A wistful but upbeat Mayor Thomas M. Menino outlined the biggest challenges facing his successor as he delivered the final major speech Tuesday of his 20-year administration at Boston City Hall.
In an address laced with sentimentality and humor, Menino trumpeted five-terms’ worth of accomplishments, talked about the transition to Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh, and offered his assessment of the trials ahead.
“I have told the mayor-elect that I am here to help, but I won’t be hanging around to critique his work,” Menino told several hundred business leaders at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel. “The job is hard enough already. Even with the city poised to achieve great new heights, I see three great changes that will make the task of leading especially tough.”
The dramatic decline in money from the federal government will force two key facets of Boston’s economy, nonprofits and the research sector, to reinvent their operating models, Menino said. At the same time, widening income inequality is exacerbating divisions between rich and poor.
“A city only works when it works for everyone,” Menino said.
And he said trends in higher education could threaten that “pillar of Boston’s economy.” The rising cost of college has put it out of reach for more people, Menino said, while technology is making it easier to get access to education in other ways.
Despite the looming challenges, Menino was bullish on the city’s future and the prospects of Walsh’s administration. A changing of the guard at City Hall is part of the vital continuum of urban life, he said.
“Change makes cities, and great change makes great cities,” Menino said. “I believe we are on the cusp of more great change. I have faith in Marty Walsh.”
For Menino, the speech marked his final walk across a big stage before leaving office Jan. 6. He seemed contemplative and used humor to defuse moments when his voice quavered with a touch of emotion. Early in his remarks, Menino noted that praise had been lavished upon his wife, Angela Menino, who received hearty applause.
“Now Angela, you know I’m still the most popular person in the house,” Menino said. “You guys keep saying good things about her, but you don’t live with her.”
Then, Menino went silent for a moment as he recalled his lengthy hospitalization last year for a series of aliments.
“It’s fitting that you thank Angela. She’s been there through the good times and bad times, and she’s been very supportive of everything I’ve done,” Menino said, his voice cracking. “Last year, she had a tough year. I had a tough year, but she had a tougher year standing behind me.”
Menino made a nod to the next chapter in his life, which will be at Boston University. He will be a professor helping to launch a new Institute on Cities, where mayors and municipal managers from across the globe can share ideas as they tackle urban issues.
“The next time I give a big speech like this, it will probably be in a lecture hall,” Menino said. “You are welcome to come, but I am a very tough marker. Imagine Professor Menino. It doesn’t sound right. Think about that for a second. Things change.”
Menino has delivered roughly 60 major speeches in his two decades as mayor. He often used the occasions to launch headline-grabbing initiatives. Not all the plans worked, and sometimes his own staff learned of a new project from a speech.
This last address lacked the pizazz of a big announcement. Instead, Menino used the theme of change and renewal to connect his accomplishments as mayor with the transition to a new administration.
During Menino’s tenure, Boston added 13 million square feet of office space, the equivalent of adding a new Prudential Tower every other year. Menino said his administration provided summer jobs for 200,000 teenagers and cut crime in half, from 98 homicides in 1993 to fewer than half that number so far this year.
Boston built as much new housing as Somerville has altogether, Menino said, and the city cut its carbon footprint so much that it was the equivalent of taking Cambridge off the grid. Boston led the way on gay marriage, he said, and now one of every 10 marriage licenses in the city is issued to a same-sex couple.
“The city is a lot different than it was 20 years ago,” Menino said. “Change has made us strong.”
As he neared the conclusion of his remarks, Menino, whom polls have shown has personally met more than half the city’s residents, told the crowd he spent the weekend at 17 Christmas tree lightings and saw thousands of people. He joked that the crowds included one man he had never met before.
“I said to him, ‘Where have you been?’ ” Menino said, eliciting laughter. “He must have been in a cocoon some place.”