Boston Braces For Dem Invasion

A worker adjusts some of the thousands of balloons, Tuesday, July 20, 2004, as they prepare to lift the balloons to the ceiling in the Fleet Center, the site for the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston. The Democratic Convention gets into full swing next week and workers are putting the final touches on the area.
By Jarrett Murphy, producer

Inside the Fleet Center, the Democratic National Convention will be a story of speeches, balloons, cheers and music. Outside on the streets of Boston, it will be a tale of subways, trashcans and asphalt.

The city is expecting around 35,000 people in town for the Democrats' four-day affair, a figure comprising delegates, officials and their aides, big donors, protesters and thousands of media personnel.

It's the first national political convention since the Sept. 11 attacks. And it's happening in a city that must accommodate the influx of outsiders while continuing to operate as a place where nearly 600,000 people live, and thousands more work.

That intersection of national exposure and local life is evident in the closing of Interstate 93, which runs past the Fleet Center, during convention hours. It's a key route through town but is being blocked off because of terrorism fears. Another instance of national-meets-local is the rush to solve a contract dispute between the city and its police officers that threatens to mar Boston's big week.

But while terrorism concerns and the labor spat will be part of the backdrop to the convention, much of Boston's preparation will go unnoticed by visitors or viewers. Some of it will, literally, be underfoot. City streets around the Fleet Center have undergone $2.7 million of work his year. Mayor Tom Menino's press secretary, Seth Gitell, says workers came in on weekends and used quick-drying asphalt to get the job done in time.

"The bulk of the work has had to be done prior to July 20 for Secret Service and other security reasons and that's completed," Gitell said.

While some parts of Boston's surface will be on display, others will be off-limits. Besides the closure of a 6-mile strip of I-93 during convention hours, the highway will be reduced to two lanes in other areas. Route 1, the Tobin Bridge, the Sumner Tunnel, the Leverett Connector and parts of Storrow and Memorial drives will also be affected.

Those changes don't just affect commuters; they also hit businesses and facilities nearby.

For example, Massachusetts General Hospital, located near the Fleet Center, had to figure out how to get staff and patients to and from their facilities amid the swarm of conventioneers. According to a statement, hospital administrators have advised departments to try to schedule ambulatory patients for appointments ending before 3 p.m., and to try to get employees out by then as well.

Changes like that are why the Beacon Hill Institute, a Suffolk University think tank, predicts the convention will cause a net economic loss of $8.2 million for the city. Convention organizers, on the other hand, have said the event will have a positive effect of $150 million.

The economic figures diverge over the impact of things like changes to Boston's subways and buses, which are fairly extensive. The city's North Station will be closed to commuter rail service. Orange and Green line trains won't stop at North Station, and both lines will suspend shuttle bus service that normally runs on parts of their routes. Extra buses and trains will operate, some ferry service will be suspended and bicycles won't be allowed on subways or trains.

Starting Friday, Boston's mass transit system will put 200 "ambassadors" on platforms and streets to answer questions and direct not only visitors, but also regular commuters confused by the convention service changes.

"We do feel that Friday, when North Station closes, we'll have some commuters that did not hear about North Station closing, so of course we want to prepared," Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority spokeswoman Lydia Rivera said. MBTA staff will work overtime when necessary and extra equipment is ready to roll. The partial closure of I-93 helps the MBTA because it allows express bus service to run on the highway.

A 17-year veteran of the transit agency, Rivera says the convention is not that different from other major events, but planning took "a little more of an effort due to the security enhancements that were necessary post-9/11."

Rivera notes that MBTA police will be visible at "core stations." What those officers do may be one of a number of legal controversies during convention week.

The MBTA has announced it will conduct "random security inspections of bags, parcels, and other carry-on items." The Massachusetts ACLU says random searches could be unconstitutional, and is collecting stories of people who are subjected to such searches "to analyze the methods used by MBTA police and, if necessary, to bring a legal challenge to those search methods."

The ACLU is already in court over the city's decision to deny a permit for a protest march in front of the Fleet Center, and it told the Boston Globe that it will ask a federal judge to expand the police-designated protest zone outside the Fleet Center, where concrete barriers and fencing will separate demonstrators from delegates.

According to the Boston Independent Media Center, convention protests are scheduled by groups ranging from United for Peace & Justice and International Act Now to Stop War and End Militarism to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and Billionaires for Bush.

But while police will patrol those demonstrations, off-duty cops could stage protests of their own.

The local patrolmen's union has been locked in a bitter contract dispute with the mayor over pay raises, and is threatening to picket convention-related events — even if an arbitration panel resolves the matter.

The union feels that the city has rushed the arbitration decision in order to avoid the spectacle of angry cops waving placards in front of TV cameras. The city argues that the officers' union is using the convention for leverage, and says security concerns demand that cops are not worn out trying to do their duty and man picket lines.

The police may not be tired, but people discussing the pre-convention preparations are starting to sound that way. With the outcome of the convention a fait accompli, Boston's preparations are an appealing story as the press gears up for the Democrats' gathering.

One spokesman was out of breath as he answered the phone. Another press aide, squeezed between phone calls, put it simply: "It's kind of crazy."

By Jarrett Murphy