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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Sunday Magazine June 20, 1999
With new money, new energy, and new attitudes, the "Buzztonians" are redefining the city.

What's new: a city abuzz

By Peter S. Canellos

snow globe
Jeff Hunt is coming to Boston. The city's newest immigrant will arrive by way of Route 95, his 10-speed bicycle carefully stacked along with the rest of his belongings in a Mayflower van. There will be no ship ride, no papers, no medical exam. His destination will be the Back Bay, where he will work not in heavy labor but behind a screen.

On stately Beacon Street, amid ''architectural gems that knock your socks off when you come from New York,'' he will begin a new life - newly married, with a new on-line business, a service aimed at helping small businesses ease their administrative burdens.

Jeff Hunt is the new face of Boston. If the story of the 20th century in Boston was one of ethnic immigrants gradually supplanting the Yankee fathers and then each other, in succession, as guardians of the city's faith and institutions, Jeff Hunt promises to write a new script for the 21st.

To be sure, the traditional immigration march is still being made in Jamaica Plain's Hyde Square, in south Roslindale, and along Dorchester Avenue, where new Vietnamese restaurants pop up every month, like exotic blossoms pushing through the pavement between stolid old pubs like the Harp & Bard or Ned Kelly's. Waves of new Bostonians still come from afar, hoping to follow the tracks worn by the Irish, Italians, Lithuanians, and others as they rose to prominence.

But in the new Boston, with universities and hospitals supplanting mills and fisheries as the city's economic engine, fewer migrations begin on turbulent seas - and more on the smooth highways and runways of the new service economy.

Since 1980, Boston's population has swelled by about 70,000, according to city estimates. In the next 10 years, the rate of growth will be even faster; the Massachusetts Institute for Social and Economic Research projects a further increase of 80,000 by 2010. Many, if not most, will be like Hunt, well-educated people with professional aspirations.

They may not have a lot of money - yet - but they already carry the educational equipment to make money, and they yearn for instant success.

And there is another important difference between today's new arrivals and those of the past, in the eyes of policy makers and historians: Few of these new Bostonians come planning to spend the rest of their lives here. They are drawn to career opportunities and an appealing lifestyle but would exchange their Boston cup of chowder for a Texas bowl of chili for the right offer.

''My daughter just bought her seventh home,'' muses Boston historian Thomas O'Connor. ''She was in Louisiana, she was in Houston, Texas, and now she just moved to Phoenix.''

No one was raised as more of a Bostonian than O'Connor's daughter, her father avers; but in the fluid economy of the '90s, she's inclined to go with the flow. At 43, she moves to the rhythms of the business world, organizing training seminars for a chain of corporations.

''In our generation,'' chuckles O'Connor, 75, author of histories of Boston and the Boston Irish, ''we were lucky to go from South Boston to Dorchester.''

But while new Bostonians are more tran sient, they aren't necessarily careless about where they live; to them, Boston is much more than just another Comfort Inn on the corporate highway.

The city lures upscale workers from other places like a specialty food market drawing customers away from conventional grocery stores. Its waterfront setting, its intellectual infrastructure, the sense that important events occurred here, the colorful pieces of the city's ethnic pastiche - all contribute to an atmosphere of distinction that fits well and stays in style, like a Brooks Brothers suit.

Still, the Boston of the new Bostonians isn't simply a repackaged version of the old Beacon Hill brand - the Boston that always seemed to gaze at the rest of the world from the cozy confines of a Victorian wing chair. Today's new Bostonians, mostly born outside the city and even outside New England, aren't factors in any old equations.

And their growing numbers and expanding reach portend a new dynamic for the city in the next millennium, one that gradually will transform all Boston's neighborhoods and institutions.

Back in the '80s, when young professionals surged to the Back Bay and South End, other neighborhoods remained much as they were in previous decades - the home of long-term residents, divided somewhat along racial and ethnic lines, but nonetheless nursing some of the same grievances about being stuck in the backwash of the Massachusetts Miracle.

That miracle, built of straw, collapsed. But now, with crime in all neighborhoods down by stunning amounts compared with the '80s, and city services improving, many neighborhoods are girding for an influx.

Already, many of the promises and predicaments of migration are being felt in many long-settled residential areas.

In Jamaica Plain, Mary's bowling alley, a neighborhood lair for seven decades, has been reborn as the Milky Way Lounge and Lanes, featuring rock bands from around the country and a Saturday Latino dance party frequented by that notable new Bostonian Pedro Martinez.

Developers are seeing potential Beacon Hills on every hill in the city: In Roxbury's Fort Hill, middle-class black families are seeking to revise wills and trusts to shield their homes of generations from redevelopment; on Bunker Hill in Charlestown, white working-class widows hold on to their row houses as emblems of a simpler past.

Recently, City Council President James Kelly, who has long vowed to protect his native South Boston from any foreign influences, has been promoting an ordinance against French doors and Italianate roof decks.

In today's Boston, where political leaders follow the gospel that newcomers don't vote in nearly the same numbers as older residents, resistance to change can be a powerful platform.

''Boston's politics are being run by a minority of the population who are, one: old; two: Irish Catholic; and three: from certain neighborhoods,'' declares O'Connor. ''And they'll go in and elect a City Council that's all Irish and Italian.''

The arguments favoring controlled growth over rampant development, and against the quick turnover of neighborhoods, are compelling beyond any particular political equation; but O'Connor, for one, believes that those who push too hard against change will one day be swallowed up, once new Bostonians find an issue to draw them to the polls. And the old political paradigms, forged during the grass-roots battles against the expansion of nearby institutions in the late '60s and the convulsions of the busing era, will gradually fade away.

Even as the demands of the fast-changing economy have touched off a new round of grass-roots battles - against a new runway at Logan Airport and waterfront condominiums in South Boston - they threaten to make such disputes obsolete. With lifetime jobs in stable companies a vestige of an earlier era, residents simply won't stay in one place long enough to put down the kind of turf roots worth fighting over.

Instead of battles over physical space - the ''common ground'' of J. Anthony Lukas - the new economy will breed battles over forging common ideas.

Even today, a successful mutual-fund manager has no purely economic reason to locate in Boston as opposed to, say, Austin, Texas. In future decades, there will be no native distinction between Boston and Austin, anyway - both will be peopled largely by those who grew up elsewhere and chose to move in. The choice will come down to which city appeals to the intangible desires of the fund manager: A yen for Southern rock and late-night live music on balmy porches argues for Austin; a love of open-air baseball, in an urban block redolent of history, argues for Boston.

Fears that the transient yuppies of tomorrow will turn all cities into blurry Xeroxes of one another probably aren't realistic; as places compete to lure educated workers, distinctiveness will become a value all its own.

But determining what will make Boston distinctive in the future, and how its history will inform its new values, will be the product of decades of interface between Bostonians of today and succeeding waves of Bostonians coming ashore.

Jeff Hunt, for one, is looking forward to becoming a Bostonian with the zeal of the converted. After all, he chose the city. He doesn't have a position on the Logan runway expansion and isn't likely to develop one soon. But as he looks forward to life in his refurbished apartment on Beacon Street, he is eager to add his own values to Boston's mix of appeals.

An avid cyclist, he has already hooked up with a friend who is leading a campaign for bicycle access; he projects himself as a soldier in the movement for cyclists' rights.

A classical-music enthusiast, he headed a group called Young New Yorkers for the Philharmonic and wants to locate a similar group here. At age 34, he figures he's looking at ''a three- or four-year horizon,'' a relatively long commitment for a new Bostonian. If he likes the city, he'll stay. If not, he'll move on.

He doesn't know the mayor or even which city councilor represents the Back Bay. But when the need arises, he will.

''I have a very open mind and an open agenda,'' he says. ''I want to figure out who these people are and what they stand for.''


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