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Politics

Menino’s legacy

Boston’s urban mechanic mayor moves on

He wound a path to power through countless backyard barbecues, old-fashioned bakeries, and neighborhood block parties, making him an uncommonly intimate figure in a time when urban politics and American cities have become anything but.

And when Thomas M. Menino grasped power, he did it like nobody else. He held it longer. He wielded it more forcefully. And he used it to orchestrate every last detail of the city — from the top of a tower in the Back Bay to a rattling pothole in Roslindale, at once an urban mechanic and something of a downtown monarch.

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His laser-like focus on street-level minutiae provoked frequent criticism that he lacked a broader vision for a city forever trying to position itself as a world-class metropolis. But through countless disparate acts — new libraries, endless ribbon-cuttings, reclaimed parks — a new city emerged, one with a notably different look and an attitude less burdened by the darker chapters of its past.

“Sometimes we get caught up in the grandiose,” he said in 1994, shortly after taking office. “My vision is jobs, a better school system, community policing, health care. When I leave this job, I want the city to be in better shape than when I took it over.”

With his mangled syntax and swallowed words that made him an easy target for mockery, Menino seemed an unusual fit for a highly educated city. He did not get his college degree until he was 45 and entered a program that awarded him credit for his “life experience” as a city councilor.

None of it hurt his political standing or popularity. It may have actually helped, all of it adding to the image of a man who boasted he was “no fancy talker,” but would “get the job done.”

“I’m not good looking. I can’t speak well. I’m not smart. I’m driven,’’ he once said. “I have the opportunity to change people’s lives.’’

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Famously thin-skinned and a notorious micromanager, he delved with relish into the greasy machinery of city government, obsessing over blown street lights, jagged potholes, and unplowed streets with an intensity that reflected his schooling as a neighborhood city councilor.

Thomas M. Menino led a big push to clean up the Hendry Street area in Dorchester.

John Tlumacki(/globe staff/file 2008

Thomas M. Menino led a big push to clean up the Hendry Street area in Dorchester.

“Visionaries don’t get things done,” Menino once said.

After Kevin H. White churned out urban policy experiments and sought to raise Boston’s profile in the 1970s, and Raymond L. Flynn worked to heal racial wounds in the 1980s, Menino eschewed lofty goals in favor of brass tacks.

By dedicating himself to what he called the “fundamentals of urban life,” he brought stability to a city that had endured decades of urban renewal and racial violence.

Menino’s tangible, even visceral, connection to the electorate was all the more striking as Boston, in 2000, became a city where more than half of its residents were not white. But rather than be swept aside in neighborhoods that look less and less like him, Menino evolved beyond the parochial politics that had defined Boston for a century and earned some of his strongest support in the city’s gay, minority, and immigrant communities.

Never one for introspection, he attributed his enduring popularity in a changing city to his frantic schedule of community events. “It’s just a lot of elbow grease — being out there, talking to people and listening to them and trying to be of service to them,’’ he said in 2009 — an assertion he repeated Thursday at his Faneuil Hall address.

It all began almost by accident. An unpolished and unpretentious politician who never left his native Hyde Park, Menino became mayor when his predecessor, Flynn, was named ambassador to the Vatican by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Backed by a vast and vaunted political operation powered by loyal city workers, he has trounced every political challenger since, and was often feared by developers and neighborhood activists who saw in him a penchant for nursing grudges and retaliating against enemies.

In the decades Menino has held office, the city experienced a building boom, from new office towers downtown, to a shopping plaza in Roxbury. He made his biggest imprint on the city’s landscape in South Boston, where he helped turn the faded industrial waterfront into a growing area with a convention center, and now, an art museum and high-end restaurants.

Thomas M. Menino was sworn in as Boston’s mayor in 1993 as his wife Angela, looked on.

David L. Ryan/globe staff/file 1993

Thomas M. Menino was sworn in as Boston’s mayor in 1993 as his wife Angela, looked on.

Savvy developers knew the success or failure of a project often hinged on pleasing Menino.

When Edward Linde, chief executive of Boston Properties Inc., proposed building a 36-story tower in the Back Bay, Menino took one look at the architectural renderings and shook his head.

“I said, ‘Guys, flat roofs don’t make it,’ ” Menino said.

So Linde and his architect returned to City Hall, armed with the miniature tops. When Menino came into the Eagle Room, a wood-paneled hall near his office, they placed each top on the model, until they reached one that resembled a king’s crown.

“He said, ‘I think this one would be great,’” Linde recalled.

And so it was built.

Menino also proved a deft manager of the city’s finances, avoiding the massive layoffs that plagued other cities during the economic downturn of the late 2000s. City Hall was free of serious corruption.

He made spottier progress in other areas. City schools struggled with flat graduation rates and racial achievement gaps, despite Menino’s declaration in 1996 that voters should “judge me harshly” if he failed to improve the education system.

Crime has fallen overall, but gangs continue to bring violence and fear to pockets of the city.

Menino was also given to making grand promises that he never fulfilled.

In an attempt to seal his legacy with a project on par with White’s construction of Quincy Market, Menino floated but never realized plans for a 100-story skyscraper in 2006, calling it “a stunning statement of our belief in Boston’s bright future.” In perennial attempts to enliven the barren plaza around City Hall, he suggested everything from misting fountains to a 150-foot wind turbine.

His devotion to local concerns meant he cut less of a profile on the national stage than some other big-city mayors.

His biggest moments nationally came when he brought the Democratic National Convention to Boston in 2004. He also worked with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York to push for tougher federal gun laws.

But he will be remembered for smaller things that, altogether, made a bigger imprint.

During his tenure, Thomas M. Menino spoke some comforting words to a Mattapan’s Edrei Olivero during a neighborhood walkthough.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/file 2010

During his tenure, Thomas M. Menino spoke some comforting words to a Mattapan’s Edrei Olivero during a neighborhood walkthough.

On his morning car rides from Hyde Park to City Hall, he would call his city services director every time he spotted torn pavement, graffiti, or an overflowing dumpster. “When the mayor leaves his house in the morning, he’ll call 10 times from 10 different corners,” Michael Galvin, the chief of basic services, said in 1994. “‘This is out; this needs fixing.’ You can actually map him from Hyde Park to the office.”

He traveled to 11 playgrounds in 2001, vowing to improve sandboxes and seesaws. “It’s tough on mothers to do goo-goo ga-ga all day,” he said during one such visit, to a South Boston park. “We need to get a play fund started here. Get these women — I don’t know — crayons, stuff like that.”

When he leaves City Hall next year, he will depart as one of the last of a handful of mayoral titans, men who towered over their cities for years, their names synonymous with urban power. He was part of a cohort that included Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, who was in office from 1989 to 2011.

But unlike some of those larger-than-life leaders, Menino only rarely dwelled on his place in history.

“If, 100 years from now, they look back at my election, I hope what they see is the beginning of a century of inclusive politics,” Menino said in 1994. “Throughout my whole career I have tried to be an open door to people left out of the mainstream.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@
globe.com
. Follow him on
Twitter @mlevenson.

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