The first half of City Awake’s 4th Annual Our Conference: Boston Forward left me with so much to think about, and the second half didn’t disappoint! Hearing Ayanna Pressley call for more vibrancy and soul in the city the day before she officially became the first woman of color to represent Massachusetts in Congress was a great way to kick off thinking about the future – both the next few hours and the next few years in Boston. My first session, “The Cost of the Commute: The Link Between Housing and Transportation in Greater Boston,” also left me thinking about the future and how Boston will need desirable places for workers to live, and desirable ways for them to move.
When asked about their outlook on this topic, the panelists from Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Mass Housing Partnership, and Boston Planning and Development Agency said they were excited to see an increased housing goal and a coalition formed, but there needs to be more urgency to meet these development goals. “You need to change people’s minds about what’s possible,” said a panelist, Kelly. And that might as well have been the theme of the day, week, and year… but it takes a village.
My second session was “Is Boston a Foodie City?” presented by Eater Boston. Heading into the conference, I was on the fence with my answer. I defend and support the incredible restaurants, chefs, and dining experiences Boston has to offer, but can you really be a foodie city when happy hour is outlawed? Panelists for this session were the executive chef of Toro, founder of Tatte, and founder of Bow Market. The panelists offered a glimpse into the Boston restaurant community’s mindset, and I felt the key takeaway was, “Is Boston a foodie city? Well, we consider ourselves one and we don’t care if you disagree” – which can’t really get more Boston than that.
Other key takeaways:
- Attention and accolades are great, but, “this is a business. Look at what’s working and what sticks.”
- “Media need to get over it and embrace what you have in Boston. Focus on what Boston does have, rather than what it doesn’t!”
- “You do what you do because you believe in it, not because you’re chasing the result.”
- “I didn’t start this to be famous or rich, I did it to build a life.”
- “You can’t open a restaurant and just expect people to come. It has to be meaningful.”
- “Like most businesses, you need to balance consistency with innovation.”
Fees and permits are sky high in Boston, which creates major barriers to entry, but once you get past that (easier said than done), the accessibility and community are what makes connecting with your consumers and others in the business possible – and unique. Unlike New York or LA, “you can get a meeting with anyone you want within 30 days” in Boston. I was impressed that all panelists felt it was their mission to offer full benefits, create career paths, minimize turnover, and build a family within their restaurants, and that’s the legacy they wanted to highlight – not debating awards they do or don’t deserve. They recommended Neptune Oyster, Pammy’s, Sarma, Little Donkey, Bar Mezzana, UNI and took the opportunity to ask the audience what we look for in a dining experience. Community in action.
My final session was “Peek Behind the Curtain: What Makes Boston a Unique, Exciting, and At Times Challenging Cultural Hub,” presented by ArtsBoston. Did you know that 5 million people attend major sporting events in Boston annually, but 18 million attend arts and cultural events throughout the year? Despite arts as a major economic driver in this region, there’s a disconnect between what’s being produced and those who are primed to consume it.
For artists, what sets Boston apart is its commitment to hiring local talent, the possibility of making a living as an actor (this is, of course, relative), and the community that’s created, which allows and encourages people to stay, instead of moving to New York or LA to find work. With so many students, an increasingly diverse and highly educated population, constant infusions of talent and “fringe” stories keep Boston changing. Boston also has a “percent for art,” which devotes funding to public art equal to 1 percent of the City’s annual budget.
Artists have brands and institutions have resources, they just need to try a little harder to collaborate. There are anchor institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Art, but “artists here have to stick together, it’s too small to be competitive” – which felt reminiscent of the previous session. Like my first session called out, zoning and capital are major problems affecting the arts as well, so organizations are finding creative ways to share space since we seem to be sharing everything else these days!
“Creating a community starts with being brave,” said Kate Gilbert, “Go somewhere you don’t normally go, go to a gallery by yourself, and just try it out.” If leadership (and funding) within the arts doesn’t reflect the faces of the city, then the work and stories told won’t reflect the faces of the city. If you don’t go support the arts, the arts will leave, and the city becomes soulless – and that isn’t an option. Here are some groups and venues to check out: Boston Center for the Arts, Lyric Stage, Boston Playwright’s Theatre, Hibernian Hall, or pick a company and follow them to a new place!
Boston may have the talent, price tag, and resources to match the biggest cities in the country, but at its core, its ability to create and inspire community is a differentiating factor that has the potential to shift almost every topic covered today…
While I would love to end this post on that rosy note, I need to point out Boston’s biggest strength can also be its greatest weakness. I observed these particular sessions, but there were 18 total sessions offered that discussed topics like Boston’s racial wealth divide, getting more Latinx on the ballot, helping build vibrant cities beyond Boston, building a statewide pro-housing movement, and more. There are so many voices to be heard and stories to be shared that are different than the ones we bring to the table ourselves or hear in our micro-community. No one expected to solve these issues in a half-day convention, but it doesn’t get better if there aren’t opportunities like this to start somewhere. Thanks, City Awake, for getting a couple hundred people in a room committed to helping drive Boston Forward for the 4th year in a row! Boston has made progress, but it takes a village, so be brave and try. After all, “you need to change people’s minds about what’s possible.“
Thank you to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and FleishmanHillard Boston for supporting my attendance.