if these activists’ achievement hasn’t won them a spot on the Olympic podium, it at least deserves a place in the history books.

Though last month’s decision seemed to come out of nowhere, it would not have happened without months-long efforts by two groups – No Boston 2024 and No Boston Olympics – and the residents who supported them.

Few people would think of doing what these groups did. They challenged some of the most powerful interests in town.  They weathered snowstorms. They were never sure if their lofty goal was possible, but they kept going anyway. And in the end, they won. 

The bid

In late 2014, Boston found itself at a political crossroads. A year earlier, mayor Thomas Menino had stepped down after five terms in office, leaving a power vacuum at city hall. After the unusually harsh 2013 election, Marty Walsh emerged as the new mayor – but his narrow win left him with a much shakier hold on the reins of mayoral power than his predecessor, a situation he himself was eager to change.

At the state level, meanwhile, the political pendulum was swinging in the other direction. In 2014, the race to succeed Democratic governor Deval Patrick ended in an upset, bringing moderate Republican Charlie Baker into office.

Right as the 2014 election was unfolding, a project emerged that potentially offered a payoff for both these politicians. The 2024 Olympic bid would give Massachusetts politicians a chance to cement their legacies – and also allowed business interests to go for the gold.

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Boston’s Olympic bid had actually begun much earlier, and was being touted by some supporters as early as 2012. The proposal took a big step forward when John Fish, owner of the largest construction firm in the city, announced he would form an organisation to promote Boston as a potential Olympic host city.

The city’s elite quickly took note. Fish’s group, officially incorporated in early 2014 as Boston 2024, a non-profit, drew heavily on insiders from the political circles of Walsh and then-governor Patrick. Its co-founder was Mitt Romney, Patrick’s predecessor as Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican presidential candidate, while its staff included CEO Richard Davey, Patrick’s former transportation secretary, and Amy Sennett, one of the group’s VPs, who had strong ties to both administrations.

But as this group came together, little thought was given to public input. Even as key elements of the plan were being decided, little attention was paid to the plan by the media or average Boston residents. When a fully formed plan was finally in December, just in time for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) deadline for its selection of its official bid, it was the first many in Boston had even heard of any of this.

The plan presented by Boston 2024 called for the construction of a total of ten new facilities, most of them temporary. At the core of the plan was a temporary Olympic Stadium in an industrial district directly south of the city’s downtown, which the plans dubbed “Midtown”, carrying an estimated $531.6m price tag. Other major facilities included an Olympic village at the UMass campus southeast of downtown, as well as temporary use of university facilities in nearby Cambridge. 

Investments were planned in more practical areas, too. Included in the original plan were 3,000-4,000 affordable housing units, an expansion of South Station (the city’s biggest train terminal), an extension of the Green Line subway, and new bike lanes. With regard to the funding of transportation projects, the plan stated that, “Boston 2024 expects that all of these projects will be fully funded by the Commonwealth [of Massachusetts].”

“Mega-events lead to restrictions on the use of public spaces, the acceleration of gentrification, and the increased militarisation of policing.”

Many of these details would not be known until they were released online in January, however. Even then, activists became increasingly aware that some of the original presentation had been left out.

Marty Walsh had already signed onto plans back in October. “I think it would be a tremendous opportunity for the city of Boston in so many different ways,” the mayor had told the Boston Globe.  He would become the plan’s biggest booster.

Walsh’s support was understandable. Boston was his city, and he would have the most to gain from a successful bid, along with Patrick’s gubernatorial entourage and, of course, John Fish.

Baker, the incoming governor, was more sceptical. Eager to maintain distance between himself and Patrick, he never formally endorsed the plan. Nevertheless, he was not going to deny himself any potential positive impact the bid might have.  Soon after the bid was placed on 1 December, Baker referred to it as “like getting a hunting license to be able to go promote Massachusetts and Boston as a great place”.

The fight back

Just before the bid was officially presented, the Jamaica Plain Gazette, a neighbourhood newspaper in Boston, got wind of part of the Olympic plan that would affect a local park – and its staff weren’t pleased. “Boston’s 2024 Summer Olympics bid has committed Franklin Park – and the surrounding Jamaica Plain area – to serving as a heavily impacted venue with no local input whatsoever,” the paper’s editorial board wrote on 21 November.

“That is no accident or oversight. It is the well-considered, cynical tactic of the land-grabbing gentrification and privatization scheme that Olympics bids always are. And it is so outrageous that Jamaica Plain should not merely question the Olympic use of Franklin Park, but organize to actively oppose it.”

This op-ed would inspire the creation of a group that would do just that.

Like many Boston residents, Robin Jacks had not been paying close attention to Boston 2024’s Olympic bid until then – but that editorial got her attention. And Jacks, who had participated in Occupy Boston and other protest movements in the city since then, decided it was time to do something.

She contacted two friends who were also active in Boston’s grass roots organising scene: Jonathan Cohn and Kade Crockford. They had also read the article and were disturbed to find that so much of the plan had been created without any outreach to their community. As Cohn recalls: “We decided that if the city wasn’t going to have meetings to discuss this with the community, we would have our own community meeting.”

The meeting was held at a local church the following Monday. Undeterred by the late autumn chill, dozens of area residents crammed into the small church. “At that point, our goal was to make sure the USOC didn’t choose Boston as its official bid,” Jacks said. “We decided we were going to make their lives hell until January.”

Attendees had heard about the meeting from the friends’ Twitter feeds, as well as a write-up in the Gazette. But not everyone at the meeting was a local resident. A small group of representatives from Boston 2024 had heard about the meeting as well and decided to attend. Jacks describes them as “trying to take over the meeting”. (David Manfredi, one of the officials present, would later describe the event as “a rocky evening”.)

Boston mayor Marty Walsh having a think. Image: Getty.

This was the first meeting of what would later become No Boston 2024, a group made up of a closely connected group of organisers making extensive use of social media to make their presence felt.

But they weren’t the only game in town. Months earlier, another group had been formed to oppose Boston’s Olympic bid. Known as No Boston Olympics, the group had also been formed by three friends, albeit with a more polished professional pedigree. Chris Dempsey, Kelly Gossett, and Liam Kerr, the group’s founders, were collectively described by Boston.com as “rooted in government, campaigns, business, and advocacy”.

Despite their different backgrounds, the two groups had many shared concerns: the systemic cost overruns of previous Olympics, the issues they present for local budgets, and their persistent failure in creating the improvements they promise. “Mega-events like the Olympics cannot be sustainable and have considerable environmental impacts despite the rhetoric otherwise,” says Cohn. “It leads to restrictions on the use of public spaces, the acceleration of gentrification, and the increased militarisation of policing.”

Jacks echoes the sentiment. “A lot of people are moving into Boston, but they’re not building the housing to keep up with it. I mean, people just can’t live here anymore,” she says. “The plan made no real effort to fix that. I don’t see how anything good could have come of it in a net gain way.”

Despite this relatively promising start, No Boston 2024’s traction diminished in December, due to cold temperatures and the holiday season. And on 8 January, the USOC announced that Boston would be its official selection to bid to host the 2024 Olympics.

The decision thrilled political leaders, eliciting an ecstatic response from Walsh and prompting the once sceptical Baker to take a much more favourable view of the bid. The USOC’s choice was also well received by Fish, who the next day even went so far as to recuse his company, Suffolk Construction, from any Olympic contracts. When asked as to his reasoning, he responded that he didn’t need the money.

But for organisers in No Boston 2024 and No Boston Olympics, it was a dark day. Jacks recalls the moment grimly: “At that point, it got very serious.”

This is the first of a three-part series. You can read part two here.

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