Editorial: Olympics is making us spectators, not citizens

The past week has seen a striking juxtaposition of discussions about the future of Franklin Park.

Mayor Walsh flew to California to tout a Boston Olympics bid that Boston 2024 assures us would be a boon to the park—after it is used as an arena for the competitions of millionaires’ horses.

Meanwhile, Franklin Park advocates could not get the City’s parks commissioner to attend a one-hour walk to look at some of the historic park’s basic, unglamorous maintenance needs.

These images do not create a simplistic cartoon of an administration uninterested in the parks; that’s not the case. Rather, the Olympics are underscoring worrying trends not only in Boston, but all major cities: establishing spectacles and monuments rather than sustainable, humane infrastructure, and the increasing privatization and commercialization of public spaces.

We have warned of this before in low-stakes situations. Hubway bikes and commercial-logo water fountains can be welcome amenities, but who decides if, where and how they suddenly pop up in public streets and parks? Is it really a public space anymore? It puts us onto a dangerous path of viewing ourselves as passive recipients of corporate gifts, not as active participants in creating a common good.

These questions rise to city-changing—even life-changing—significance at the Olympics scale. With its entirely secret bid plotted around several venues it does not own, Boston 2024 has already rendered the Boston public into a society of spectators, not citizens.

Government goes along with this for many reasons, surely including campaign donations and lobbying. But perhaps worst is an impatience with democracy and a lack of faith in the public. Tones of this already appear in Olympics rationales, and in official dismissals of public skepticism. “The public won’t vote for a gas tax hike for the T? Fine, we’ll get a team of megacorporations and royalty to steamroll everything through.”

Any pros and cons aside, it is incredibly rude to peg a public park as a venue without telling—indeed, while actively shutting out—any of its local advocates or neighbors. Boston 2024 is a committee of giant corporations and institutions, and it tells us something disturbing about how they feel entitled to public space.

Even if the Olympics worked wonders on Franklin Park, and all of the Games’ inherent downsides were deemed worth it, the question of sustenance and maintenance remains. The Parks budget is ludicrously shrunken now; how would we keep up an even better park? As Boston gets richer, as it gives more tax breaks to giant corporations, as condos sell for millions, the Parks budget somehow shrinks. And now, the neglected conditions of the parks becomes an excuse for even more corporate takeover.

Two fundamental Olympics problems—lack of transparency and accountability—are now controversial. But worse are the vast inequalities in who benefits financially. The one guarantee of an Olympics in Franklin Park is that private multinational companies would occupy a park and make millions in profit from it.

What would the park and public get? A dice roll and a bunch of promises dependent on the aforementioned priority.

With or without a Boston Olympics, secret privatization deals and deplorable maintenance budgets will remain issues for Boston’s public spaces. We need more public engagement and control, not a reliance on surprises from private interests with ulterior motives—and certainly not the disdain for honest questions that has marred the Olympics bid even for some of its supporters.

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