In the mid-1980s, when America’s small towns were being overrun by suburban shopping centers, Tom Menino was the first to persuade the National Trust for Historic Preservation to bring its rural, small-town Main Street revitalization program to urban America. Under his lead, Roslindale Village became the first urban Main Streets program in the United States.
The resurgence of Roslindale in recent years is a tribute to his public investments in streetscape improvements, storefront renovations, and a new grocery store that brought in foot traffic and filled an empty hole with a pedestrian-friendly building that stands flush to the sidewalk, not set back from the street behind a moat of asphalt. In 1995, Menino replicated his Main Street program citywide, and mayors in cities like Washington and Baltimore have since copied his model.
He cared about preserving historic architecture and environments that make older cities unique and distinct from suburbia. That experience made the city councilor from Hyde Park a political ally of preservationists in neighborhoods like the South End and Charlestown when he ran for mayor in 1993. Back then, the Combat Zone was still the Combat Zone.
Shortly after the nonprofit Historic Boston Inc. rescued H.H. Richardson’s Hayden Building on Washington Street from demolition, Menino pledged to preserve and revitalize the vacant historic theatres nearby. One by one, and against all odds, the Opera House, the Paramount Theatre, and the Modern Theatre were saved. All are functioning today, made possible by the mayor helping colleges like Emerson and Suffolk move into the area, and by his working with Governor A. Paul Cellucci to revitalize the Liberty Tree Building, on that same decrepit stretch of Washington Street, as a new home for the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
Menino leveraged the economic boom to breathe new life into historic landmarks that had languished for years under his predecessors, places like the Allen House mansion on Washington Street in the South End. He never let up in working to rehabilitate others like the Ferdinand Blue Store in Dudley Square. And he stood in the way of the bulldozer when it mattered most.
Once, when a well-respected, successful businessman and civic leader about town came to see him about wanting to tear down a historic office building for a new skyscraper on Post Office Square, the mayor told him “no way” in no uncertain terms. No hesitation. No pledge of support if the property owner could persuade preservationists to back the plan. He was just as firm in rejecting a proposed football stadium, and the empty parking lots it would have brought to the waterfront district that is blossoming under his watch today.
Few big city mayors have displayed the same courage under similar circumstances. A large part of Menino’s legacy will be the demolitions Boston didn’t see.
Carter Wilkie was an advisor to the Menino administration from 1997 to 2000, and co-author, with Richard Moe, of “Changing Places: Rebuilding Community in the Age of Sprawl.”