I first met Bob O’Brien, the retiring executive director of the Downtown North Association, when he showed up, uninvited, in 1990, to a meeting of the what we called the Cambridge Street Study Committee—“study” because we didn’t want anyone to think we were actually going to do anything. You know how people fear change.
Bob suggested that we redo Cambridge Street—straighten it, plant it, unify it. So we did. Somehow it got on a list of capital projects. It got funded. It took years, but finally it got reconstructed, and it looks pretty good now. All because Bob had a good idea.
After I got to know him, I realized this is how Bob operates. He pays attention to what’s going on in Boston. He represents the interests of Downtown North, but he also promotes the welfare of the whole city. He participates, invited or not. He has good ideas, so people welcome his participation. His written comments can be a bit wordy, but so what. He gets them in and on time.
But he’s a lot more than that. He grew up in northern New Jersey, the oldest of six kids. He came to Boston in 1960 to attend Boston College. “That’s where I met my wife of 49 years,” he says proudly. His wife, Annette, who hails from East Boston, is no slouch either. She was president of her senior class in college, a nurse, a naval officer, a business woman, a director of non-profits. You get the idea that someone should be writing about her, but this is not the place for her biography.
Bob and Annette had four daughters, who now live in Pennsylvania, and six grandchildren. Meanwhile, Bob got an MBA from Columbia and went to work for Xerox as manager of financial planning. But, caught up in the conscience questioning of the 1960s, he left the corporate world and earned a degree from the Harvard Divinity School.
Afterward he meshed his business side and his proclivity toward social action by leading various community service agencies—deputy director of the Kennedy Center in Charlestown and later the founder/manager of the Charlestown Economic Development Corporation. “This was the period of busing,” he said. “It was a contentious time and provided an introduction to politics at the neighborhood and city level that was invaluable.”
He was then appointed by Governor King as executive secretary of the Massachusetts Consumer Council, later becoming director of the North End Union, a social service agency whose work got him involved in Central Artery planning. In 1989, he was hired as the executive director of the Downtown North Association.
Some players have regretted the name of that area, bestowed by Kevin White, between City Hall and the river, with its edges at Beacon Hill and the North End. At the time, White couldn’t call it the West End, since those who had been moved out considered that name theirs.
The Downtown North Association is perhaps like no other neighborhood association in its diversity. Its members are big businesses—Delaware North—small retailers, architects, real estate brokers, hospitals, government agencies, real estate developers, doctors, condominium associations and residents.
Bob’s early concern was whether the West End, which he now identifies as the former Charles River Park, North Station and the Bulfinch Triangle, would survive the Central Artery construction. In the beginning, many ramps to the surface were planned. We’ve seen how hard it is to build on the ramps and how much space they remove from the Greenway. Because of Bob’s work and that of others, only three ramps were eventually built, and Downtown North has benefitted, with several developments of new housing built where the Central Artery once loomed.
His other effort has been to improve the quality of life in that neighborhood, which has been growing fast. A new elementary school is scheduled across Washington Street. Bob hopes a new supermarket will also materialize.
The O’Briens first lived in houses in East Boston, then Winthrop, but since have preferred multi-family housing—Longfellow Place, Harbor Towers, and now Surfside Lofts in Revere. For a time Bob commuted to Boston from a converted stone barn in Pennsylvania, where he and Annette lived while helping a daughter care for an ill child, their grandson, who eventually died. Bob’s loving and articulate tribute to that little boy, which he sent around to his “list,” made one think perhaps he should have become the pastor divinity school must have been training him for.
So now you know about the list. Bob keeps emails—it must be hundreds—to which he daily sends articles gleaned from both popular and obscure sources about architecture, city planning, real estate development, transportation—topics that city nerds love. It’s invaluable to those of us on the list, but he’s giving it up along with his day job.
He plans to do consulting, spend time with his daughters and their families, hole up in Stuart, Florida, during the bad season and still spend time in Boston, although not as much.
With a new mayor and a completed Greenway, Bob says now is a good time for the Downtown North Association to bring on a new director.
He may not be the most famous person in Boston, but Bob is what you’d want every Bostonian to be—a good citizen, a likable man, with the interests of the city at heart.
Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com.