Opinion

opinion | Kathy Kottaridis

Tom Menino’s love for the past

Mayor Tom Menino (left) assisted in the 2008 unveiling of a 1922 time capsule that was found in the Ferdinand Building site in Dudley Square.

George Rizer/Globe staff/file

Mayor Tom Menino (left) assisted in the 2008 unveiling of a 1922 time capsule that was found in the Ferdinand Building site in Dudley Square.

MAYOR THOMAS M. Menino proudly called himself a preservationist, but he was the last person you’d ask to tell you the difference between Georgian and Queen Anne styles of architecture. Instead, he instinctively recognized the value of preserving historic places to the revitalization of urban neighborhoods, and he knew the potency of history and memory to Bostonian’s sense of themselves.

Menino was clear that the continued physical growth of the city and expansion of key industries was not incompatible with the city’s past. In fact, he was ahead of his time in furthering dynamic, safe, and attractive historic neighborhoods because they were more stable and invited more investment. As he said many times toward the end of his administration: “Historic preservation does not deter economic development; it ignites it!”

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The Menino style of preservation began with the Main Street program which, as district city councilor, he beckoned to Roslindale Square from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A wildly successful initiative, Menino brought this practical model of business district revitalization to over 20 more commercial nodes throughout the city and has since been recognized for Main Street’s work in reinforcing a sense of place and economic opportunity in every corner of the city.

The list of preservation achievements is long and deep — from protecting and enhancing the Fort Point Channel to the revival of historic Washington Street in the South End, arguably one of his greatest accomplishments. Menino steered considerable attention and capital to Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace Park System to preserve its beauty and make it a vibrant centerpiece of public life. The historic schools, fire houses, and libraries that he replaced with state-of-the-art facilities were steered toward housing, offices, and community centers that continue to serve the public. But the mayor was not afraid to decline new development if it stood to hurt the historic character of the city, and he was equally willing to stand up to the preservation community on developments that resulted in the loss of historic structures, like the Dainty Dot Building, when he believed that new development was better for Boston.

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Menino was a leader who lived out the maxim that the rising tide lifts all boats. He worked as hard to trigger renewal of the venerable Filenes building downtown as he did to bring back the long-vacant Ferdinand Building in Dudley Square. He pushed hard for the revitalization of the Theater District and the renewal of Blue Hill Avenue when most had lost hope. The cynics who argue that these investments were just good politics miss the essential point: these were places of important symbolic value to their neighborhoods and the city as a whole. To lose them would be to lose some part of ourselves.

Anyone who knew Menino understood that what drove his appreciation of historic preservation was his own love affair with this city. To him, preservation was a lot bigger than paint colors and decorative windows. Those of us who worked with him would soon discover that it was this Boston boy’s collection of memories — of hanging out at the soda fountain in Cleary Square, a ride on the El through Dudley, shopping in Mattapan Square — that formed his view of the past. Underneath it all, this was a guy whose own ordinary memories of growing up in Boston shaped the extraordinary city he wanted to make for his own children and grandchildren — not to mention yours and mine — regardless of race, place of origin, or sexual orientation. It’s no wonder that he was often accused of taking everything so personally. Some who knew him well might tell you he saw all of Boston as his family and that everything was, in fact, pretty personal.

Kathy Kottaridis is the executive director of Historic Boston.
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