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By now I’m sure everyone has noticed that we’ve rolled out a boatload of new initiatives this past spring and summer. Our city’s ever-expanding agenda includes: strategies for transit-oriented development in Union Square; Phase One construction at Assembly Square; a proposal for a new Central Library; a call for a Community Preservation Act ballot proposal; the staffing and rollout of the SomerPromise youth development program; the East Broadway streetscape development; new parks; an urban agriculture ordinance, the arrival of the Hubway bike-sharing program, the soon-to-be public online Socrata data portal and much, much more.
It’s a lot to take in. It’s a lot to get done. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in nearly twenty years as an elected official, it’s that there’s no such thing as standing pat. The minute we stop dreaming big dreams is the minute we start to decline. The second we stop our constant, full-out push for community improvement is the second we start sliding backwards into mediocrity and decay.
This week – at the request of the Obama campaign – I spent time down in Tampa, the host city for the Republican Convention, where I worked with other Democratic leaders to help spread the word about the small-mindedness and negativity of the Romney vision for America. As the GOP convention rolls on, speaker after speaker talks about the “greatness” of America – the idea that the United States was divinely established to be the most significant and virtuous nation in the history of the world. It’s all very inspiring until you realize that, as far as the Republicans are concerned, American greatness doesn’t have anything to do with dreaming shared dreams, making plans together, investing together and sacrificing together to build a shared future. (Apparently, American greatness is all about making taxes for rich people even lower than they were in Ronald Reagan’s day, cutting social safety net programs like Medicare and food stamps and telling women exactly what they can or can’t do with their own bodies. But I digress.)
My point is that no nation, no state, no community can truly call itself “great” unless it makes big plans and big investments, dreams big dreams and strives constantly to improve. Either you go big or you go home.
It’s true that Somerville has always had to fight hard for everything it gets, and that the struggle can be exhausting. But that doesn’t mean we should ever give up – or even slow down. There’s too much at stake. The rewards for determined effort are too great. So are the costs and penalties of inaction.
I won’t deny that this level of economic and policy innovation puts a big strain on community resources of all kinds; energy, time and money. But I would argue – and I think Somerville’s recent history bears me out – that it also generates new resources. Here’s a case in point: Because we’ve made capital investments, created rainy-day funds, and committed to improvements in basic infrastructure, in schools and recreational facilities, our bond rating has improved. Our access to funds has increased and our borrowing costs have gone down. We’ve attracted new private investment and our commercial tax base has expanded.
Somerville benefits greatly from its proximity to outstanding universities and to downtown Boston. We have a young, well-educated, highly employable workforce. We have an energetic business community that works hard to support economic growth. We have administrations in Washington and Beacon Hill that get what we’re trying to do and have provided tremendous support. We have energetic legislative delegations at the state and federal levels. There are many reasons for our recent success, and many people deserve credit.
But we’ve earned that support by being active, by moving forward, by embracing new opportunities and mastering new challenges wherever we find them.
There were plenty of doubters when we embarked on SomerStat, on 311, and on the rebuilding of our schools and public safety services. There were plenty of doubters on Assembly Square. (To be fair, there are still plenty of doubters on Assembly Square.) There are going to be skeptics and doubters on our current round of initiatives. We need to listen to them and to respond to their legitimate concerns – but we cannot let them drag us down.
My trip to the GOP convention has left me pondering the question of how any community, large or small, achieves “greatness.” One of the unquestioned moments of American greatness was our nation’s race to the moon in the 1960s – an extraordinary collective achievement of spirit, vision, investment and will. In starting that race, President Kennedy declared almost exactly 50 years ago that “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
That’s the spirit that makes America exceptional. Here in Somerville, we embrace that same spirit with confidence and resolve: we will go right on dreaming shared dreams, making plans together, investing together and sacrificing together to build a shared future. And we intend to win.