The Great Recession Through an Economist’s Walk to Work


Editor’s note: Harvard economist Richard Freeman recently sent us a fascinating slide show he’d created of empty storefronts around the Boston area. We liked it so much that Paul sat down with Freeman a few days ago for an audio tour through the photos.

Freeman recently wrote a short post about why he produced the slide show in the first place. It’s a fascinating window into our current recession — especially because, as Freeman notes below, he works at the National Bureau of Economic Research, which declares when the United States enters and exits a recession.

Richard Freeman: Why pictures of empty storefronts? It’s simple. Every day, weather permitting, I walk to work. I go from one of the wealthier parts of the Boston area – Coolidge Corner [in] Brookline, Mass., (birthplace of JFK, home to many doctors, professors, and other upper-income folk) through Allston (a less well-to-do neighborhood) to my offices at NBER near Harvard Square, home of the world’s wealthiest university. NBER is the economic think tank that declares when the US is in recession and when it is in recovery and boom.

This winter and spring as I walked I noticed something that I had never seen before in all the years I have worked at Harvard and NBER. Every week or so I would notice another empty store. Sometimes there would be two or three stores in succession with for rent signs. Sometimes just one store surrounded by stores with signs proclaiming sales. Often one side of the street would have the empty stores and the other would not, perhaps by chance, perhaps for some reason. I began counting … 1,2, … 7. The numbers got higher as the months went on. The Great Recession seen daily through one person’s walk to work….

When people ask me, how is Boston doing, I do not give them the standard economic figures: unemployment is about the national average, the housing market is nowhere near as bad as in some other parts of the country, etc. Instead I tell them about the empty store fronts along major shopping streets.

When people ask me, how is Harvard doing, I do not tell them the latest scoop on Professor Gates vs the Cambridge police. Instead I tell them about the empty store fronts in the Harvard Square area.

Freeman invites others to add photos of empty stores in your neighborhood. We second the call.