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Globe Editorial

World class, or just crass?

October 23, 2008
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WHAT MAKES a city great? A tower of wealth, such as a new luxury hotel and residential complex on Boylston Street? Or safe neighborhoods, extraordinary public schools, and a wealth of housing and job opportunities for all? Boston is home both to great affluence and to many who barely scrape by, and the debut earlier this month of the $300 million Mandarin Oriental shone further light on the disparity.

Promoters of the new complex say the ability to give the rich the imported tile bathtubs they crave proves that Boston is now big-time. "We're right in there with the major cities of the world," developer Robin A. Brown said in a Globe article. Mayor Menino chimed in: "It sends a message that Boston is alive and well and we want to compete with the cities of the world. This is part of the whole future."

And in fact, the completion of the Mandarin does show faith in Boston's economic vitality. The project gave jobs to those who built it and represents future employment for those who serve its wealthy clientele.

But this is housing for those who can afford condos costing $2 million to $14 million. Beyond these fancy digs, plenty stands between Boston and greatness. As the income gap between rich and poor grows, so does a parallel gap in quality of life.

Over the past weekend, three children playing outside a Roxbury housing complex were hit when a gunman sprayed them with bullets. They suffered nonfatal injuries at a location that is known as a hot spot for gang violence. On Oct. 4, street violence encroached on Downtown Crossing. Two men were stabbed and someone opened fire during an altercation that created chaos in the heart of the city's retail district.

Meanwhile, high housing costs are driving young workers and families out of the city, to Massachusetts exurbs and beyond. Because of declining student enrollment, the city recently announced plans to save money by closing five elementary schools.

The Boston Foundation, which tracks what it calls "Boston's Indicators of Progress, Change and Sustainability," calls the city "a study in contrasts." There's much to celebrate: the completion of the Big Dig, a cultural revival symbolized by the new Institute of Contemporary Art, and the strength of the city's nonprofit community.

But the foundation also notes that Greater Boston and the state face serious challenges that will require "extraordinary collaborative efforts."

Collaboration produced a world-class hotel and condo complex for the super-rich. It would be truly great if it could also produce a world-class city for everyone else.

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