BostonNow, and next: A city’s API

Politics has a kind of magic to it; some man or woman emerges on a dais and makes pronouncements and they come to life. At least, these pronouncements get talked about as if they were alive, or could be, if the politician has the right kind of magic and can get other people to follow along.
I was on the 5th floor of Boston City Hall one night last week, examining the Vermeerish trappings of Boston’s mayoral bureaucracy, the large desks, the high ceilings, the pictures and maps on the wall, the statue of the eagle that once graced City Hall, back before the hall of power became a transparent testament to the bare-knuckles nature of the city’s politics. I was there for a meeting of BostonNow, a quasi grassroots organization aiming to channel energy from the great Boston software tax revolt of 2013 into an ongoing force in Massachusetts politics.
I’m interested in how ideas come to life, but I haven’t written much about political life and politicians. I’d never been to the 5th floor of Boston City Hall, was late due to delays on the T, and could not figure out where I was supposed to go for the meeting. Councilor Ayanna Pressley came sweeping along, also late for the meeting, and led me and a couple of other strays to where we needed to go.

The speakers were from, a Mark Zuckerberg/Bill Gates-backed group pushing for immigration reform, and the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, a Tom Menino creation that has received praise for its creative use of technology (I wrote about it in Five Steps to Digitally Transforming City Government). New Mayor Marty Walsh kept the Urban Mechanics intact, and appears to be backing an expansion of its efforts (it is best known for fostering Citizens Connect, an app to report potholes and other city problems).

Walsh himself entered the room at 6:46 p.m., 46 minutes after the event started, and 20 minutes after Pressley left.  He told the 40 or so people in the room, many of them young entrepreneurs, that he wanted to make Boston a better city for them, with better schools that produced better workers, a way to keep the highly educated immigrants coming out of the region’s universities (an obvious nod to and with rents that were more in keeping with the budgets of scrappy startups than the $50 plus per square foot in the Innovation District. He asked for their help; “you’re the leaders in a lot of ways,” he said. And after four minutes, he went off to a ward to do “some political stuff.”

The ritual is fascinating: people like Pressley and Walsh have to be in multiple places at the same time, and their schedules become rigidly choreographed so they can pull off this sleight-of-hand (more political magic). Sycophants show up to be seen, and the especially desperate will leap up and walk the politician to their car if they can (one man did that with Walsh). I liked that Walsh spoke without notes and without stumbles. Four minutes sounds short, but it is more than enough time to look out of touch, or worse. Walsh did not.
I think of politicians in modern America as having a heroin-like relationship with money, but I didn’t actually sense this in listening to Walsh or the New Urban Mechanics. Nigel Jacobs, one of the co-directors of the Mechanics, said their job was to be “the risk aggregators” for innovative ideas, crossing the barriers of the various city departments to bring new civic innovation to life. What they wanted from the entrepreneurs present was ideas, and a little digital elbow grease.

The New Urban Mechanics are, in effect, an API for the city.  That’s a twist on politics.
For another look at the evening, here’s BostInno’s piece on the event. 

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