Boston last stood on the brink of sweeping change at City Hall in 1993, when “for sale” signs dotted tidy lawns in West Roxbury and front porches in Dorchester. Crime permeated many neighborhoods. Wounds lingered from decades of racial tumult.
That fall, voters in Boston did more than make Thomas M. Menino mayor. The electorate tapped seven new city councilors, establishing power dynamics that would shape the next two decades. It was a change election, marking a distinct moment in the life of an almost 400-year-old city — a time to rethink what the city should be.
Now the city is again on the cusp of change.
Voters this fall will choose not only the first new mayor in 20 years and add at least four new voices to the City Council, they will also chart a course for the city. In this election, Boston will determine what kind of city it wants to become.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” said Sean Daughtry, 42, a laboratory manager from Roxbury. “I’ve lived in Boston for 20 years now, and I’ve only known one mayor.”
A dozen candidates are vying to become Boston’s next mayor in a wide-open race that lacks a dominant front-runner. And 48 candidates are slated to appear on the ballot for City Council in a preliminary election Sept. 24.
With the special US Senate race complete, focus now shifts to City Hall. The flood of campaigning appears destined to spark conversations about affordable housing, population density, building heights, and the push for a 24-hour city with longer hours for bars, restaurants, and health clubs. There will be the opportunity to discuss the growing gap between rich and poor, debate methods for inoculating Boston against rising seas and climate change, and argue about how to fix the intractable woes of the urban schools.
“A new mayor has the opportunity to have some big conversations and invite people in,” said Paul S. Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation. “It’s an opportunity to open things up . . . and get everybody excited about the next chapter in the city’s renaissance.”
Long-established Menino stands will be reopened for debate, from regulations limiting billboards to the requirement for paid police details at construction sites. Walmart may make another push to open a store in Boston. Hospitals, universities, and other large nonprofits may rally against payments made in lieu of property taxes.
A new mayor may make different demands at the bargaining table when the city renegotiates most union contracts in 2016. A younger mayor — half the candidates are younger than Menino when he took office — might have vaulting ambition that makes the job a steppingstone to higher office. And a different mayor may spend less time at the ribbon cuttings and block parties where Menino has been omnipresent the past two decades.
“Anybody that is going to be successful in City Hall has to be somebody that acts, looks, and thinks differently than the current mayor,” said John F. Fish, chief executive officer of Suffolk Construction. “We are never going to be able to replace Tom Menino, and we shouldn’t try.”
Since 1822, when Boston incorporated as a city, it has had 47 mayors. All have been white men. Menino was celebrated in 1993 for his diversity because he was the first mayor of Italian heritage.
But for more than a decade, more than half of Boston’s residents have been black, Latino, and Asian. This year, half the candidates are people of color, and one is an African-American woman.
“There is an opportunity to make a resounding statement that Boston is on the move,” said the Rev. Miniard Culpepper of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, who contemplated his own run for mayor. “This is not the same old Boston. We’ve been through busing. We’ve been through the Marathon bombing.”
But with 12 names on the ballot for mayor, the electorate may be splintered and dilute the strength of candidates from the same parts of the city, ethnicity, or background.
“For me, it’s unfortunate that there are so many people in the race,” said Lisa Martin, 34, of Grove Hall. “The vote is split so many ways we might not get the person most qualified for the job.”
The crowded preliminary will force campaigns to battle house by house through the summer for enough votes to make the final. Issues could take a back seat to fund-raising totals, door-to-door canvassing, and get-out-the-vote strategies.
But issues and nuts-and-bolts government services still matter to voters.
“When I stand around talking to other parents at Johnny D’s [Fruit Market], it’s not about the momentous change,” said Jennifer Gordon, 41, a voter from Brighton who does not consider Boston public schools a viable option for her three children. “It’s more, what’s going to happen to the schools? Is my garbage going to get picked up on time? Will that street light get fixed?”
In the last half century, Boston has faced three change elections: The triumph of vision by Kevin White and five new city councilors in 1967, the return to neighborhoods in 1983 with the victory of Raymond Flynn and seven new city councilors, and in 1993, when Menino swept into power.
Boston is a much different place today than in 1993. It is a city on the rise, not an aging metropolis tottering on the edge. It has become a place where so many people want to live that the debate is how the city should grow, not how to stop the diaspora to the suburbs.
“Today, those ‘for sale’ signs are not there,” said James T. Brett, who posed with a “for sale” sign for a television commercial in his unsuccessful 1993 campaign against Menino. “We’re growing. It’s one of the most desirable cities in the Northeast.”
Take the Seaport, where a swath of industrial waterfront and parking lots has exploded with high-tech start-ups, trendy restaurants, and luxury high-rises. The neighborhood has extraordinary momentum, but that does not mean it can be ignored by the next administration.
“It’s on the edge of the knife,” said Edward Glaeser, a Harvard professor who studies the economics of cities. “It’s possible if this goes wrong, it’s a gigantic wasted investment. It’s possible if it goes right, it will be the resurrection of the waterfront.”
But the burgeoning new neighborhood exposes one of the most significant challenges facing Boston’s new leaders, according to Glaeser and many others, including Fish and Grogan. The flip side of prosperity is rising prices, unaffordable housing, and growing economic inequality. Boston and other resurgent cities risk becoming playgrounds for the wealthy and alienating the middle class.
“It’s one thing to be of limited or low income. It’s another thing when changes in a city make it difficult for you to remain,” said Melvin H. King, a former state representative who lost a mayor’s race in 1983 to Flynn. “What’s the point of calling it a city if all the tribes aren’t welcome?”