Thomas M. Menino began as an accidental mayor, presiding over an inherited administration. He ended as a transformative figure, a man who embodied vision, even as he rejected the concept.
The longest-serving mayor in the city’s history became acting mayor by the slimmest of margins — he had won the city council presidency in 1993 by a mere vote. But after becoming acting mayor that July, he moved so quickly to consolidate power, and to win the confidence of voters, that within a few months he won the office by a landslide. It was as if he had been there for years.
The Boston he inherited was in a shaky stage of transition. The white middle-class flight from the city, set off by the civil war that was busing, had yet to abate. Crime was high and neighborhoods felt battered. Indeed, Menino’s opponent in 1993, the esteemed Jim Brett, ran on a platform of reversing the flood of “For Sale” signs so prominent in neighborhoods like his own, Dorchester’s Savin Hill.
Menino’s genius, in the early days, was to focus relentlessly on the small stuff, the avoidable problems and petty annoyances that can undermine the quality of city life. Anyone who spent time riding around the city with him in those days remembers the calls he’d make to arrange repairs — to fix a pothole, repair a stop sign, fix a traffic light. He was an “urban mechanic,” both proud of his label, and amused by it.
In an interview marking the end of his first year in office, Walter V. Robinson and I gingerly raised the question of “the vision thing” and Menino’s presumed lack of it. His response was pure Menino: “Vision, to me, is BS.”
But like a lot of his pronouncements, that statement captured Menino’s sentiments imperfectly: He did not lack vision; his was simply grounded in practicality.
I remember once walking with then-Councilor Menino from City Hall to his beloved Filene’s Basement. As we made our way downtown, he pointed out one decrepit building after another, talking about how to revitalize the neighborhood. He was never just about potholes.
The greatest accomplishment of his first term — and one of his longest-lasting — was his rescue of Boston City Hospital, now Boston Medical Center. The city’s famous “hospital of the poor” was going broke, quickly. Menino and Boston University president John Silber cobbled together a deal to combine their neighboring failing hospitals, creating a new institution that, to this day, is a cornerstone of medical care for needy Boston residents.. It was hardly the work of an urban mechanic.
Menino thrived on being underestimated. He never cared that people made fun of his weak oratory, or unimpressive academic pedigree, because he believed so deeply in the qualities that he had in spades. He understood the hopes and dreams and worries of Boston as well as any mayor ever has. That empathy was the quality that rendered him invincible politically, and so effective in office for so long.
While people were mocking his shortcomings, Boston was being remade. There’s hardly a city neighborhood that isn’t a better place to live than it was in 1993 — cleaner, safer, calmer. Downtown has thrived, and a second downtown has been created from the parking lots of the South Boston Waterfront.
Some believed he managed development with too tight a hand. He didn’t care. He believed that he knew what this city needed and he was willing to push for his vision against any opponent necessary. Frankly, he thought his critics had no concept of what it takes to run Boston, and in many ways he was right.
Menino leaves a city quite different from the one that first elected him. He understood that great cities are constantly evolving and, unlike many politicians, he never feared change. In his view, the huge demographic and economic shifts of the past two decades were something to manage, not something to fear. By the time he stepped down, a painful decision forced by declining health, many Bostonians couldn’t remember life under another mayor.
He deserved to settle into a great post-mayoralty, with many good years to savor his successes. It’s a shame that didn’t happen. The last of our many interviews was for a column earlier this year about his visible role since leaving office. When I told him that I planned to refer to him as the “mayor-emeritus,” he laughed. He never took the huge public outpouring of affection for granted. And when the conversation turned to his cancer treatments, he referred to himself as “lucky” and he meant it.
The truth is, Menino always thought of himself as lucky. He spent two decades running a city he loved like few people love anything, and he walked out of that office with the love of a grateful city. He has left us now. And when we say our goodbyes, it will be in the Boston that Tom Menino made.