How Boston Kicked Out the Olympics

Activists defeated the Boston Olympics bid by doing what its proponents refused to: going to the people.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (right) during an October 2014 event held to generate public interest in a 2024 Olympics bid for Boston. Steven Senne / AP

An eight-lane highway does not a good neighbor make. On a Saturday in January 1969, thousands gathered on Boston Common to emphasize that point with the cry of “People before highways!” They were referring to the Southwest Expressway, which was slated to cut through the Roxbury and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods in Boston and displace more than 7,000 people from their homes.

Today in Jamaica Plain, there is a narrow park that stretches along eight stations of the Orange Line subway, built on land cleared for the expressway, and every May, a festival celebrates the community’s legacy of activism and defeat of the highway.

As it happens, a velodrome does not make for a great neighbor, either. So nearly fifty years later, amid record-breaking snowfall and bone-chilling temperatures, hundreds of Bostonians gathered across the street from the Common for a public meeting at Suffolk University, with an updated message: people before Olympics.

On July 27 — just days after the last remnants of winter had finally melted — three things happened in quick succession: Boston Mayor Marty Walsh refused to sign the host city contract that would put taxpayers on the line for Olympic debts, and told reporters that the opposition to the Olympic bid, which got more media attention than anything else during his mayorship, was “about ten people on Twitter.” Then the US Olympic Committee (USCOC) pulled Boston from the running.

Walsh explained that the costs outweighed the perceived benefits, and that “our citizens were rightly hesitant to be supportive.” By hesitant, he must have meant months of work by groups ranging from the patrician to the fringe and large numbers of residents who protested, attended public meetings, debated, organized events, wrote letters, made phone calls, and quite literally woke the mayor up to the dangers of the Olympics.

The day that Boston was chosen by the USOC as its bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics, the fiancée of a Boston city councilor tweeted her excitement about the announcement, and her scorn that “all you no-fun Negative Nancies will be whining louder than ever.”

Those “negative nancies” would end up as members of the groups No Boston 2024 and No Boston Olympics, as well as much of the local media, politicians around the state, and economists around the world who spent the months between that January announcement and its July finale relentlessly challenging the USOC’s promises, dissecting bid documents, and investigating into involvement on the part of the city’s elected officials.

As rumors of a bid became a reality last November, a group of area residents connected through Twitter and formed No Boston 2024. They began to meet, focusing their attention on the lack of transparency and disregard for public opinion throughout the bid process. By the time the January meeting at Suffolk University rolled around — a meeting held after Walsh flew to Los Angeles to present a bid that hadn’t yet been released to his constituents — No Boston 2024 was already in the thick of it.

When the Suffolk meeting attendees walked in, they were handed signs provided by No Boston 2024. Consequently photographs from the event feature black-and-white placards asking for better transit, housing, and education instead of an Olympics that residents didn’t ask for, and, according to polls taken over the course of the winter months, increasingly didn’t want.

The bid was dreamed up by a team led by John Fish, the multi-millionaire CEO of Suffolk Construction Company, as the private entity Boston 2024. This group of executives created a bid that depicted a redeveloped city, outlining an Olympics with venues everywhere from public parks to private universities.

No public opinion was considered and the city’s residents weren’t consulted, yet Walsh lent implicit and explicit support to the bid. Only a year after Boston had elected him mayor based on his promises of a better city, he seemed to be giving the keys to the city away. Boston 2024 existed as a private entity, but the mayor’s chief of staff was engaged to its vice president of international strategy, and in February Walsh’s former chief of operations, Joseph Rull, left city government to become Boston 2024’s chief administrative officer.

In one of the documents that Fish’s staff prepared for the bid, a booklet of brightly colored stock athletic photos detailing the overall concept for the Games, the word “legacy” is used nineteen times. The Olympics were to leave, respectively, “a legacy for the athletes,” “a legacy for the Olympic movement,” and “a legacy for the community.”

A public meeting in early March provided a look at what that legacy might actually entail. Arranged by the Franklin Park Coalition and the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, the meeting was called to address Boston 2024’s proposed use of Franklin Park. At 527 acres, Franklin Park is the largest park in Boston, and houses a public golf course, a zoo, and a football stadium used primarily by Boston Public School students — yet no local groups were consulted before the park was proposed as a site for equestrian events and a pentathlon.

Boston 2024 executives extolled the positive legacy that Olympic construction in the park would leave, including a pool, the maintenance of which would be funded from leftover Olympic money. When reporters from the Jamaica Plain Gazette asked what would happen if there weren’t any leftover funds, an executive said he would answer the question in private after the meeting.

“The real legacy that Olympics have left behind in cities has been crippling public debt, crumbling venues that blight the landscape, displacement of low-income and marginalized communities, and more intrusive surveillance technologies,” No Boston 2024 explained in an interview. As for fears of a municipal shadow government, the group added that “the legacy of the Olympics will also be an erosion of democracy, as public decisions are being outsourced to a private entity run by corporate lobbyists and CEOs.”

That democracy-eroding influence would reach all the way to the state’s elected officials: in the full bid book, which was only exposed to the public eye after a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Boston magazine, Boston 2024 wrote that it was anticipating “proposal of Olympic legislation that would facilitate permitting and entitlement” — an assumption that the cities named in the bid would be quick to support it, despite the huge amount of money and work that the bid called for and the opacity of the committee’s plans.

The bid book also revealed that, despite months of Boston 2024 insisting that the Games would be privately financed, taxpayer money had indeed been factored into the equation in a number of ways, prompting outcry from everyone from talk radio hosts to Elizabeth Warren, and proving what anti-Olympics organizers around the work have known for decades: in the end, the financial burden falls on the host city’s residents, often people who don’t benefit or didn’t want the Olympics in the first place.

And, as Montreal, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, and every other host in the last half-century of Olympics has shown, the development that comes with the Olympics lends itself to corruption, worker abuse, displacement, and diversion of public funds: in short, urban renewal on steroids.

Which brings us back to Boston Common in 1969. People Before Highways was not just a group of “negative nancies,” nor was it mere whining. Beginning in the 1950s, Boston — in the hands of Mayors John Hynes and John Collins, thirsting, like Walsh, for a “world-class city” — underwent significant change. First, a community called New York Streets close to today’s downtown was cleared of residents in order to open land for development. (Years later, the Boston Herald-Traveler offices were built on the site; the area is now being developed for luxury condominiums and apartments.)

Next on the urban renewal list was the West End, where despite protests against the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s plan, nearly 7,000 residents were evicted to make way for a residential complex that stands where a neighborhood had once been.

The attempt to create the “New Boston” was repeated in Charlestown and Allston, while residents began to organize, protest, and resist the plans imposed upon them. The redevelopment of Boston seemed to be dismantling communities to make way for more expensive housing and commercial property. It also involved consolidation of land ownership, as evidenced by the liberal application of eminent domain.

Since the late 1940s, I-95 and its Boston-area Inner Belt had been discussed by the Massachusetts Department of Public Works. By the late 1960s, Cambridge activists were fighting the entire idea of the Inner Belt — which would allow drivers to go around Boston rather than through the city — and began to talk to Jamaica Plain residents, who would have a portion of the highway going through their neighborhood.

Boston Globe reporter Alan Lupo wrote in Rites of Way: The Politics of Transportation in Boston and the US City that “the attitude toward highway opponents was often that of the man being pestered by flies. They were bothersome, and they held up the works. But the works were inevitable.” It was a state project funded with federal money, supported by powerful political forces, on which preliminary construction had begun — how could a group of residents succeed in pushing back?

They succeeded by forming coalitions of suburban and inner-city residents to hold authorities accountable and find a unified message, despite disagreements over tactics and allies. It helped that community organizing was strong at the time, and that anti-highway protesters had recent, visible fights to inspire them.

Anti-highway activists saw that by explaining to residents how their lives would be impacted by a project without using vague developer-speak, they could mobilize a population. They showed photographs of other communities physically divided by elevated highways, formed a group to study the proposal, and advocated on behalf of people losing their homes to Department of Public Works bulldozers.

They made their work visible, holding rallies in front of the State House and painting an iconic billboard protesting the project, all the while collecting support from concerned residents and elected officials in the small suburban communities that were less discussed but just as key to the highway’s route. Anti-highway activists saw the project as one that could unite diverse interests and voting blocs, from inner-city career activists to stay-at-home moms in quiet suburbs — a reality that scared state politicians into listening to the coalition.

Boston is among the most segregated cities in the US, so it takes a special urgency to unite it in citywide activism. MIT professor Langley Keyes once said of this mobilization that “there had never been anything in Boston like the citywide engagement of citizens that took place because of urban renewal — at least not for two hundred years.” The broad resistance to Boston 2024 has proved itself to be the second chapter in that mobilization.

Jim Vrabel, a historian of Boston social movements, said in an interview that the Olympics bid’s use of venues and spaces around the Boston area was “a great thing for activists,” as it provided “an opportunity to build coalitions among the different neighborhoods and even beyond Boston.”

While Boston was the name on the bid, plans included Somerville (velodrome), Foxborough (soccer), Brookline (golf), and Lowell (boxing). “I think there is a real parallel to building those coalitions, not just in Boston. What people should look at People Before Highways for is to see a model of coalition building,” Vrabel explained.

“Most people tend to organize in their own communities,” No Boston 2024 said. “But opposing the Olympics seems to be a cause that’s uniting diverse groups with a variety of causes from neighborhoods and communities all over the city and beyond.”

Pressure mounted as community groups and elected officials both in and outside of the city joined the fight, and groups with different viewpoints on the downsides of the Olympics recognized their place in the struggle: where Black Lives Matter Boston and the ACLU discussed the repercussions of heightened securitization during the Games, housing activists explained how the Olympics would drain resources and displace residents, and community outlets decried the construction and redevelopment projects that would be in their backyards.

The social media accounts of No Boston 2024 focused largely on the follies of Boston 2024 as an organization — conflicts of interest, poor planning, and lack of transparency — while others were concerned with the use of their neighborhood, the taxpayer cost, and the lack of diversity on Boston 2024’s staff.

Even without an Olympics, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city is close to $2,000, without enough affordable housing to meet demand; the mass transit system is falling apart, and 21 percent of Boston’s population lives in poverty. There’s no shortage of struggles to engage in, and the unity of so many parties with the common goal of protecting and improving Boston gives them a fighting chance.

The International Olympic Committee won’t choose a host city until the summer of 2017, by which time we will have seen Rio’s Olympics come and go, and will be watching still more cities vie for the chance to incur debt and destruction for the 2026 Winter Games. Boston was spared the Games because the bid fell apart under the watchful eyes of communities organized to protect themselves and their neighbors.

But the neoliberal rhetoric that the USOC relies on — that our cities should develop in the name of profit instead of serving residents — will not be forgotten. To challenge that, we must continue to organize and put the people before highways, before the Olympics, and before whatever they come up with next.