Of all the debates over the renaming of public spaces, there’s one easy call: An eighth-floor City Hall hearing room should no longer bear the name of the late Albert Leo “Dapper” O’Neil.
O’Neil served on the Boston City Council for 28 years, from 1971 to 1999. When he died in 2007 at 87, he was remembered as a colorful rogue with a “Last Hurrah” aura that linked him to the politics of a past era. But a quarter-century later, the darker truth about his legacy is harder to rationalize — and is good reason to remove his name from that City Hall room. During his long tenure on the council, he was a loud and proud bigot who supported a white supremacist group and did his best to block the agendas of Black and Latino residents. He mocked gays, including a colleague, David Scondras, Boston’s first openly gay city councilor. He was known for directing sexist remarks at women, which grew cruder as he got older. One council staffer filed a sexual harassment suit against him.
So, why is the room where the Zoning Board of Appeal holds its regular meetings named after O’Neil, anyway? As Globe columnist Brian Mooney explained when O’Neil lost his City Council seat, “As a councilor, he never initiated any legislation or ordinances. He exasperated his colleagues. His arguments and speeches were recycled ad nauseum. But he assiduously attended Zoning Board of Appeal and Licensing Board hearings to stand up for the local residents, usually those fighting a new development or a bar opening. The ZBA hearing room is already named for him.”
In other words, the hearing room where today’s residents make their case for zoning changes celebrates a public official whose primary mission was a commitment to the status quo, one who helped maintain a city resistant to diversity and economic growth. That’s reason enough to remove O’Neil’s name from that particular room.
O’Neil’s legacy, such as it is, is being revisited because Jamarhl Crawford, a community activist who worked briefly in City Hall during the late 1990s, sent letters to Mayor Michelle Wu and the Boston City Council, asking them to strip O’Neil’s name from the hearing room. Crawford is also calling for the removal of the name of James M. “Jimmy” Kelly from a bridge that connects South Boston to the South End. Kelly, a Southie native, who also died in 2007, served on the City Council for 23 years, including a stint as council president. He was known for his opposition to court-ordered busing and gay people marching in Southie’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, and other things that represented change, like roof decks and sidewalk cafes. Honoring Kelly with a bridge was a curious choice from the start. As Globe columnist Eileen McNamara wrote when Kelly died, “Name a park or a recreation center in South Boston after him, not something as ironic as a bridge to the rest of the city he tried so hard to keep at bay.”
City Council President Ed Flynn, who represents South Boston, said he supports the O’Neil name removal but not the Kelly name removal. In a statement to the editorial board, Flynn, the son of former Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, said Kelly “became a wiser and more empathetic City Councilor as years went on. His evolution in politics and life included greater understanding and respect toward neighbors in the LGBTQ + community, as well as communities of color.” Kelly’s “growth,” added Flynn, distinguished him from “the lack of compassion toward others shown by” O’Neil.
Others may disagree with Flynn’s assessment of Kelly and attribute it to loyalty to a fellow Southie native. But getting behind the removal of O’Neil’s name is at least a start when it comes to reckoning with Boston’s more recent past.
Naming a public space after a politician or other prominent person inevitably leads to second-guessing, as behavior and positions from the past are measured against current standards. Going forward, there should be much less enthusiasm for honoring politicians in that way. O’Neil never deserved any such honor, and the City Hall hearing room that bears his name should be freed from the backward sentiments and crude politics that it evokes.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.